Induction into the Baseball of Hall of Fame meant everything to Pete Rose in 1989, but Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti felt otherwise, choosing to ban him from baseball due to conclusive proof he bet on the game. The events surrounding this historic decision provides the fodder for Patricia O’Hara’s aptly titled drama Banned from Baseball, a nostalgically engaging new play with great potential terrifically presented in its world premiere at the Loft Theatre courtesy of the Human Race Theatre Company.
Brian Dykstra, smartly cast, superbly embodies Rose’s folksy, relatable charm and cool, lackadaisical swagger. He portrays the famed Hit King and manager of the Cincinnati Reds as a larger-than-life yet hopelessly aloof showman unable to own up to his shortcomings. In addition to the notion Rose had a gambling addiction, a theme in need of expansion to give the play more depth, O’Hara suggests he didn’t understand or grasp the ethics involved as if merely playing baseball with heart trumped playing with integrity. “I respect the game too much to bet on it,” he says. But in essence he was fooling himself, which makes his fall from grace and delusions of Hall of Fame grandeur a sad, cautionary tale. The final scene, centered on Rose happily signing baseballs in some non-specific memorabilia purgatory, is a striking example of resilience or misery depending on your perspective.
“I don’t like to see a hero fall,” says Giamatti, the former Yale University President and Comparative Literature professor who died of a heart attack at age 51 on Martha’s Vineyard eight days after banning Rose. As he battles with the idea of banishment, Giamatti, played with pleasant understatement by Human Race newcomer Doug MacKechnie, has an odd tendency to only come across as a wholesome philosophical guru. “We betray ourselves when we betray those we serve” is among the sage soundbites O’Hara provides, but perhaps she chose this route because she shares a kinship with his past. After all, she is a professor of English Literature at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania who specifically teaches Baseball in American Literature and Culture. She even goes so far as to give the level-headed Giamatti a lengthy lecture, addressing the audience straightforwardly with musings on Shakespeare and Machiavelli. However, less would be more, especially when we only receive a glimpse into Giamatti from the vantage point of academia and athletics. It’s possible to become as engrossed in his story as Rose, but as it stands, there aren’t enough complex layers. Perhaps it would be more refreshing if O’Hara dug deeper into his health issues or the few intriguing nuggets of backstory she offers, specifically his intriguing relationship with President George H.W. Bush and contemplation of running for Congress. It’s nice to hear Giamatti speak of “rising to one’s better self to achieve one’s destiny,” but O’Hara would be wise to find another distinct aim for the character other than Moral Compass and a more distinct voice other than campaign speechwriter.
Nevertheless, director Margarett Perry, in her 10th production for the Human Race, skillfully keeps every character (costumed in stylish vintage suits by Janet G. Powell) impactful, amiable and conflicted. She primarily ensures Dykstra and MacKechnie are compatible without seeming combative, a tricky balance considering the high stakes involved for their characters. She also gives the supporting players ample room to shine. Scott Hunt (nearly unrecognizable as hardnosed Deputy Commissioner Fay Vincent vowing to keep baseball pure), Marc Moritz (Rose’s sophisticated lawyer Reuven Katz desperately trying to make him see reason on multiple issues), and K.L. Storer (John Dowd, Special Counsel to the Commissioner) are an excellent trio, injecting their performances with nuance, persistence and clear devotion to their respective sides. Longtime Cincinnati Reds sportscaster Marty Brennaman notably provides enjoyable voiceovers throughout the play, which features an eye-catching Riverfront Stadium backdrop from set designer Tamara L. Honesty as well as proficient lighting by John Rensel and first-rate sound design and original music by Jay Brunner.
One of the play’s best scenes belongs to Dykstra. With poignancy, Rose recounts, with awestruck wonder, the night he broke Ty Cobb’s record and received a call from President Ronald Reagan in the joyous aftermath. It’s a loving look at “Charlie Hustle” in all his humble glory. But the root of O’Hara’s astute fairness rests with the sheer reality of Rose’s legacy. If baseball is indeed part of the national character, as she suggests, it’s only proper to examine what Rose did and why he did it. Who he was and what he could be. Sometimes you must simply separate the man from the mystique. Well, that’s life at the old ball game.
Banned from Baseball continues through Sept. 23 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. The play is performed in 100 minutes without intermission. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings; 7 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings; and 2 p.m. Sunday matinees. Tickets are $37-$55 adults; $34-$48 for seniors; and $19.50-$27 for students. Prices vary depending on the day of the week and seating location. Group discounts available for parties of 10 or more – contact Betty Gould at (937) 461-8295 or Betty.Gould@victoriatheatre.com.
“While We’re on the Subject” post-show talkback will be held following the Sunday, Sept. 16 2 pm performance; Prior to the Tuesday, Sept. 18 7 pm performance is “Beer, Here!,” which will begin at 5:30 pm. Additional information and details for “Beer, Here!” and a special Offstage Experience can be found online at humanracetheatre.org.