Here is a happy man, a man immersed in the blissful ache of focusing on something both difficult and ferociously beloved. He seems to have just laced a line drive to left field and is about to sprint toward first base with every fiber of his being. The photo is from the 1978 season, in which he attained the immortality-clinching milestone of 3,000 hits, and then went on to hit safely in 44 straight games, tying an 81-year-old National League record.
Happiness comes and goes. The man pictured here had been born and raised in Cincinnati, and had at the time of this photo played for 16 seasons for his hometown team, winning a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP award, two World Series championship rings, two Gold Glove awards, three batting titles, and 12 National League All-Star team selections. In later years he would win another World Series title with the Philadelphia Phillies; would, while playing for the Montreal Expos, become only the second man to amass 4,000 hits; and would bring his career full cycle by returning to his Reds (I married into a Cincinnati Reds family, and I can tell you that even now the team belongs to nobody so much as to the man pictured here) to break Ty Cobb’s record for career hits, a record long thought impossible to approach, let alone break. But all this seems, in light of this 1979 card, something of an aftermath. An epilogue. He would play for another team the season this card came out, which broke the spell of permanence that Pete Rose had cast, that feeling that he always had been and always would be playing baseball with all his might for the Cincinnati Reds.
Pete Rose’s epilogue continues, of course, defined by his quest for reinstatement to the game he loved as much as anyone ever has, the game that banned him after deciding (rightfully, as Pete Rose himself admitted several years after the fact) that he bet on baseball while managing the Reds. He wants the permanence of a Hall of Fame plaque and the happiness of a job in baseball. It seems less and less likely that he’ll get either. My wife met him last year at a sports memorabilia store. It was a big moment for her, getting to meet the man who had been something like a god in her family’s home when she was growing up. But for him it was just another stop in an endless tour of a world of blurred faces seen from behind a folding table, pen in hand to write the same words over and over:
“Good luck, [your name here]. Pete Rose.”
He did not seem happy.