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Several years ago, while covering the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, I stopped by a memorabilia shop to interview Pete Rose. The banished legend was signing autographs roughly a block or two from the museum, and I decided to pace off the number of steps from the Hall’s plaque gallery—where baseball’s immortals are enshrined—to the store where Rose was wielding a Sharpie with the same aplomb he once wielded a baseball bat.
I forget the exact number—I think it was something like 250 paces—but that didn’t matter, because at that point it might as well have been 250 light-years away, as far as Rose’s induction chances were concerned. Paradoxically, he was so close, yet so far.
The man with 4,256 hits—more than anyone who ever played the game—was equal parts defiant and repentant that day. Rose still hadn’t admitted he had bet on baseball games while managing the Cincinnati Reds from 1986 to 1989. (He would finally come clean in 2004.)
He kept talking about how he was the best ambassador baseball had and couldn’t understand why the commissioner wouldn’t allow him anywhere near the game. He kept harping on how he would like to manage or coach again, not able to comprehend that he had forfeited that opportunity forever when he gambled on games.
As I walked away, I thought about how Rose’s nickname, “Charlie Hustle,” was so apropos, because whether he was sliding headfirst into third with a double that was stretched into a triple or vehemently denying his gambling addiction, he always seemed to be hustling. Like so many others, I was looking for him to show some real contrition, but none seemed forthcoming. I figured Rose was destined to go to his grave as a baseball pariah.
Twenty-five years after being permanently banned from the game he loves, baseball’s Hit King is back in the news. A picture of Rose in his prime, following through on a swing, adorned the cover of last week’s Sports Illustrated.
The magazine contains an excerpt from Kostya Kennedy’s new book: “Pete Rose: An American Dilemma.” It is a fascinating read and has prompted me to continue to rethink my position about Rose and the Hall of Fame. I don’t know if I’m there yet as far as advocating for his inclusion, but I’ve definitely softened my stance from 10, 20 years ago.
Rose is indeed an American dilemma, as are Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and all the others who used drugs to enhance their muscles and statistics. Each, in his own way, damaged the game, though there are some who argue the juiced-up sluggers and pitchers made baseball more popular and profitable. Therefore they don’t have a problem with ballplayers seeking a chemical edge. I do have a problem with it, but maybe that’s just me.
Clearly, Rose’s transgressions warranted his banishment because fixing games strikes at the very core of the game’s integrity. We go to the ballpark believing the contests are legit, not some pre-arranged event, a la professional wrestling. The throwing of the 1919 World Series by eight members of the Chicago White Sox nearly destroyed baseball.
Interestingly, despite their fear of gambling’s influence, all professional sports leagues continue to hypocritically align themselves with major casinos. Even Rose’s old team displays prominent ballpark ads for Cincinnati’s downtown Horseshoe Casino. As Kennedy astutely points out, at the same time baseball is cracking down on performance-enhancing drugs, it has softened its resistance to gambling affiliations.
Rose, ever the hardhead, still insists his wagering had no impact on his managing. He seems to believe that because he bet on his own team to win it was OK, failing to acknowledge that managing out of desperation to pay off or avoid a gambling debt can definitely influence your personnel and strategy moves. You very well could jeopardize a pitcher’s career by overusing him and forget about your team’s long-term needs because you have to have this particular game—or else you’re going to have to answer to some bookie.
In his book, Kennedy draws an interesting parallel between baseball’s all-time hit leader and the PED users when he writes: “Of all the ways one might characterize the differences and similarities between Rose and those players known to have used performance-enhancing drugs—the Hall of Shamers, as it were—it comes down to this: Rose has been banished for the incalculable damage he might have done to the foundation of the game. Steroid users are reviled for the damage they actually did.”
At 72, Rose clearly remains a polarizing figure. His many supporters say it’s a travesty that the guy who smacked more hits than anyone isn’t in the Hall. His many detractors point to the facts that he bet on games—a specific violation of one of baseball’s most sacred rules—and cavorted with shady characters, some with Mafia ties. The thinking is, Rose made his bed, now he has to lie in it. I get both arguments.
We are a forgiving society, and it seems that as he enters the twilight of his life Rose finally has begun making a sincere effort to apologize to teammates and fans for his lies and transgressions. That’s a step in the right direction, but there are more steps to be taken. I’d love to see him receive counseling for his gambling addiction and become an advocate for that cause, because it is a disease that ruins millions of lives each year.
As I said, I’ve softened my stance about Rose. I’m becoming more open to the idea that perhaps his Hall of Fame time should be coming. I just don’t know if I’m quite there yet.
Scott Pitoniak is an award-winning columnist and best-selling author working on two more books.
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