ATLANTA - If Gene Garber had to do it over again, he'd throw Pete Rose another changeup.
"That was my whole career - changeups," said Garber, the former Atlanta Braves closer who stopped Rose's 44-game hit streak on Aug. 1, 1978. "(Reds manager) Sparky Anderson said later, 'I've never seen Garber throw a changeup before.' My reaction was, 'Well, you've been sleeping, then,' because the majority of my pitches were changeups."
Garber, who retired after 19 seasons in the big leagues in 1988 and now is a farmer in Lancaster County, Pa., has never regretted his decision to throw back-to-back changeups to Rose. Cincinnati's third baseman went down swinging on the last one, ending his assault on Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak, then criticized Garber for not challenging him with a fastball.
It is nearly 25 years later and Garber, 55, still bristles at Rose's suggestion that he pitched him "like it was the seventh game of the World Series."
"That's the way I pitched the 900 some odd games I pitched in," said Garber, who raises 110,000 chickens on several farms with his two sons. "Like it was the last game of the World Series. For him to say that was a compliment to me. That was my hope, to be perceived as playing the game that way."
ROSE EXTENDED HIS streak to 44 games - tying Willie Keeler's 1897 National League record - the previous night against Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. But in his quest for 45, he walked, lined out twice and grounded out in four trips to the plate before facing Garber in the ninth inning.
Garber, who still holds the Braves' career saves record with 141, remembers his nerves jangling as he took the mound.
"It was the most nervous I've ever been in my life, because I was scared to death I might walk him," he said. "I'd be a horse's rear end and never live it down if I walked him to end the streak, so that made the situation a lot more difficult than it really was."
Garber fell behind 2-1, then threw one of his best changeups, which Rose fouled off. His next pitch wasn't as good, but produced a better result.
"It's a feel pitch, and I could always tell when I released it if it was a good one or not," Garber said. "When I released the last one, I could feel it wasn't a good one. It was right down the middle and I said, 'Oh, no,' but when he swung through it, I changed it to 'Oh, yeah!' But from my standpoint, it was not a good pitch."
Rose, the last out of a 16-4 Braves' win, had no time to reflect on his streak before cameras and microphones were thrust at him as he left the field.
"One of the memories I have of that night is that TBS covered the press conference live after the game, but Pete didn't know it was live," longtime TBS broadcaster Pete Van Wieren said. "So, the first question to him was, 'How does it feel now that it's over?' And Pete said, 'At least now I don't have to deal with you (jerks) any more."'
Garber remembers: "Had he been given a couple of minutes for the realization that his hit streak was over to sink in, his reaction might have been different. But he had absolutely no time to reflect. He wrapped up his comments by saying, 'I don't want to give Garber any more ink,' and my first thought was, 'You've just given me more ink than I'll ever need.' His reaction was what caused that to be a memorable occasion."
Seated next to Rose at the press conference, dressed in his street clothes, was a 24-year-old rookie pitcher named Larry McWilliams.
"A reporter asked Pete, 'If Larry McWilliams was sitting next to you, would you know it was him?"' said McWilliams, who retired in 1990 with 78 career wins. "Pete eventually picked up on it and everybody cracked up."
Before the game, Rose had said of McWilliams: "I've studied his stats and they're impressive. Maybe he does have an advantage because I have never seen him pitch. But I might have an edge because he probably has heard of me."
MAKING HIS FOURTH major league start, McWilliams retired Rose twice that night. He walked the man who would eventually become baseball's all-time hits leader in the first, caught his vicious line drive the next inning - gloving it ankle-high to rob him of a single - then coaxed a hard grounder to shortstop Jerry Royster in the fifth.
"I was a little nervous during that first at-bat, which I hadn't been in my three games prior to that one," said the 49-year-old McWilliams, who lives in the Fort Worth suburb of Colleyville, Texas. "It was kind of disappointing because I ended up walking him and I didn't want people to think I was pitching around him. I sat down and said to myself, 'This is not my streak, let him be nervous about it.'
"I remember he hit a line drive to my right and low in his second at-bat. I threw a fastball, trying to get ahead, and he slapped it right back at me. It was a situation where I was just trying to save myself. It was that quick, boom! He was gone."
The history books will show that Rose went 0-for-4 against McWilliams and Garber, but what might be overlooked in the retelling were all the special moments the two pitchers savor a quarter of a century later.
The Braves averaged more than 11,000 fans per game during the 1978 season. But they drew 45,007 spectators as Rose extended his streak against Niekro, and 31,159 fans were on hand for the second game of the series.
"We hadn't seen crowds like that in a while," McWilliams said. "They were wild about (Rose's streak). Everybody wanted it to continue, except the pitcher on the mound, and even then there were some mixed emotions. It was a wonderful thing, exciting for everybody. You didn't want him to continue his streak at your expense, but if he did, you applauded him and moved on."
Bob Hope, then the Braves' public relations director, said at the time: "If Rose would have come here under normal circumstances and we were just coming off a 19-0 loss to Montreal like we were, we'd have been lucky to get 15,000 fans out. We figure Pete was worth 22,000 extra fans Monday night, and we thank him."
McWilliams was pulled after five, but Rose did not face reliever Dave Campbell, who pitched the sixth inning. In the seventh, Garber, who was acquired in a trade with the Phillies earlier in the season, ducked trouble by inducing Rose to line into a double play. Rookie third baseman Bob Horner didn't have to move to catch the ball, then threw to first to double off Dave Collins, who had singled.
"That's how things go," said Bobby Cox, who was in his rookie season as a major league manager. "You get a couple of cheap ones and then you hit a bullet that gets caught. DiMaggio's record is incredible. Just the law of averages says you won't do it. You could hit four balls good on any given day and not get a hit. But if anybody was ever going to do it, it was Pete Rose. It didn't make any difference how you pitched him because he hit the ball between guys all the time."
Garber, who recalls telling his wife before the series started that he would stop Rose's streak, was as stubborn as a Pennsylvania mule when Cox suggested he come out after eight so he would be fresh the next night.
"I said, 'Absolutely not,"' Garber said. "I told him, I want the opportunity to end his streak. I knew he was coming up third in the ninth."
Rose, who had needed a bunt hit in the ninth inning against the Phillies 12 days earlier to extend the streak, now faced Garber with history at stake. With a hit, he would join DiMaggio as the two hitters with the longest hitting streaks in baseball's storied history.
"You couldn't throw him in and get him out, and you couldn't throw him away to get him out without changing speeds," Garber said. "After I established myself in the big leagues, I pitched Pete the same way. After that game, I had a lot of success against him."
Garber's 80 mph changeup dropped the hammer of history on Rose.
"People don't let me forget it," he said. "I'm introduced to others quite often as the guy who stopped Pete Rose's hit streak. But I'd like to be remembered for my career, instead of one hitter I faced."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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