Pete Rose never could get out of his ego’s way. It grew so big that it subsumed him whole, deluded him into thinking he could get away with baseball’s greatest sin by lying and lying some more and lying again after that, a quarter century of lies stacked on top of one another like Lego blocks. At some point, the tower grows big enough that the inevitability of its toppling makes the fall all the more spectacular.
Secrets live long lives in baseball, tucked into the nooks and crannies of a game that never forgets. Most of them expose themselves eventually, and it was just a matter of time until the world learned what it always figured: Rose bet on baseball as a player.
That’s the takeaway from an “Outside the Lines” report that unearthed an old journal of a Rose associate named Michael Bertolini, who scrawled Rose’s name next to bets over five months in 1986. The notebook, seized during a raid on Bertolini’s home in 1989, was long believed to be the smoking gun that would obliterate Rose’s contention that he never bet on baseball as a player, only as a manager.
Pete Rose sprints to first during a game in 1985, but he can't run from the mess he's made. (AP)
Whatever momentum Rose carried because of new commissioner Rob Manfred’s willingness to hear an appeal for reinstatement to the game from which he was banished now runs the risk of vanishing thanks to the latest revelation. This is not exactly fair, seeing as Rose is no guiltier of anything today than he was beforehand. He gambled while in baseball. Whether as a player or a manager, and whether it was always for the Cincinnati Reds, matters little. If Manfred truly was considering reinstating Rose before, the ties should have little bearing.
Even before the report, Manfred found himself in a confounding position with Rose. On one hand, baseball more than ever finds itself intertwined with gambling. Daily fantasy sports is a fancy way of saying “gambling,” and MLB this year partnered with DraftKings and regularly advertises it on game broadcasts and its website. At the same time, Rose’s ability to influence the game as a player or manager was palpable, and the games in which he didn’t bet were almost implicit signs to the alleged mobsters through whom he gambled that going against the Reds was the proper wager.Why Rose spent so long denying John Dowd’s damning report that led to his banishment – a lifetime ban to which Rose agreed – and has continued perpetuating the didn’t-bet-as-a-player lark remains one of the great mysteries of a complicated man. Part of it, almost certainly, is that Rose refused to believe he erred in any fashion. He still lives in Las Vegas, still signs merchandise for a living near a casino, still gleefully trolls baseball for his vocation. Never would Rose just take his medicine. Not when he saw himself the victim of a morality tale gone awry.
Were the National Baseball Hall of Fame not a bastion of false morality, with scoundrels and heathens enshrined but the all-time hit king banned, Rose’s legacy could be remedied easily. He belongs in the Hall based on his accomplishments and its place as the gatekeeper of baseball’s history. Rose has no place in the game itself, not even as a goodwill ambassador of this year’s All-Star Game, where baseball purports to show off its best and brightest. The loudest ovation will go to the man who signed his own death warrant, and there is something so very backward about that.
There’s a story people around baseball like to tell, one of a million about Rose’s 27 years in the game, one that may better encapsulate the hubris and fallibility than any. One year when he was managing the Reds, they went through an ugly late-season stretch in which they blew a division lead. After one game, the clubhouse manager poked his head into the locker room and told the players Rose wanted to talk. The players sat, the room silent as a monastery, awaiting inspiration from the mouth of their leader.
Rose walked in. He looked around the room. He didn’t speak for a minute. Finally, when he deigned to, he said something that would never escape the minds of multiple players who heard it.
“Guys, I really don’t know what the [expletive] to say,” Rose said. “I’m going to the Hall of Fame. You’d better figure it out before the season ends.”
That, right there, in 26 words, is Peter Edward Rose, Charlie Hustle, the Hit King, deluded to the end, lying to himself, lying to the world, tragic as baseball gets.