He leaves the stage still kidding himself, still believing he is somehow above the game, which, let’s face it, is what got him thrown out in the first place. “I never bet on baseball,” Pete Rose insisted again Thursday morning, the day he was banned for life apparently for exactly that.
And thus ends the most excruciating sports story of the year. Not with a final thud of justice, but with the whoosh of verbal swords. “He did it,” says Bart Giammati, the commissioner of baseball. “No I didn’t,” says Rose.
“Good-bye,” says the commissioner. “I’ll be back,” says Rose.
In the final tally, all the words don’t matter. Rose, the former star player and manager of the Cincinnati Reds, is out of the game, as of now, for life — the result of charges that he bet on games involving his own team. He can apply for reinstatement in a year, but Giamatti is under no obligation to take him back. Not next year. Not the year after. He can say “See ya, Pete” from now until Seattle wins a World Series.
And so this morning, we are left wondering if anyone is the better for this mess. There is no joy in expelling Rose from the only place he seemed to live an admirable life, the playing field, where he became baseball’s all-time leading hitter. Yet there is no sympathy for a man who thinks the world is a little white ball that will always get him out of trouble.
“Do you feel you’ll be reinstated?” he was asked?
“Oh, absolutely,” he said.
And sad. Arrogance personified
And typical. For Rose has been, over the years, almost astonishing in his arrogance. His celebrated 44-game hitting streak came while he was being slapped with a paternity suit and seeing his first marriage crumble. His daughter, Fawn, once called him “the worst father in the world,” to which he responded: “I’m a great father. I just gave her a Mercedes.”
During a hearing in late June on these same gambling charges, Pete was far away, in Atlantic City, signing autographs for $15 a pop. And Wednesday night, when this story broke, Rose was appearing, believe it or not, on cable TV, one of those insipid home-shopping programs, chatting with callers as if nothing had happened.
Baseball has always been his cleansing rinse. His three World Series rings. His 24 years in the majors. On Tuesday, his current wife gave birth to a daughter. On Thursday, Rose answered a question about his reinstatement by saying, “I’ve never looked forward so much to a birthday as I will to my daughter’s birthday next year, because it means two days later I can apply for reinstatement.”
Even children, it seems, are no more than time markers for Rose’s schedule of getting what he wants.
We all knew that about Rose. We also knew he was guilty of something. He confessed in the now-celebrated report by investigator John Dowd that he bet on other sports, that he dealt with bookies. Technically, that was enough to boil the water.
But the baseball thing. That he denied, over and over, despite the nine witnesses, despite the slips with his fingerprints on them, despite the handwriting analysis that said those slips, Reds games, were signed by him. Rose said nuh-uh, and went on with his job, managing the skidding Reds and pretending, as he has done his whole life, that baseball would throw him a rope.
His lawyers, however, were scrambling. In April, they called Giamatti’s office. They wanted a deal, one of those insulting verdicts where the guilty does a charitable act (i.e. gives money, talks to schoolkids) and all is forgiven. The commissioner said forget it.
They came back, a few months later, willing to swallow expulsion in exchange for a document that said Rose never bet on baseball. Giammati waved his report full of evidence and said no way. That would be lying.
And so, in the end, the Rose army laid down its arms for a handful of words, some verbal mumbo-jumbo that Rose seems to interpret one way (“I’ll definitely be reinstated”) and the rest of the world seems to interpret the other. Yes, it’s true the signed papers do not formally say Rose gambled on baseball, but only because there was no hearing, no box score.
Make no mistake: Giamatti, the King of this court, said plain and simple he believes Rose did gamble, on Reds games, as a player. How ironic that the verbose Yale scholar has the cold hard facts, while Rose — a man best suited to physical force, sliding head first, breaking up a double play — is reduced to scrambling for words he can wave at people years from now. “Look. Nobody found me officially guilty of nuthin’.”
Who believes him anymore? He has the sound of a liar, the look of a liar, he lets his lawyers step in front of him whenever the question gets tricky — such as Thursday, when someone asked, with astonishing clarity: “If you didn’t do anything, why are you accepting this punishment?”
Rose looked at his attorneys.
They stepped to the microphone.
Now, whom do you believe? A question of rules
OK. You might find the lifetime ban too harsh a sentence. What about all the cocaine heads who are given countless chances to rehabilitate? What about the alcoholics who surface over and over? What about the Steve Howes and the Dwight Goodens and the Willie Wilsons? Why is Rose more guilty?
Well. It is not a question of guilt. It is a question of rules. Historically, baseball, for all its off-field trouble, has shuddered deepest at gambling. The Black Sox scandal of 1919 nearly destroyed the game. As a result, first Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis permanently banned the eight players involved, and later wrote the very rule that Giamatti cited Thursday. Anyone gambling on the sport shall be banished for one year. Anyone gambling on his own team shall be banished for life.
“I am simply citing the rules,” Giamatti said more than once Thursday.
“This whole episode has been about whether or not you live by the rules.”
Rose knew what he was doing. Thus the man who used to count the days until spring training, who used to tell people he was born in 1941, “the year of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak” — will have new numbers to count. And a far more difficult task ahead of him. The burden is now on Rose to prove to baseball that he is a different guy, a reformed man, and that could take forever. The ink was not dry on the papers before he took the first step in the wrong direction.
“Do you have a gambling problem?”‘ he was asked.
“I don’t have a gambling problem,”‘ he said. “And consequently, I don’t plan on seeking any help for it.”
Does that sound like a man who wants to rehabilitate? Continued profit
And, quite frankly, he doesn’t have to. Even if he never gets back in the game, Rose can continue to profit from it. There’s Japan. There’s the trade-show, talk-show, lecture circuit.
And then there’s “his” side of the story, the inevitable book, and you can figure a million-dollar advance for that baby. Considering he was making just
$500,000 a year as an active manager, that’s not a bad wage for purgatory.
The word out of Cincinnati is that, before Rose would accept this settlement, he had to be assured he would receive his 1990 salary. This was just a few days ago. Even to the end, he was figuring the risk and the payback. He liked the odds. He took the deal.
In years to come, when the anger over his sins subsides, there will be homage paid to the marvelous energy with which Rose attacked baseball: his cloud-of-dust slides, his “I-dare- you” glares at a pitcher. “The way he played the game,” the sympathetic will sigh. But you know what? Any boy can play a game. You have to be a man to face yourself.
Try swinging at that one, Pete.