Some Reflections on Pete Rose

From NOTES #116, October 20, 1995:

PONDERING PETE ROSE, 1995

I was living in Cleveland when Pete Rose torpedoed Ray Fosse, but I think I disliked the guy even before then. I certainly respected him when he was hustling hits. He was, in a way, the John Kruk of his day, a guy who looked like his role in baseball should be watching it from a recliner with a six-pack. But he squeezed out every scrap of talent and over-achieved magnificently, talking all about it all the way.

By 1989, Pete Rose was annoying, hanging on and fighting with Giamatti, the Commish baseball needed, too, too long. Then it was over and he was gone, but not really, because there was that tiny little problem of the Hall of Fame. A committee changes a rule, and suddenly Pete is put on Hold, but now there's a reason to let him back into baseball, for Cooperstown. It was a burning issue there for a while, when we had a Commish who could grant amnesty of a Reformed Pete. But so many events on the other side of The Strike seem smaller now.

I read "The Dowd Report," a 14-page article in Bill James' The Baseball Book 1990, which suggested that Rose gambled, all right, but perhaps not on baseball. He had surrounded himself with sleazy people, and it was their jaundiced testimony that had done Pete in. Innocent til proven guilty, and the agreement that Pete and Bart had signed neither confirmed nor denied his guilt. I was never a Pete Rose fan, as I said, but I tried to keep an open mind on the issue.

On the Hall of Fame question, I felt that Pete should be on the ballot. The Hall is for ballplayers, not saints, and look at the folks in there already. A few of them might even have bet on baseball, but that's another story. I want Pete in the Hall so he gets less attention, less than he gets by standing on the doorstep every year while others brush past. I want his plaque to be explicit, he's in for what he did between the lines, period.

After reading HUSTLE: The Myth, Life & Lies of Pete Rose by Michael Y. Sokolove, I have a few more conditions for Pete. No speeches on Induction Day. Inside the Hall, I want at least one empty showcase, which would contain nothing but a list of all the memorabilia Pete had to sell to support his gambling addiction, starting with the ball & bat linked with 4,192.

HUSTLE is so well-documented that it is hard to put it down and retain any shred of hope that Pete didn't bet on baseball. It's a disturbing book in a lot of ways. Pete had the problem a long time, and it's hard to believe the Reds' organization, if not the Commissioner's office, didn't know sooner. And had they or someone, a teammate, friend, relative, acted sooner to help Pete, 1989 might have never been necessary.

Roger Angell is quoted on the cover of HUSTLE (I have the paperback) calling the book "a first-class work of sound reporting and inescapable conclusions." In the back of my mind as I was reading it, was Angell's position on Pete & the Hall, which he must have formed after reading Sokolove. As I recall, Roger felt Rose should not be admitted to Cooperstown.

I certainly see why he could come to that conclusion. But I wonder if Angell, and everyone else who comes down on that side of the issue, would change their mind if Pete had been addicted to something besides gambling? To drugs or alcohol?

Rose seems to have been hooked on betting for many years, and into heavy denial all the while. Sokolove's book, its last words from 1990, questions if Rose really understands just what his problem is, even though he's admitted the gambling habit.

I'm not saying that because the gambling was an addiction, that controlled Pete, that that explains and somehow excuses all. It doesn't. But if the focus is on the addiction, the question about whether his betting was limited to horses, dogs and other sports -- stopping short of the one he knew best -- is not as important. It's like looking at an alcoholic and saying, Yeah, but does he drink Scotch? That's all I want to know.

Remove Rose from baseball, by all means, that's clear. But why confuse things with the "Well, did he bet on baseball or not?" debate, and dangle The Hall as some kind of carrot to keep Pete in line a few more years, anyway. Why not just say, "Look, Pete had a really serious addiction, and it screwed up his life, and he can't be in or near baseball ever again. On the other hand, for what he achieved as a player, when the addiction was not in control, Pete deserves to be recognized in the Hall."

* * * * * * *

Last issue, I wondered if Pete was baseball's Richard Nixon. Con men, surrounded with sleazy folks who mostly all went to jail, but somehow, never impeached, never proven guilty, just forced out, victims of the media, of personal vendettas. Nice guys, really, average guys who scratched and clawed their way up. Successful beyond anyone's predictions, pushed to the heights by their own stubbornness and narrow focus. Heroes shot down, kicked around, down but never quite out, always lurking, always ready for one more run, unsinkable, you know, not perfect, of course, but who is without flaw, who indeed?

Nixon, of course, is dead, although he still makes appearances on Imus in the Morning. But Pete Rose is still out there, and sooner or later baseball will have to deal with him, because he's just not going to go away. We hoped he'd hire a psychiatrist, but he instead hired a publicist. Uh oh.

 

 

IN SEARCH OF PETE ROSE

It is 1995, and the remaining baseball fans are still wary of the Powers That Be in MLB, and will never again under estimate the gap between the authorities and the players. It is 1995, and in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial, Americans will never again be surprised at how differently the same facts can be read by different people of good will. It is 1995, and there are dozens of other examples of events that have happened since Pete Rose was in the news, events which make us all skeptical that we will ever know "the truth" about things. The media wants to sell advertising and boost circulation, and if the truth gets in the way, ignore it, bury it. Politicians seem to habitually bend the truth to get elected or reelected or to cover their ... and so on.

For conspiracy buffs, the question about Pete Rose might be this: "Who framed him?" His sleazy friends, telling investigators what they wanted to hear, in exchange for reduced sentences? The Mafia, in retaliation for unpaid gambling debts (well, you can't break his legs or he'll never make the money he owes us)? Why not look into Giamatti's death, too -- he killed their golden goose.

To be honest, the "hard evidence" that Rose bet on baseball is a hell of a lot thinner than the evidence stacked against O.J.

On the other hand, there is a mountain of evidence that is not dependent on anybody's plea-bargained testimony, that paints Rose as a man with a serious gambling addiction, whose denials are as incredible as that mountain is high.

Since Watergate, we have been trained to ask, "What did they know and when did they know it?" In the Rose case, his gambling problem was apparently widely known by lots of people -- it is hard to believe word did not get to the Commissioner's Office long before Giamatti arrived -- and tolerated. By teammates, writers, friends. Lots of eyes were closed or turned away. Pete himself was blind to his situation. Why? Partly because it was Cooperstown shoo-in Pete Rose, who did so much for baseball, and partly because baseball hoped the problem would just go away. Control the damage, he'll retire.

But baseball was Rose's life, he would hang up the spikes -- long after he should have -- but he would not go away. And he will not because he cannot, any more than he can stop gambling, not without professional help and a support group.

It seems to me that Giamatti believed Rose bet on baseball, in the end, because the Dowd report, as thin on that point as it was, seemed more credible than Pete Rose himself -- who, at the time, denied even having a gambling problem. Giamatti, baseball, didn't want to believe it, we all wanted to believe just the opposite. But there was this bloody glove, see, and....

Once Giamatti faced off with Rose, of course, it was no longer just a question of looking at the evidence. The absolute authority of the Commissioner was now being challenged. Even before O.J., Rose's lawyers knew how to distract the jury -- the public -- from the main issue. Character aside (!), can all this evidence point to some other conclusion? In Rose's case, his lawyers believed Giamatti had formed an opinion, not just before hearing Pete's side, but all during Dowd's investigation. How could he then be a fair judge?

Had Pete Rose gone on trial before a jury of twelve peers -- as if Pete would ever concede that he had twelve peers! -- it would have been a media circus of Simpsonite proportions. We would have heard about womanizing instead of O.J.'s domestic violence, but also about the underworld of gambling, with its connections to the big money of steroids, greenies, cocaine and other drugs -- we'd learn as much about them as we do about DNA testing. And yes, we would learn about connections to the Mafia, or organized crime (as distinct from the dis-organized lower levels.) Small wonder Giamatti just said No to a trial or public hearing: make it all go away!

Pete Rose deserved to be banished from baseball -- long before Giamatti finally did it. Perhaps even before he hustled past Cobb. He deserved it even if he didn't bet on baseball.

On the other hand, Giamatti blew it when he went public with his belief that Rose bet on baseball, after signing an agreement with Rose that neither confirmed or denied his guilt on that point. Would we believe Judge Ito, if he had dismissed the jury early on, closed off the Simpson trial to the media, listened to all the evidence and arguments himself, and then announced his verdict to the public? Only if we trusted this guy to sort it all out and be fair. A judge's thing is justice; a Commissioner's thing, in Bart's day, was power. Absolutely.

Would we believe Bud Selig, if the Rose affair climaxed in 1995, instead of 1989? Hell, no. We'd be asking, "What's baseball got to hide, that it signed this settlement?"

In fact, James Reston, Jr, in Collision at Home Plate (1991), feels the agreement signed was partly to avoid having Giamatti take a witness stand (in Rose's suit against him, which was dropped as part of the deal.) Giamatti had done poorly in a deposition with Robert Stachler (June 29), and Stachler had threatened "a withering, frontal attack on the despotic institution of MLB in the next round in court" (Reston, pg 301). Giamatti had an image at stake, and so did baseball, and in those days, the Commissioner was baseball (as Selig can never be today).

 

Rose thought he'd be back in a year or so. Fay Vincent was thinking ten years (Reston, p 304). Rose was finally suspended for violating not Rule 21(d), betting on ball games, but 21(f), "other unspecified misconduct that was not in the best interests of baseball" (p 305). I wonder if causing a Strike that costs baseball a World Series and parts of two seasons would fit into that category? Hey, we can sue to get rid of Reinsdorf & Co. after all!

In Hustle, Sokolove skips over entirely the deposition of Giamatti by Stachler. Because Reston describes it in such detail, noting how poorly Giamatti did under questioning -- and how much more poorly he might do in court, where he couldn't chain-smoke -- the omission is striking. Could Sokolove be painting his story in such a way that Giamatti's canonization is not jeopardized? High office-holders are hard to get on the witness stand, and they do not always shine when they are finally dragged there (Ronald Reagan comes to mind; Nixon, of course, fled.) True, Giamatti's desire to protect the office of the Commissioner and his desire to rid baseball of Pete Rose were not identical desires, but how intertwined had they become?

Rose's house guest Paul Janszen was no Kato Kaelin, but he would have been just as much a "celebrity" had Rose v Giamatti gone to trial. Rose was himself in search of a fair, impartial hearing. That became his issue, not whether or not he bet on baseball. He knew the evidence on that point was thin, and it would come down to his word against those of his sleazy friends. In the wake of the O.J. affair, is it that hard to imagine Pete driving to court in a white Bronco, through streets of cheering fans? And is it that hard now to imagine the difficulty of a proving a sports hero to be guilty, without unimpeachable witnesses or videotapes of Pete handing a betting slip to a runner, zoom in, closeup on the baseball team with point spreads noted?

And in the courtroom of public opinion, would Giamatti and his academic language, full of obscure references and symbolism, be any match for Pete's earthy, slick, sound-bites?

The fact is that a Rose, in this case, is simply not a Rose. Pete Rose can be portrayed as a victim or as a sleaze himself. Giamatti can be portrayed as the Commissioner we wanted to see -- a beacon of hope and light, integrity and fairness, rescuing the Game from the excesses of its owners and players -- or as a man who had flaws himself, and became perhaps too defensive of the powers of his office (absolute power corrupts absolutely goes the Acton maxim), so that his objectivity about Rose dissolved.

Giamatti won the war of public relations in 1989, but the ordeal no doubt abbreviated his own life. Last I heard, Pete Rose was alive and well, and probably taking odds on his Cooperstown election. Hell, O.J.'s in the Hall, ain't he? Pete quips.

Back