When one thinks of the sport of baseball, there are a series of names that quickly come to mind that have become as synonymous with the sport as hits, runs, and errors. Names like Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Koufax, and Musial are instantly recognized as baseball gods, and there is not a true fan of the sport who does not recognize these great heroes of the game.
Another name that stands amongst those legends is Rose. When the name Pete Rose is mentioned, people remember one of the gutsiest, hard-nosed players the sport has ever seen. Rose was a winner, who starred on three different World Series winners in two different cities, and his abilities at the plate were second to none. The all-time hits leader also has the third longest hitting streak in Major League baseball history (44), and he was named as one of the greatest players who has ever put on a pair cleats.
Accepting the Challenges that Come with the Name
With such a distinguished and well recognized name, second year Wichita Wingnuts Manager Pete Rose, Jr. has grown up in the shadow of his father. Not only does he carry the same first name of his dad, but he grew up around the Big Red Machine of the 1970s, and had great expectations placed on him since he was born in November of 1969.
Pete, Jr. was born in Cincinnati, OH, where his father starred for the Cincinnati Reds. He idolized his dad, and wanted to follow in his footsteps. Early on in his life he spent many seasons as the team’s batboy, and grew up absolutely loving the sport.
“Baseball is a great game. There is nothing like doing something that you love and I have been very fortunate to spend my entire life around something that I just love. There is honestly nothing like it.”
As he grew up, Pete got to enjoy some of the most special moments that a child could imagine, including celebrating three World Series titles with his father (1975 and 1976 with the Reds, and 1980 with the Phillies), plus he was on the field when his dad set the all-time hits record, breaking Ty Cobb’s record on September 11, 1985.
“That was such an emotional moment. To be part of that is something you can’t even explain. It was so amazing and something I will never forget.”
In 1988, Pete got the chance to start his own career on the diamond. He was drafted in the 12th round by the Baltimore Orioles, and a year later played his first game at Erie in the New York-Penn League. Over the next nine seasons, Pete would work his way up the system, playing for affiliates for Baltimore, Cleveland, the Chicago White Sox, and finally for the team he grew up loving: the Cincinnati Reds. In 1997, he reached the Big Leagues, playing third base, the position his father starred at when he won two World titles. The experience was incredible for the junior Rose.
“Man, that is something you just can’t put into words. To be playing third like my dad in Cincinnati. It was just unreal.”
Over the next 12 seasons, Pete moved around to several locations. He split time at AA and AAA stops in the Reds, Pirates, and Phillies organizations, played in the Mexican League, and even spent some time in the old Northern League, the league that many of the American Association teams started in. At most of these stops he excelled at the plate, hitting a career high of .344 in Winnipeg in 2002.
While longing to get back into affiliate baseball, the independent leagues gave him a sensation that he truly loved. “They play to win. If nothing else, it is about winning. All the stats and all the other stuff are nothing if you aren’t winning, and I love that in independent baseball you play to win.”
Moving on to a Second Career
After 21 seasons, Pete Rose, Jr. decided to hang it up, but he had no intention of being far from the game he so loved. In 2010, he took the job as the hitting coach for the Florence Freedom in the Frontier League. Florence hit .264 as a team that season, fifth best in the league, and they were second overall in home runs (109).
His success with the Freedom caught the attention of the Chicago White Sox, who hired him to be their manager at Bristol of the Appalachian League. He spent two seasons there, where he posted a combined record of 43-90. The next season, Pete moved to the other rookie-league team of the White Sox, the Great Falls Voyagers of the Pioneer League. In his one season there, the Voyagers went 48-28 and earned a spot in the playoffs.
With three seasons of experience, the organization moved him to Mid-A Kannapolis of the South Atlantic League where Pete spent one season. The team went 62-75 but, surprisingly, this would be his last season with the organization.
While the White Sox did not offer to extend his contract, Pete is very appreciative of the opportunity that the organization offered him.
“I have nothing but good things to say about the White Sox organization. They treated me well and gave me a great opportunity. A truly first class organization. They took a chance on me, and I learned a lot in my time there.”
Ready to Go Nuts!
Pete Rose, Jr. took a year off in 2015, but the game was always on his mind, and he sought to return to the dugout as a coach or manager. That opportunity arose when Kevin Hooper was offered the job as the San Diego Padres roving minor league infield instructor, creating an opening for a proven winner.
The Wingnuts spent a few months trying to find the ideal candidate for the team. It was going to be hard to replace Hooper, who had led Wichita to five straight division titles, including its first American Association title in 2014.
In a perfectly understandable move that was also a bit surprising, General Manager Josh Robertson turned to Pete Rose, Jr. to become the team’s newest manager. Pete clearly had the expertise to take the helm, but he was also a significantly different kind of personality than Kevin was, something that Josh saw as a good thing for the team.
“He’s my type of manager,” Robertson explained to Jeff Lutz of the Wichita Eagle. “A guy who’s not going to put up with anybody not playing the game the right way or not respecting the game. I knew that I’d never go find another Kevin Hooper, and I wasn’t even going to try to look, because there’s not one.”
Josh loved Pete’s passion for the game, but also understood that there could have been some conflicts that arose between the two.
“I was worried that if I got a guy that’s as passionate and fiery as I am, we would clash. I can definitely see that fire and that passion in Pete, but I think that we’ll mold together. There’s no ego coming in here.”
Many managers would have felt a great deal of pressure in replacing an icon like Kevin Hooper. He not only had starred at Wichita State, but he had turned the Wichita Wingnuts in the best team in all of independent baseball. In his eight seasons as manager the team never had a losing record, and he averaged better than four players being signed by affiliate clubs each year, a truly tough act to follow. However, Pete had spent his entire life in the shadow of a great, and so the challenge of replacing Hooper was not a concern for Rose at all.
“When your name is Rose there is already a great deal of pressure right off. I greatly respect what Kevin Hooper did, but I don’t feel any pressure at all. There is a great deal of expectation on you when your dad is Pete Rose, and so I am used to this by now. I came here to manage the Wichita Wingnuts and to do that to the best of my ability, not worrying about what someone else has done before me.”
Establishing His Own Place in Wingnuts History
When the 2016 American Association season opened, there was a great deal of enthusiasm around the Wichita Wingnuts. Not only did they have Pete Rose, Jr. as their manager, but the team also sported one of the most dominant rotations in the league, at least on paper, and a great deal of pop in the lineup. It looked like a return to the championship series was a lock.
It all looked like it would be coming up, well, roses for the team, but that is not how the season began. After dropping two games to the Gary Southshore RailCats in early June, the Wichita Wingnuts were 6-11, and in last place in the South Division. Mutterings were starting to materialize, but Pete never wavered in his support for his team.
“Hey, these guys are going to hit,” Pete explained the day after losing the second of those games to the RailCats. “This is a veteran team that knows what it takes and I have no doubt that they are going to turn it around. Baseball is a long season, and you have to expect that guys are going to struggle at times. This is just part of the game, but I will take my 22 guys over any other team, anywhere, in any league. When you have a T.J. Mittelstaedt, a Brent Clevlen, a Jon Link, a Christian Stringer, a Tim Brown, and all the others that are here, you know that you are going to turn things around.”
Turn things around is exactly what the team did. With Pete’s faith in the team never wavering, the Wichita Wingnuts turned things around. Following the two losses to Gary, Wichita rattled off six straight wins and won 12 of 14, vaulting them right back into the division race.
The run also coincided with two key moves that helped to turn the team’s fortunes. First was that the Wingnuts manager moved reliever Alex Boshers into the starting rotation, a role he flourished in, finishing tied for the league lead in wins with 12. He also helped to acquire one of the players he had managed in the White Sox organization, Martin Medina, who helped to solidify the catching position and settle the pitching staff down.
These two moves along with the faith that Pete showed in his club proved to be a winning combination. After starting with six wins in their first 17-games, the Wingnuts went 64-19 the rest of the way to tie for the best record in the American Association with 70-wins. The new Wichita skipper had proven that he was the right man for the job, but as the team rolled toward its sixth straight title, Rose was taking no credit for the success.
“Hey, I am not the one standing in the batter’s box or making pitches. Those guys are doing it all. When you have talent like this, you know that they are going to hit and pitch the way you expect at some point, and that is what they have done. I just fill out the lineup card, but they are the reason we are winning games.”
A New Teaching at Wingnuts University
When Kevin Hooper was the manager of the Wichita, we at the Minor League Sports Report loving referred to the team as Wingnuts University. This not only was a professional baseball team in every sense of the word, but the way that they approached the game was textbook. It was fundamentals, the attention to detail, the respect that they had for the game, and the way that they treated each other that provided a lesson every single time that they took the field.
Clearly, when your dad is one of the greatest 10 players to ever play the game, you become as great of a student as anyone, and that is definitely true of Pete Rose, Jr. However, Pete’s approach to managing was quite different from Kevin’s right from the start. The new Wingnuts Manager made it clear from the moment he addressed his players for the first time that he had two rules he expected them to follow, and if they did that then he had no issue with the results.
“I expect two things from my players: play hard and be on time. That may sound like a simple thing to do, and it should be, but that is what I expect around here.”
It may seem like a no-brainer that his players would understand this, but the two rules are a bit more complex than you may think. They are about a philosophy related to his expectations of his players. In essence, these two rules are a summation of all that it takes for a player to get to the next level and a team to win.
Think of it this way. For students of the Bible, most learn the 10 Commandments, but these are not the entire list of laws that God gave His people. In fact, there are 614 total commandments. The 10 Commandments are really nothing more than a summation of the entire Law. This is what Pete has done with his two rules.
By telling his team to be on time he is, in essence, telling them to be respectful to their teammates and to the game as a whole, to show a commitment to doing the little things that make a difference, and to be prepared to play ball when the lights go on. The rules are simple because Rose understands that he has young men on his team who should be committed to their careers, their teammates, to the organization, and to the game.
“These guys are professionals. I don’t have to, or at least I shouldn’t have to tell them what they need to do to become better ballplayers. I will give them all the help I can, but the reason that they have made it this far is because they put in the work. They worked harder than others to get where they are. I just want to keep reminding them that there is still work ahead and not to lose sight of their goals.”
A Run Toward a Title
One of those goals was to win a championship, which the team was in a position to grab as the success did not end when the regular season concluded. The Wingnuts entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed, and took on the Sioux City Explorers in the first round. The Explorers won the first game of the series in extra-innings, then watched the Wichita bats catch fire. The Wingnuts won Game 2 in Sioux City, 9-3, then returned home to take Game 3, 13-0, and Game 4, 10-5. The Wichita Wingnuts were returning to the title series for the fourth time in five seasons.
Standing in the way was the Winnipeg Goldeyes, a team that Pete Rose, Jr. had played for during his career. After getting ahead in the series 2-1, the Wingnuts dropped the final two games of the series and the Goldeyes won their second American Association title.
While disappointed in the final outcome, Pete was more saddened for his players than anything else.
“These guys gave their heart and soul to this team all season. They gave it their all and I hated to see that they fell one-game short like that. That was the hardest part for me personally. I know how hard they fought for each other, and I just hated to see that they didn’t win it all.”
Stepping Out of the Shadows
Besides his two rules for success, Pete Rose, Jr. is providing one other important lesson. It clearly must be a Herculean task to make your own career when your father was great in the sport. Men like Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Joe Montana were so great that it made it impossible for their children to live up to the legacy that they left behind. So, now he is looking to separate himself in other ways.
The Wichita Wingnuts are in first in the South Division and many think that this team will set an American Association record by winning 80-games this season. That is a pretty lofty goal, but Pete proved that his style of managing is one that players clearly respond positively to, and so that mark may not be too gaudy after all.
The new President of Wingnuts University will likely lead his team to their second American Association title, and that could mean that an affiliate club will come calling looking to lure him away. The truth of the matter is that the greatest at their craft should be at the Major League level and that includes managers as well. One day, some club will be smart enough to name Pete Rose, Jr. the manager of their Big League club. When that happens, no one should be surprised when the name Rose is etched on their fourth World Series Championship trophy but, this time, it will be as the manager.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA