Tigers exec Dan Lunetta recalls tumult, sadness of Pete Rose's final season

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. – Unless you are in the baseball industry or deeply involved in following the Tigers organization, you probably don’t know Dan Lunetta. He’s the Tigers' director of minor league operations and is beginning his 15th season with the club.

But 30 years ago, he had a front-row seat to one of the darkest chapters in baseball history.

Dan Lunetta won the Sheldon “Chief” Bender award in 2016 for his contributuions to player development at the minor-league level.

In 1989, Lunetta was hired to be the traveling secretary for the Cincinnati Reds. That was the year Reds manager Pete Rose was infamously banned for gambling on Major League games.

It was, to say the least, both a hellish and invaluable experience for Lunetta, who was 34 at the time and had just come to Cincinnati after spending three seasons as the traveling secretary for the Expos.

“I cannot believe it’s been 30 years,” Lunetta said from his office overlooking the back fields at TigerTown. “In the entirety of my career (40 years), I’ve been with four major league clubs and two minor league clubs, and the shortest duration of time I spent with any club was with the Reds.

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“But I learned more about myself and about dealing with adversity in that one year than I have at anytime in my career. For me, that experience was invaluable.”

Understand, the investigation ordered by then-commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti that would be revealed in the Dowd Report and ultimately lead to Rose’s banishment from baseball, was already well underway by the time Lunetta was hired by the Reds in the fall of 1988.

“It started in spring training,” Lunetta said. “That’s when the commissioner’s office made an announcement that Pete was being investigated. We had received word in spring training that there was an on-going investigation.

“I don’t know when it became public knowledge, but we had constant media coverage from mid-spring training. Once the season started, then there was intense media coverage almost all season long.”

Media feeding frenzy

Working for the Reds that season presented a strange dichotomy between what was going on baseball-wise and what was going on with Rose. Rose was beloved by the city and the organization. He was Charlie Hustle, over 4,000 hits, a certain first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.

And yet, he was being investigated for a heinous crime against the game.

Asked if he ever felt dirty by association, Lunetta said, firmly, "No. No. What was happening to Pete, I don’t believe affected me or anybody else from the perspective of, ‘Geez, we need to keep an arm’s length from Pete.’

“No. That was never the case. There were just a lot of people who were very close to Pete, who had worked for Pete for years, who I could tell it was taking a toll on them. It affected a lot of people.”

In 1989, MLB's all-time hit leader Pete Rose agreed to a lifetime ban for gambling. He has since tried to get reinstated, with multiple commissioners denying his bid.

And Rose, Lunetta said, did his best to keep the allegations and investigation away from those who were working for him. It wasn’t like he was asking front-office employees to run bets for him.

“From a personal standpoint, Pete was no different for me than working with the other players and coaches,” he said. “Pete never placed any unreasonable demands on me, as the traveling secretary. I had a very good relationship with Pete.”

The public scrutiny, though, put an immense strain on Lunetta and the club. When the team was on the road, Lunetta often had to arrange ways to sneak Rose in and out of hotels to avoid the swarm of media.

He recalled an incident in St. Louis that he said typified the entire season.

“I was sitting in Pete’s office,” Lunetta recalled. “It was me, Pete and (broadcaster) Marty Brennaman. We were just having a conversation before the game and all of a sudden, an ABC news crew just walked in.”

The media restrictions that are in place today did not exist in 1989. There were no media relations gatekeepers like there are now.

“There were three of them and they just walked into Pete’s office unannounced and said, ‘We’re here and we’re going to be covering you every day for the rest of the year,’” Lunetta said. “I remember Pete looked at Marty and me, we all looked at each other – we didn’t say anything, but you knew, the initial reaction was, ‘You’ve got to be (bleeping) kidding me.’

“And that crew followed us the rest of the season, right up until the day of Pete’s suspension.”

'Great player unraveling'

That day. It was Aug. 24. Lunetta still remembers the date and just about every detail of it. The Reds were in Chicago playing the Cubs. Sometime between the end of the game, Rose was informed that his banishment would take effect immediately.

Lunetta had been out to dinner. There were no cell phones. When he got back to the hotel, several urgent messages to call Rose immediately awaited him.

“I went back to my room and called him,” Lunetta said. “He said, ‘Hey, I need you to get me back to Cincinnati.’ I said, ‘OK, how do you want me to get you back to meet the club?’

“He said, ‘I won’t be meeting the club.’ I knew then the suspension was forthcoming.”

Pete Rose in 2016

Lunetta lowered his eyes. The emotion he felt in that moment was still very much alive, 30 years later.

“On the one hand, there was this feeling of sadness,” he said. “Not just because of Pete, but because of what this meant for the game. Yes, it was going to affect Pete, and the lives of the people close to him. It affected the Reds organization.

“But you just felt this enormous sense of sadness about what was forthcoming.”

To this day, Lunetta’s primary feeling toward Rose is sympathy.

“The duress that came from that investigation and spending that year with the Reds really was the feeling that you were seeing the demise of a man,” he said. “You were seeing a great baseball player unraveling from all the stress of it all.”

Lunetta knows there are people who will never view Rose in a sympathetic light. He understands and he’s not trying to sway anyone’s opinion. He’s just sharing his own.

“I have to believe, if I were in his shoes at that time – getting to know Pete as I did – he was having to face the likelihood of his livelihood being taken away from him,” Lunetta said. “He was 48 years old. Put yourself in his shoes. We know how much baseball meant to Pete Rose.

“It was his life being taken away from him.”  

'Not my place to judge'

Lunetta has only spoken to Rose a couple of times since that phone call in Chicago on Aug. 24, 1989. Brief, cordial conversations.

“He disappeared,” Lunetta said. “Some of that was because he wasn’t allowed to come back to the ballpark. He probably stayed in touch with those he was closest to on the club. But after the suspension, we went back to Cincinnati and I didn’t have any contact with Pete after that.”

Dan Lunetta with wife Jhoanna

Lunetta finished the season with the Reds before leaving to become the general manager at Triple-A Rochester for two years. He thought at that time that he’d never get another big-league job. Of course, he did. He spent 10 seasons with the Florida Marlins and came to the Tigers 2004.  

He received the prestigious Sheldon “Chief” Bender award in 2016, a distinguished service award given annually to those who have made a significant impact on player development at the minor-league level.

But he spent some very uncertain, unnerving nights back in 1990 and 1991.

“To add insult to injury, the Reds won the World Series the next year,” Lunetta said with a chuckle. “There I was, not knowing if I’d ever get another Major League opportunity again and then the Reds win the World Series in 1990.

“I was like, ‘Wow, OK.’ Who knows if I will ever get the chance to win one of those. Turns out, I did (with the Marlins in 1997).”

Don’t ask Lunetta if Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame. He will not answer that question. From the day he met him, through all the travails of that 1989 season, to all that’s happened to both men since – Lunetta has not and will not sit in moral judgment of Pete Rose.

“It is not my place to judge,” he said. “I got along great with Pete. He treated me well. He always treated me with respect. The traveling secretary position is not the easiest job in the world. There are a lot of demands placed on the traveling secretary, and he was always fair to me.

“He never placed any excessive demands on me. On a personal level, I never had any issue with Pete.”

Twitter @cmccosky