CINCINNATI -- Pete Rose, his gaze locked on the near sellout crowd that had packed Great American Ball Park on Saturday afternoon, appeared both happy and, for brief moments, overwhelmed, during the induction ceremony that made him the newest member of the Reds Hall of Fame.
"Did I ever think I'd make it?" he said with a wry smile. "Nope. But I did."
This day was, in the estimation of almost every dignitary in attendance, a long time coming. Rose is the last member of the Big Red Machine's star-studded "Elite Eight" lineup to be inducted to the Reds Hall of Fame, a delay attributed not to his play on the field, but to the well-documented controversies that followed his playing and managing careers.
But Saturday's induction ceremony focused solely on what made Rose great as a player. He received his due, and the same could be said about a Reds fan base that has been unwavering in its support of Rose for the better part of five decades -- the same fan base that has been clamoring for a day designated solely to honor the all-time hit king.
"I've got five minutes to talk," Rose said to the crowd. "I could spend five days thanking the people of Cincinnati. You motivated me to play the way I did. I wasn't diving for me. I was diving for you. I was hitting for you. I was trying to score runs for you."
Dressed in a button down shirt with "Hit King" monogrammed on both collars, Rose, wearing a white Cincinnati Reds hat, gave a speech that encompassed a lot of what has always made him so beloved in this area. He was funny. He was self-effacing. He was bold, a little brash, and, perhaps uncharacteristically, humble.
"This is the biggest thing to ever happen to me in baseball," Rose said.
The ceremony, emceed by longtime radio announcer Marty Brennaman, opened with remarks by Reds president and CEO Bob Castellini.
"We know yours would be no ordinary Major League career," Castellini said. "Every one of your 14,000 at-bats was approached as a duel between you and the pitcher. You being able to battle from the right or the left, your keen eye diagnosing each pitch, and your bat hitting it to submission.
"That precision earned you the leadoff spot in one of the greatest lineups in baseball history."
The ceremony also included highlight films of Rose's greatest moments on the field, and remarks from Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, whose health issues prevented him from attending the induction.
"I always said every player should be lucky enough to play one year with Pete," Morgan said. "I played eight. Pete Rose made us all better."
It was a sentiment expressed multiple times throughout the weekend.
"He was self-motivated beyond everybody else," Johnny Bench said. "You have a guy that's getting 200 hits a year, making the All-Star team, he makes us better. The guy who sets up the lineup like he did was just out of the world. He was the table-setter, he was the inspiration for all of us. It was a joy to come to the park and be around him and play with him every day."
Added Eric Davis: "He meant everything to me. I was a rookie when he took over [as manager]. The confidence he instilled in me as a 21-year-old player was phenomenal. He allowed me to be me. He told me I was going to play center field and not to worry about the pressure, don't worry about your job. Just go out there and play."
For Cincinnati native and Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, the adoration for Rose began long before he started playing for him. As a kid, Larkin tried to emulate Rose's hard-nosed, all-out style of play. And when he didn't, it was noticed.
"Growing up watching all these guys, we would go out and try to imitate what they did," Larkin said. "If I came home at the end of the day and didn't have grass stains on the top of my pants, my mom would ask me, 'Well, you didn't do the Pete Rose slide today, did you?'"
The induction ceremony ended with Rose and Bench striding to home plate, Rose holding a bat and Bench with his hat turned backward and simulating a crouch behind the plate.
Rose, now 75 years old, playfully twirled his bat on his shoulder as Tony Perez threw the ceremonial first pitch -- a little high and inside -- to his former teammates.
Sans swing, it was the perfect ending to an afternoon of celebration in the Queen City.
"We all were raised the same," Rose said. "We love chili. We love pizza. We love ice cream. We love ribs. And we love the Cincinnati Reds."