There a great story in Kostya Kennedy’s new book, “Pete Rose: An American Dilemma” about the time the all-time hit king finally felt real sorrow, real remorse, for gambling on baseball. At a banquet held on the 25th anniversary of his record-setting 4,192nd hit, Rose looked upon a room that held former teammates, opposing players, executives, fans and friends, and began to break down.
“I disrespected baseball,” he said at one point, choking up. “I guarantee everyone in this room I will never disrespect you again.”
This happened on Sept. 11, 2010, when he was 69. Had it happened on the 10th anniversary, or even the 15th anniversary, Kennedy speculates, the dilemma addressed in the book might not even exist anymore. We are a forgiving country. But we are pretty particular about why and when it is offered.
You have to ask, and you have to ask nicely. You have to mean it, too, and convince us that you’re not the person now that you were then. We’ve forgiven Tonya Harding and we’ve forgiven Michael Vick, and we might even be in the process of forgiving Dennis Rodman. But ya gotta ask, and ya gotta ask nice.
Of all the miscalculations Rose has made on a bumpy road to perdition that now spans four decades, this lack of contrition was his greatest. I’ve sat across the table from the man a few times over my 32-year career and spoken to him on the phone a few others, and his argument never changed: He did a bad thing but not as bad as other people who got off easier; he paid his dues, did what baseball asked him to do, but he was still being punished.
He, not baseball, was the real victim.
Except that he was signing somewhere that day and he was signing somewhere tomorrow, and if you check PeteRose.com, you will find he is signing somewhere most every day of his life — and these days, often in Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the world.
Nothing wrong with that, but nothing victimizing about it, either. The truth now was the same truth in 1989. Rose’s ban from baseball and particularly its Hall of Fame has probably earned him hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. And if it means setting up a kiosk in a place, such as Las Vegas, that reminds us why he doesn’t have a plaque in Cooperstown, well he has said intermittently that he doesn’t care, or care anymore, or something that equates to that.
It is a bigger lie than any he has told. For much of his career, and especially as he chased and caught Ty Cobb with more than 600 hits from age 40 on, Rose was a journalist’s day off, reeling off stats about his place in the game during dugout interviews as if he were a website. Since those days, there is no side business, no other interests, nothing to describe Peter Edward Rose that does not include the word “baseball.”
At age 72, he is petrified into its core, Hall of Fame or not. As the curators of the Hall will remind you, he is well represented in the museum through bats, gloves, artifacts, historic annotations. Over the years, the lack of a plaque bearing his image has done the opposite of what might be hoped.
Casual baseball fans under age 30 are more likely to know of Rose’s ban than his hit total.
Ask some of them about whether he should be allowed in, and you’re likely to be met by apathy, either way. It’s a debate from another time, replaced by the steroid debate of this time, flooded with notorious villains, suspected ones and, the most disturbing aspect of it all, hidden ones.
Steroids messed with the game’s dimensions the same way teams do when they move their fences in or out, or tinker with the slope of their pitching mound. Gambling is the sports equivalent of insider trading, and we’ve all witnessed how seriously sovereignties deal with that. You go to prison. And you are not allowed back where you were before.
The baseball equivalent of that has already happened to Rose. He would have been in a uniform over these last 25 years, would have been one of the game’s flame-keepers. There would be stadiums named after him, many more children probably, too. A man of great respect.
It seems like punishment enough. A month short of his 73rd birthday, his sentence served via all this and countless autograph tables, his remorse finally genuine, Pete Rose should have his likeness placed on that wall.
If we truly are a forgiving lot.