Like thousands of other kids in Cincinnati, Ron Oester grew up worshiping homegrown hero Pete Rose. "I used to pay two dollars to get in Riverfront Stadium," he says, "and sneak down to the $4 blue seats in leftfield just to watch Pete, who was playing left then. He would always throw a ball into the stands in the last inning, but I never got one. After the game, I would wait to get an autograph. I was bashful. I'd always be the last kid. I never talked to him. I was afraid to say anything. I'd just stick my pen and paper out."
Unlike those other kids in Cincinnati, Oester is now the Reds' second baseman, which happens to be another position Rose played. Furthermore, Oester is putting some Rosy numbers on the scoreboard, because at the end of last week he was batting .314.
Oester made the Cincinnati roster to stay in 1980, the year after Rose began playing for the Philadelphia Phillies. He requested—and got—Rose's locker. He puts his valuables in Rose's old lockbox. He gets his fan mail in Rose's old mailbox. Had enough? Rose's dad taught Pete to switch-hit when he was nine. Oester's dad taught Ron to switch-hit when he was four. Rose slides headfirst. So does Oester. Rose wears No. 14. Oester wore No. 14 in the minors, but now wears No. 16. "It wouldn't be right for anybody else to wear his number in Cincinnati," Oester says.
Oester still gets butterflies when he talks to Rose, though he's not above pointing out to his friends that Rose got hit No. 3,000 on May 5, 1978, which was also Oester birthday No. 22. "I'm still a little leery," he says. "When I saw him [last week in Philadelphia] and he said, 'You're off to a great start,' I didn't know what to say." When a photographer asked Oester if he'd mind posing with Rose, he calmly assented, but before the picture was snapped, he went to his best friend on the Reds, Catcher Dann Bilardello and said, "Hey! I get my picture taken with Pete Rose."
Actually, it's Rose who should be excited these days. Oester, who began the season with a .268 lifetime average, at week's end was hitting 70 points better than his idol. "He's having a fantastic start," says Cincinnati Manager Russ Nixon, who also managed Oester when he batted .219 in Tampa in 1975. After a dismal attempt at leading off last year, Oester has found his niche in the lineup. "I think I am a good sixth or seventh hitter," he says. "I'm a singles-doubles hitter. I'm not a home-run hitter [he has four]. I think I'm a better hitter with men on base. I concentrate more."
Oester never concentrated harder than in the second game of a May 1 doubleheader at Montreal. With the score tied 3-3 in the top of the ninth. Expo righthander Ray Burris intentionally walked Dan Driessen to pitch to Oester. Hitting lefthanded—through Sunday he was .350 from the left side, .214 from the right—Oester pulled a triple down the line to drive in two runs.
Until Oester came to Cincinnati, he had always been a shortstop, and good enough to twice make the American Association All-Star team. He switched to second because with Dave Concepcion a fixture at short for the Reds, it was the only way he was going to play in Cincy. "Second base is a lot easier position," Oester says. "You don't have to have as much range. If you drop the ball at shortstop, it's an error. At second, you can still get the guy out. I'd rather play short, but we have one of the best."
And now the Reds have one of the best second basemen. Reds Coach Tommy Helms, who won two Gold Gloves as a Cincinnati second baseman, says, "I don't know that anybody's quicker turning the double play than Ron. For a big guy [6'2", 192], he's very agile. He's especially good coming in on the ball." And Rose says simply, "He's probably got the best arm of any infielder in the league."
Oester is a rarity, a late draft pick who made it to the majors. The first round of the June 1974 draft featured Lonnie Smith, Dale Murphy, Willie Wilson, Garry Templeton, Rod Scurry, Lance Parrish, Rick Sutcliffe and Rich Dauer. Only two other '74 ninth-round draft choices besides Oester (No. 215 overall) got to the bigs. "As you get past the first two rounds, it's a gamble," says Cincinnati Vice-President of Player Personnel Sheldon (Chief) Bender. "With choices of equal ability, you go with the local ballplayer. Oester didn't show exceptional speed. He had a great arm and good hands. It was a question of whether his bat would come around."
After batting .311 in rookie ball in '74, Oester couldn't hit a lick for Nixon in Tampa. But he improved his average for four consecutive years, finally batting .281 for Indianapolis in 1979. Oester had stopped hitting righthanded in his first year of pro ball because he couldn't get enough time in the batting cage, but he returned to switch hitting in 1977.
After Oester joined the Reds in '80 he didn't get a chance to become a regular until a July road trip to New York. "I was out the night before having a few drinks with a couple of teammates until 2:30 or three," he says. "Curfew was at one. I got about six hours' sleep. We had a day game. They put me in and I went 4 for 5. The next day we had a doubleheader and I went 4 for 7. I haven't been out of there since."
Oester's bat has been almost as big a surprise as the Reds themselves, who have been right around .500 this season after having been the worst team in the National League in 1982 (61-100). Oester is enjoying a comeback, too. After a hot start last season, his average sank to .189 for the month of July. He was benched briefly in favor of rookie Tom Lawless and, in a fit of frustration, started a scuffle with Outfielder Cesar Cede√±o over a remark Cede√±o made to him about not playing. They're friendly now. Upon returning to the lineup, Oester tried to hit more home runs; he did have five of his career-high nine last September, but also developed a loop in his swing and wound up striking out 82 times for the season. He finished at .260 and calls the year "the worst I've experienced."
When the season was over, he took refuge on his 72-acre farm outside Cincinnati with his wife, Jackie, and now-2-year-old Julianne (another member of the family is scheduled to arrive in August). "I've got three piles of wood I cut this winter, each of them 30 feet long and five feet tall," Oester says. "You can take out your frustrations cutting wood." Since the season began, he's been cutting down pitchers.
Despite his higher batting average, Oester doesn't mind taking a back seat to Pete.