Tuesday, May 07, 2002

For 25 years, it was a wonderful life

Columnist Tim Sullivan bids farewell; next stop: San Diego

By Tim Sullivan, tsullivan@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

click here to e-mail Sully         When I was a cub reporter and Tom Callahan was the Enquirer's sports sage, the great man dispensed wisdom like so many Tic Tacs.

        “Always live near the airport,” he said. So I did.

        “It's hard to make a mistake when there's more money involved,” he said. Check.

        “You need to move every four or five years when you're starting out,” he said. “That way all your stories are new again.”

        Twenty-five years later, I am taking his advice.

        Today's column is my last for the Enquirer. Tomorrow, I confront the challenge of cleaning out my basement for a move to California. I am trading my snow shovel and a dog-eared copy of the Dowd Report for endless summer and eternal mortgage payments.

        It has something to do with my age and something to do with a mid-life yearning for adventure. The San Diego Union-Tribune has seen fit to take a flyer on this itinerant typist, and offers me a clean canvas, a felicitous climate and free parking. Presumably, the editors neglected to contact Pete Rose for a recommendation.

        Covering sports for The Enquirer has enabled me to see the world: France and Spain; Japan and Korea; Norway and Norwood. It has been a privilege to report from those places in these pages, to sit ringside in the Bahamas for Muhammad Ali's last fight and rinkside in Lake Placid for the Miracle on Ice.

        Yet for a quarter of a century, there's been no place in the wide world of sports more consistently compelling than my own backyard. I arrived in Cincinnati during the blizzard of 1977, a meteorological metaphor for the breakup of the Big Red Machine. I depart with a catalogue of characters vivid enough for a Dickens novel and a bulging book of memories.

        Before she had me banned from the Reds dining room, Marge Schott once smoked a cigarette in my car. During an argument over locker room access, Sam Wyche once challenged me to interview him in the nude.

        Johnny Bench once lifted my infant daughter in his huge hands and caused her to stop crying. Tom Seaver once accepted a lift from the airport and tried to goad me into driving on the shoulder to beat the traffic. Later, in a Pittsburgh saloon, the great pitcher asked me about Dostoevsky.

        Years later, in another bar, Tom Browning explained the secret of his pitching success:

        “Hitters,” he said, “are stupid.”

        Boomer Esiason once welcomed me into his home to share the story of his son's battle with cystic fibrosis. Before he broke free of the tight fist of drugs, Aaron Pryor once welcomed me into his home to only fall asleep on the floor. Ken Griffey Jr. has yet to welcome me into his home, but he once threatened to take his bat and turn me into a Popsicle.

        He was kidding, I think.

        When I last saw Pete Rose, I was standing on a second-floor hotel balcony in Cooperstown, N.Y. The banished hit king was sitting in the lobby, killing time between autograph appearances. I waved to him as the elevator door opened and I think we made eye contact, but when I reached the ground floor, Rose was headed out the door as if the building were on fire.

        Perhaps I didn't make myself clear over the years. I love Pete and I hate what happened to him. It is the stuff of Greek tragedy and surpassing sadness. Yet as much as I admire Rose's achievements and find joy in his presence, I am persuaded that he bet on baseball and am unable to overlook it.

        Advocating Rose's exile and resisting his reinstatement have been unpopular positions in Cincinnati. One enterprising reader sent me black roses and a pointed poem that can't be printed here. Another reader sent me a copy of one of my columns, attached to a cardboard cylinder from a toilet roll.

        For comfort, I turned to Shakespeare's Brutus, who tried to mitigate the murder of Julius Caesar as a means to safeguard a cherished institution. There's an analogy in there somewhere.

        “Not that I loved Caesar less,” Brutus explained, “but that I loved Rome more.”

        The Bard always said it best. Still, there has never been better source material for sportswriters than Peter Edward Rose.

        “Pete's the only athlete I ever knew,” Tom Callahan said the other day, “who rotated his similes.”

        If Nolan Ryan had pitched brilliantly against him, Rose would tell one wave of reporters Ryan was “as hard as a fistful of jawbreakers.” He'd tell the next wave Ryan was “as hard as Chinese arithmetic.” Then, after the cameras had been carried out and the tape recorders turned off, Rose would lean over, confidentially, and make a third comparison strictly for adults.

        Given a fresh audience in San Diego, some of these old stories may gain new life. I leave town grateful for 25 years of Cincinnati's forbearance, for its characters and quirks, for the chance to bear witness to so much sports history. And, of course, for the chili.

       For at least a few more days, Tim Sullivan can be reached at tsullivan@enquirer.com.


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