Way back in the early 1980s, seemingly a lifetime ago, I had one of the greatest opportunities any young person, sports enthusiast, budding writer and baseball fanatic ever had dropped right into their lap. I was a sportswriter for The Lexington Herald-Leader at a time when newspapers were both things — actual news printed on actual paper. And, one day, the “beat” to cover the Cincinnati Reds came open when my longtime friend, Mike Johnson, decided it was time to leave the typewriter (yeah, we had typewriters back then), for a job in management as the Sports Editor.
He called me into his office and offered me first chance to cover the Reds on a regular basis. He offered me the chance of a lifetime. He opened the door for a lifetime of experiences, that I will always treasure and a lifetime of memories that I will never, ever forget.
I tell my kids these days that the only thing that we make in this country any more is memories. But we are darn good at it. We make them for a lifetime. And, that’s the way it was for me from the first game I ever covered to the last one.
I got to meet and become friends with Bob Howsam, the General Manager of the Reds when Cincinnati was the home of the Big Red Machine. He even invited me to his office on several occasions and asked how I would help fix the franchise and restore it to the prominence it held in the mid-1970s.
(The picture above is from my private collection)
I got to greet the great Pete Rose, when he returned to the Reds as a Player-Manager. I got the chance to cover him the days leading up to and the days immediately after he broke Ty Cobb’s record and became the game’s all-time Hit King. And, we, too, became friends. In February, just a few days before my birthday, my father — one of the greatest Reds’ and Rose fans in the history of both — was on his deathbed. I reached out to Pete through a mutual friend and asked if he would give my dad a call. Sure enough, at about lunch time, my phone rang. I looked down and saw it was coming form a number in Los Angeles. I hesitated for a second and then answered.
“Hey Gene, this is Pete,” came the voice on the other end. “What you up to man?” We chatted for a minute and then Pete hustled right up to the subject of the call. “Is your Pops there?” Pete asked. And, I said, “Yeah, he is right here. Let me get him.”
I held the phone while Pete and my dad chatted. “Hey Mr. McLean, you want to go to Turfway Park tonight,” Pete asked. My dad, with shallow breathes and words, replied, “I’ll go with you Pete. That’s the only way I’ll go.”
Pete laughed and said, “Well, we’re going to freeze our asses off.”
And, so the conversation went. For about 10 minutes. Then they said goodbye and hung up. My dad looked at me and said, “Was that really Pete Rose.” I told him that it was. He smiled like I had never seen him smile before. And, until the moment he passed, he talked about that call.
I got to cover Tom Browning’s perfect game. The only one in Reds history. I was there when Johnny Bench retired; Davey Conception was named “Captain;” and Tom Seaver pitched a no-hitter.
And, I also got to meet my long-time friend, Rob Murphy, who was in the minor leagues for the Reds when I first got the job. We actually met in the Keeneland library. Rob didn’t tell me then he was a minor league pitcher. And, I didn’t tell Rob that I covered the Reds. But when I walked through the clubhouse at Tampa’s Al Lopez Field before a Reds’ spring training game a few weeks later, I ran smack into him. We went to dinner that night at an “All You Can Eat” buffet named “Po Folks.” They lost money that night. The two of us ate like two of everything they put out on the counter. In fact, it wasn’t long after that night the franchise went out of business. Hmmm.
I was in Murph’s wedding; went to the first Baptism for his oldest daughter; was there when his mother passed; and we went on to own horses together. To this day, he is one of my most favorite people on earth, and its a friendship that has and will endure all tests of time and fate.
But one of my most favorite memories of those days came in early August of 1988. Knowing how much he loved sports, too, and was a baseball fan, too, and a Reds fan, too, I invited my friend Seth Hancock to ride along with me. I figured he may enjoy getting to see the “insides” of the clubhouse, the press box and how the game was played. Graciously, Seth, agreed. So, we met up, Seth jumped into my car and we headed to old Riverfront Stadium to see the Reds play that evening.
As was his normal pre-game ritual, Pete Rose was perched in his little, nondescript, concrete block office just a door away from the player’s clubhouse, and was holding court when Seth and I walked into the room. There were about 10 reporters asking questions and taking notes. (We all wrote a pre-game story to “fill space” until the game was over and we wrote a game story.)
Quietly, Seth and I wedged into the small area and stood in the background. We were there to just listen and watch. Our time to make introductions would come later. But Pete had a different idea. As soon as he caught our eye, Pete stopped talking baseball and announced, “Guys, do you know who just walked into the room?” All heads turned. All eyes pointed right at Seth and me. “It is Seth Hancock, the owner of Claiborne Farm.”
Pete sent a staffer to go get Murphy out of the player’s dressing area. And, for the next 30 minutes, Pete talked horses. He talked racing. He talked breeding. He talked to Seth. And, the rest of us watched. And, listened.
“Is Forty Niner going to win the Travers?” Pete asked. Seth, in his normal quiet tone, answered, “I don’t know Pete. It’s a big race. There’s some good horses in there. He’s training good.”
“What kind of mare would it take to breed to Forty Niner,” Pete asked. Seth, in his normal, quiet tone, answered, “I don’t know Pete. His stud fee is going to be pretty good and his book of mares is probably going to be pretty select. I think she would have to be pretty nice.”
Pete, now the interviewer, kept on. “Would a million dollar mare be OK?” he asked. Seth, in his normal, quiet tone, answered, “Oh, I think that would probably do.”
Murphy now had joined us in the back of the room and he was taking in all of this rather abnormal pre-game, non-baseball ritual. “How many of those kind of mares do you have at Claiborne or will be bred to Forty Niner,” Pete asked. Seth, in his normal, quiet, tone, answered, “Oh, I don’t know Pete. Maybe a hundred?”
Pete stood up. “A hundred! That’s $100 million in mares alone, guys. We’re talking about the best horse farm in the world right here, guys.”
And, so the conversation went. It seemed like for a long time. In reality, it was very short. Until it was time to go have batting practice and hit the field. Time for just one more question:
“Do you think Forty Niner is going to win?” Pete asked again. “I really like him. Do you think he’s going to win.”
Seth, smiled, and nodded. “Yeah, I think he has a pretty good shot, Pete.”
Forty Niner had a pretty good shot, alright. He went on to win the Travers at Saratoga. My guess is that Seth was there to watch. I’m a pretty sure Pete, who loves horses, had a friendly wager down on Forty Niner.
On the way home from the game that night, Seth looked over and asked if that kind of conversation was “normal” before most games. He wondered if baseball was ever discussed more than horse racing. And, he wondered, too, if Pete was serious about buying a mare to breed to Forty Niner.
I don’t know if Pete ever followed through with buying a mare, or not. I don’t know if he ever purchased an interest in either Forty Niner, or one of his progeny. I don’t know if Pete and Seth ever had another conversation.
But I do know that it wasn’t lost on any of us in that room — including both me and Murph — that two of the greatest to ever play their respective sports and games were in the same room, at the same time, and both were trying to figure out what made the other tick. What made Pete Rose baseball’s greatest hitter? What made Seth Hancock one of racing’s greatest breeders? What drove Pete Rose to slide head first, in belly-busting style, to inch out a triple when a double would do? What made Seth Hancock burn the midnight oil to figure out what mare would cross the best with what stallion and may produce the best racehorse? What made Pete Rose barrel-roll Ray Fosse in the All-Star Game to give the National League a victory in what many players considered to be an exhibition more than a must win. What made Seth Hancock, at the tender age of 23, go out and negotiate a record-making financial deal to stand the great Secretariat as a stallion when others chose to sit chilly and watch?
I don’t know if we found out the answers to those questions that day. But over time, I came to realize that both of them — who I have observed, gotten to know, and have developed a great deal of respect and admiration for — may be very different personalities, but they had one thing in common. They both were driven.
Driven to be the very best they could be in their respective professions.
Driven by a work ethic that took no vacations, no shortcuts, no edges.
Driven to be successful.
Driven to win.
I have been lucky in my life to have met both of these men. I have been luckier to call them both friends. And, I would be even happier to call either one of them teammates.