Ryan, Rose share memories of historic rivalry

Legendary players take questions at H-E-B Big League Weekend in San Antonio

Ryan, Rose share memories of historic rivalry

SAN ANTONIO -- This isn't exactly breaking news, but Pete Rose and Nolan Ryan were not friends when they were players.

This wasn't unusual. Most players from that generation loathed the idea of fraternization between opponents just before entering the heat of competition.

That kind of snarling rivalry is what made the game great back then, and it's what makes the stories told from those days so entertaining today. Ryan and Rose, together Thursday night in San Antonio as the headliners at a dinner kicking off the H-E-B Big League Weekend, brought the house down with stories from the old days, harkening back to a time when they were bitter rivals who faced each other plenty of times during both the regular season and playoffs.

Rose recalled one night in particular in 1981, when Ryan's Astros were in town to play Rose's Phillies. With the players' strike set to begin the next day, Rose was eager to wrap up breaking Stan Musial's National League record of 3,630 hits, reachable that night.

Rose singled off Ryan his first time to the plate, inching Rose even closer to the record.

"The next three times," Rose recalled, "[Ryan] struck me out. I didn't even swing at the pitch. He shifted his belt buckle and said, 'You're not going to break that record off me.' I had to wait 56 more days to break that record."

Ryan, listening with amusement, offered a few more details from that game. Ryan remembered reading in the local paper that morning that Rose was approaching Musial's record. Rose was quoted with a prediction that he would get it that weekend, off Ryan.

"We'll see about that," Ryan mumbled.

Later at the ballpark, Ryan was taking batting practice and noticed Rose leaning on one knee, watching.

"Pete says, 'Hey, Nolan. I wish you could get that curveball over just one time,'" Ryan recalled. "I go, 'Yeah, why is that?' He said, 'Because I'm going to hit it off your blanking forehead.'"

Rose's first at-bat, Ryan threw all fastballs early. Then he snuck in a curveball.

"Pete hits the most vicious line drive that would have hit my face if I didn't get my glove up," Ryan said. "He's running to first base pointing at me."

Rose wasn't feeling so brazen his final three at-bats against Ryan. He struck out in all of them, including the final blow, three straight curveballs from Ryan that didn't even elicit a swing.

Ryan remembered Rose sulking back to the dugout and throwing his hat with disgust.

"Then he turned," Ryan said. "And saluted me."

The "Kings of the Diamond" question-and-answer session between two baseball legends -- Ryan, the all-time strikeout leader, and Rose, the all-time hit leader -- was more comedy routine than serious discussion. Ryan's reserved demeanor, coupled with his gentlemanly southern drawl, was a perfect complement to Rose's blue-collar brashness on full uncensored display in front of the welcoming San Antonio crowd.

Rose addressed a host of topics but avoided talking about his recent application for reinstatement, which he has asked for with hopes the Commissioner's Office will overturn a ruling that declared him permanently ineligible in 1989, following the discovery that he had bet on baseball while managing the Reds.

The only thing said on the matter came from Ryan, toward the end of the evening.

"Pete should be in the Hall of Fame," Ryan said. "You go to Cooperstown, Pete's name is all over the place. All of the records he holds. Pete should be in there. I don't know how the new Commissioner [Rob Manfred] is going to view that, but I think if you poll most of the players, they feel like I do."

Rose, wearing a white Cincinnati Reds cap and a button-down shirt with "Hit King" printed on the collar, nodded but didn't respond. He did, however, have something to say on a host of other topics.

On the 2015 All-Star Game in his hometown of Cincinnati: "I hope I can be a part of it. It's a big deal for our city. All I've heard so far is that Tony Perez is going to be there. If they ask me to come, I'll be there with open arms."

On being the highest-paid hitter at one time with a salary of $810,000, as compared to today's exorbitant figures: "We used to count our money when we made it. Players today, they weigh it."

On the rash of arm injuries today: "I played 24 years and 3,500 games. The only player I heard of who had Tommy John surgery was Tommy John."

On playing at Colt Stadium, Houston's outdoor ballpark that preceded the Astrodome: "The mosquitoes had flight attendants on them."

But there were a couple of serious moments. "You can't cheat the public," Rose said. "You can't cheat the fans. You don't go to the ballpark every day and feel 100 percent. You put on the uniform, and you feel 100 percent."

Ryan and Rose, whose careers lasted well into their 40s, would know.

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.