Rose, with all his thorns, should be in the Hall

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 9.44.52 PMAs a 21-year-old sports reporter in Atlanta, I was assigned to interview Pete Rose.  Though excited about meeting a baseball god – the god of effort — I feared he would be like most big-league stars who’d shunned me or given nothing resembling an enthusiastic response to a question.  I was too young and undistinguished for them to take seriously.

Jim Fregosi, Billy Russell, Walt Alston, Don Sutton all had shot me down quickly if not painlessly, treating me like I too often treat a panhandler.  So I was not very hopeful as I approached the Cincinnati Reds left fielder who was on his way to being National League MVP.

“Sorry, I gotta take batting practice now, but I’ll talk to you between turns.”

I figured he’d slip away, the way Russell had, and Fregosi, and I would not hear another word from Rose.

But much to my surprise, as soon as he finished his first set of swings he literally ran the 50 feet to where I stood.  Charlie Hustle was hustling to talk to me.  He answered questions, thoughtfully it seemed, until his next turn in the cage.  Then he ran off and soon ran back for more questions.  This pattern continued until BP was over, with my notepad full.

Later, I asked a Reds beat writer if Rose was always so accommodating, and he said, “Pete tries to give everybody access because ‘you never know who’s gonna get a Hall of Fame ballot someday.’”

I would get a ballot someday, but I couldn’t use it to vote for him.

Clearly, nobody ever was more determined to be in the Hall of Fame than Rose, who at 31, when I met him, was already tracking Ty Cobb’s hit total at the same age.  How ironic that Rose would be the only Cooperstown candidate ruled “permanently ineligible” other than Shoeless Joe Jackson of Chicago Black Sox infamy.

What they had in common:  involvement in a betting scandal.

But as Kostya Kennedy points out in Pete Rose, An American Dilemma (Sports Illustrated Books), there ‘s an essential difference:  Nobody has accused Rose of betting against his team.

Jackson testified before a grand jury that he conspired and accepted money to throw Game 2 of the 1919 World Series.

Kennedy vividly sketches a man with many fine qualities and a few outsized flaws.  He does not gaze through Rose-colored glasses but sees his subject through many sets of eyes, as the best biographers do.  Not that the subject is especially challenging, given his willingness to be seen and heard.  Rose has never been discreet about his indiscretions.  Which of course is why he is where he is, on the outside looking in.

Like almost everyone in retirement, Rose is a more sympathetic figure as time passes. Once the most irrepressible force on the baseball diamonds, he is at 72 aging not too gracefully.  His face is doughy, his head balding in a most unflattering way.  It’s like a sea with islands of orange-red shrubbery.

Is it OK to take pity on him now?   The “dilemma” to which Kennedy alludes:  This country struggles to decide which bygones should be bygones and which should be remembered, honored and treasured, how to score his life in baseball on and off the field.

Kennedy deftly portrays an entertaining and accommodating public figure who loved his work, which he defined as “doing Pete Rose.”  For the most part, he played his role impeccably.  He credited others for his team’s success, happily chatted with fans, picked up luncheon tabs, left generous tips, never encountered troubles in bars because, for one thing, he’s a non-drinker.

He had a camaraderie with minority races that was rare for white men of that day.  He was so friendly with black and Latino teammates that the Reds’ front office asked him to spend more time with his own kind. 

Kennedy perceives “a scruffy kind of soulfulness” that captivated the common people of all races.  Rose dived head first, ran through and over opponents.  He was always bruised, bloody, bandaged, his uniform stained by grass and dirt.  But he got all his training-room therapy before anyone else reached the ballyard.

Except for a quick bat from either side of the plate, he had the skills of your average high school varsity ballplayer.  To fans, he was one of us, even with his fleet of luxury cars.  Every Little Leaguer could dream of becoming Pete Rose driving a Mercedes.

But there is in Rose a destructive and self-destructive side.  Like his doppelgangar, Cobb, he never worried about the damage as he ran all-out head-first through life.  Rose has often been an irresponsible slimeball, imprisoned for tax fraud, obsessed not just with betting but with money in general, a serial philanderer who cheated on his wife in front of their kids.

The most admirable character in this book is Pete Rose, Jr.  Early in his baseball career he was considered a better hitter than his dad at the same age.  But “Petey” was constantly taunted by fans and was worn down by harassment and injuries.  Still, he played on to the age of 39, never earning more than $30,000 a year and never complaining about the burden of his father’s very mixed legacy.

Perhaps the saddest part of the story is that when Petey got his chance to appear in a big-league game (and got a hit), his father was not allowed to visit him in the clubhouse. Kennedy argues, without being very argumentative – or needing to be — that Rose’s punishment exceeds the crime.

Cobb, dethroned by Rose as Hit King, was suspected of betting on his own team and murdering a man but was one of the first into Cooperstown.  No commissioner’s investigation on him, and that was in the reign of the towering Kennesaw Mountain who came down so hard on Shoeless Joe. 

When NFL star Paul Hornung bet on his team in the 1960s, he was suspended for just one season and later was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Not to say that what Rose did was harmless.  He could have overused his bullpen on days when he had a big bet on the Reds.  However, no evidence points to such manipulation.  “He went all out to win every game,” Kennedy insists, “even in spring training.”

Rose is the all-time leader in hits and games played, a National League and World Series MVP, All-Star at five positions.  He had three rings and a 44-game hitting streak at age 37.  And his Hall of Fame worthiness goes far beyond stats and rings.  Whether his plaque ever hangs in the Hall of Fame, he’s an American folk hero for his  resourcefulness — what he could do without speed or strength or youth.  He stole three bases in one inning when he was 39.

The proliferation of steroids in the past two decades, with none of the abusers ineligible for enshrinement, underlines the injustice done to Rose, though he too used impure substances – he admitted to amphetamines to help sustain his extraordinary energy level.

As is so often the case, punishment had more to do with the cover-up than the crime – the fact that Rose didn’t tell the truth about betting on baseball until he could make money with his autobiography.  Even then, he expressed little contrition.  

He didn’t think he did anything wrong.  He made baseball bets in his office in front of reporters covering the Reds (something Kennedy fails to note).   Such is the cozy relationship between ballwriters (I was one) and whatever team they’re traveling with.

If there’s criticism to be made of this generally well composed book it’s that the brisk linear narrative breaks down as word begins to dribble out about Rose’s gambling habits.  We don’t get a sense of drama and tension playing out over the 1989 season.  I was part of that media circus dogging Rose, touring his high school (with his many black-and-gray photos on the walls) and searching out a suburban Cincinnati bar where he made his bets.

Kennedy suggests Rose might have gotten off with a temporary suspension if he’d met one-on-one with investigator John Dowd, and then, with the evidence laid out before him, had confessed to betting on the Reds.  Commissioner Bart Giamatti, an unabashed fan of Rose, probably would have granted leniency.

But most unfortunately for Rose, he did not fess up, and Giamatti died at 51 of a heart attack on Sept. 1, 1989, eight days after issuing his decision to exile the fallen hero.

Kennedy describes the commissioner as “overweight and a chain-smoker and unhealthy in many ways, and no one could rightly say that the Rose investigation, even with the months of high stress, had been what killed Giamatti.”

But Giamatti’s close friend and his successor in office, Fay Vincent, blamed Rose for the heart attack and was his primary nemesis even before that happened.   In a meeting in Commissioner Peter Ueberroth’s office in the spring of 1989, it was the partially paralyzed Vincent, leaning on a cane, who badgered Rose about his gambling.

Vincent overheard Rose say, “That crippled guy asked all the questions.”  Later, Vincent said, “That was my first sense that there was a gap in Rose’s armament, that maybe he was not too bright.”

Vincent’s refusal to lift the ban – and his public opposition to the next commissioner, Bud Selig, considering it – may have been due to a grudge and his own life experience.

In a 2008 speech at Williams College, his alma mater, Vincent related how as an 18-year-old he responded to a dorm room lockdown prank by climbing out a window onto a ledge, from which he fell and suffered paralysis of his lower body.  He blamed only himself, not the pranksters.

He told the students “there’s a certain ruthless sense of honesty about life . . . that when you make a mistake, you pay.”

For Pete Rose, payment is eternally due.

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