THE ROSEY TRUTH
The revelation that Pete Rose did, in fact, after all -- stop the presses, if you will -- bet on baseball is a perfect 21st-century news story: lots of volume and very little depth. Roses formal admission -- made public last week in his new book, My Prison Without Walls
-- is akin to acknowledging that, yes, the Kennedys have chased a few skirts.
Since his 1989 ban from the sport that made him a household name, the Hit King (as Rose likes to call himself) has denied vehemently that he (1) gambled on baseball, (2) did so on the very Cincinnati Red team he managed at the time, and (3) placed the alleged bets from major league clubhouses. (He admits to the first two in his book, still denies the third.) But the fact is, theres no way Bart Giamatti -- the baseball commissioner in 1989, a former president of Yale, and a tried-and-true Boston Red Sox fan -- would suffer the smoke of an intense and very public investigation were there not an all-too-destructive fire to extinguish. It goes without saying that the stress of Rosegate played a role in the heart attack that killed Giamatti merely weeks after Roses ban was announced. Not until the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson would we witness the kind of over-the-top denial in the face of damning evidence that Rose screamed from beyond baseballs proverbial fence.
So the recent news is hardly worth a pause. The story, as it were, remains the same we baseball fans have debated for 15 years now: does Rose, gambling warts and all, deserve a place in baseball, and eligibility for the Hall of Fame?
Lets begin with the latter question. Pete Rose (Charlie Hustle, as I like to remember him) played in more baseball games and accumulated more hits than anyone else in the history of the sport. (Considering modern salary structure, which will shorten careers, and the dramatic shift in priority to power hitting, Id argue Roses 4,256 hits belongs on the short list of unbreakable baseball records.) He engineered the second-longest hitting streak (44 games) in the history of the game. He was an instrumental member of three world champions. And he should bow to no one in terms of candidacy for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Remember, this is not the Character Hall of Fame. Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, even Babe Ruth would hardly be the kind of person youd want babysitting your children. But the Hall of Fame would be incomplete without them. For youngsters to visit Cooperstown and not learn about Pete Rose . . . you might as well hit Disney World and skip Mickey Mouse. (As for the character issue, as long as Simpson retains his bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, no such shrine anywhere should look beyond the athletic feats of any player, any sport.)
So Rose gets his plaque, which will feature an engraved line about his ban (as much a part of his legacy as the head-first slide or sprints to first after ball four). What about a job, presumably of the managerial sort? Sorry, Pete. This is where we -- the protectors of baseballs integrity as a national pastime -- draw the line. No can do.
Posted in every major league locker room is a strong admonishment on the subject of gambling. Even if a player is ignorant of the Black Sox scandal of 1919 (and the sad fate of Shoeless Joe Jackson), the consequences of gambling on baseball is spelled out for a player to read before, during, and after every game he plays. Rose can read. A hubris born of his transcendent achievements on the field -- combined with an addiction for playing the odds -- led Rose to defy his games most sacred law. And there shouldnt be a second chance here, not when it involves Rose again taking a leadership role in a big-league clubhouse. Returning Rose to such an environment would be the equivalent of asking a recovering alcoholic to tend bar at the New Years bash.
I visited Cooperstown in July 2002 for Ozzie Smiths induction. The day before the ceremony, I walked into a memorabilia shop, quite literally across the street from the Hall of Fame museum. In the back of the shop, behind a table with two officials -- one to monitor the line snaking out to the sidewalk, the other to count cash -- was the Hit King himself, signing autographs for a fee well in excess of the Hall of Famers Id see in similar venues that weekend. Pete Rose, you see, has profited as a pariah. Turns out a baseball legend is hardly as attractive to the masses as a baseball outlaw. The time has come to legitimize Pete Rose in relation to the pantheon of baseball greats. As for his impact on the games history, theres still a lesson to be taught.