'...That was part of his charm'

Posted: Thursday, January 08, 2004

They shared a World Series title and a place in the heart of a tough old town, and on the day Tug McGraw died, he and Pete Rose wound up sharing space in the newspapers, too.

Rose's story grabbed most of the headlines and more column inches because scandals make good copy especially when someone as shameless as Rose works the hustle. There's nothing he won't say or do for money, and no chance he'll stop as long as someone presses a nickel into his sweaty palm.

McGraw never minded attention, either, and he certainly wasn't a saint. Those who knew him talked about how he squeezed every last drop out of life and emptied a few bottles along the way. After clinching the pennant one season, McGraw was asked what he would do with his World Series share.

''Ninety percent I'll spend on good times, women and Irish whiskey. The other 10 percent,'' he said, ''I'll probably waste.''

Rose was good for a quote once upon a time, too, but then he turned dishonest and the victim act got old. For all the other things he and McGraw shared guts, showmanship, a work ethic and passion on that score they couldn't have been any different. McGraw displayed more grace in the 15 months he battled brain cancer than Rose managed while wrestling with his lie for nearly 15 years.

''He didn't conceal much,'' broadcaster Tim McCarver said of McGraw. ''And that was part of his charm.''

McCarver was a backup catcher on the 1980 Phillies team with McGraw and Rose that won the town's only title. That might explain why he described the juxtaposition of their stories as ''strange.''

''Tug was true to the end as most guys who play the game are. There's an irony certainly in this week, Tug dying, and Pete all of a sudden revealing the truth after such a long time,'' McCarver said.

It would be nice to think McGraw's openness had something to do with Rose finally coming clean, but it isn't true. The Hit King was intimately familiar with shame long before McGraw learned he was sick. But greed is the only emotion that drives him now.

Pitiful as it seems that Rose would time the release of his book to steal the thunder from the Hall of Fame welcome extended to deserving men like Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley, sadder still is that it overshadowed the passing of a guy who reminded us why we fell in love with the game in the first place.

Baseball was good and the money was getting better when McGraw made his debut as a 20-year-old with the New York Mets in 1965. He was full of fire and hard to miss on the mound, even harder not to laugh along with when he did something zany at the biggest moments.

Sometimes, after watching a hitter drive one of his pitches deep, but just foul, he stuck a hand inside his jersey and started flapping it, letting everyone know his heart was beating again. His best pitch, fittingly, was a screwball. But like all born comedians, McGraw found his weaknesses made for much better material. So he named one fastball for singer Peggy Lee, because of her hit single, ''Is That All There Is?'' and another for actress Bo Derek in less politically correct times because it had ''a nice little tail.''

McGraw loved grand entrances and even grander exits. When the Mets honored John Franco, who grew up idolizing McGraw, Tug rode in from centerfield on a motorcycle. Last September, at the end of the last game at Veterans Stadium, a black Lincoln stopped alongside the mound and out popped McGraw in a Phillies uniform, wearing the familiar No. 45 on his back.

The old ballpark shook when McGraw toed the rubber, looked in at the catcher and threw an imaginary pitch for strike three. Then he lifted his arms skyward, just as he had after a clutch strikeout of Kansas City's Willie Wilson clinched the World Series, and did a little dancing.

He coined the phrase, ''You Gotta Believe'' while playing with the Mets 20 years earlier, and for a moment, he had Phillies fans believing he might beat long odds again. The joint rocked so hard that it looked and felt like the demolition was beginning.

''He just had a joy for life and living,'' recalled Tom Seaver, McGraw's teammate with the Mets' 1969 championship team. ''But what people sometimes overlook because he was always happy-go-lucky was what kind of competitor he was on the mound. No one competed with more intensity than he did.''

He wasn't always the father he should have been, and barely acknowledged the most famous of his four kids, country singer Tim McGraw, until his son was about to leave college and try his luck in the music business. Tug tried to make up for lost time ever since, not because there was something in it for him, but because it was the right thing to do.

You could read the thousands of words written by and about Rose recently and never arrive at the same conclusion.

On Wednesday, he issued a statement congratulating Molitor and Eckersley for entering the Hall and said, ''I never intended to diminish the exciting news for these deserving players.'' Please. That's just another lie; Rose's book publisher allowed Sports Illustrated to release the excerpts Monday. Here's hoping Rose was more sincere by the time he reached the bottom of the statement, when he extended condolences to McGraw's family.

''I always enjoyed playing with and competing against Tug,'' Rose said.

For all that, there are only three words about baseball worth remembering this week, and they came at the end of a tribute in the Philadelphia Daily News:

''Ya gotta bereave.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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