After self-righteously stonewalling for some 14 years, Pete Rose has confessed–sort of–to what everyone knew all along: He was guilty of betting on major-league-baseball games, including those played by a team he was managing. That was the same team, by the way, where he had made himself into a baseball legend. He was the player whose internal dynamo never ran down–Charlie Hustle. Rose came along in an era when players were increasingly insouciant and aloof and, because he ran everything out, including walks, he was considered a throwback. Fans who thought themselves purists, found that part of him irresistible.
He was not merely a natural; he was also boundlessly and passionately in love with the game and he didn’t care who knew it.
Everyone who plays in the big leagues does so through a kind of grace. There are men all over America who dreamed of playing in the bigs and were willing to work hard and slide headfirst to get there. But they didn’t have the gifts–couldn’t hit the big-league curve–so they never made it and they got to watch others play in what Kevin Costner calls–in Bull Durham, the best baseball movie ever–”the Show.” Like a lot of fans–millions probably–I always liked watching Rose because I thought that, by his hustle, he was honoring the game and acknowledging just how blessed he was. He could have had a career without ever sliding headfirst and running everything out, but he did it anyway. It was kind of a nod to the gods.
Rose was banished from baseball for doing what everyone in big-time sports knows you must not do–for gambling. He was, plainly, a compulsive gambler and when he was found out, he lied about it. For 14 years–including some jail time for tax beefs–Rose denied that he had ever bet on baseball games when he was managing the Cincinnati Reds. This, in spite of a bill of particulars that would have embarrassed even Bill Clinton into confessing.
In fact, in some ways, Rose resembles Clinton with his natural talent and love for what he does; his unwillingness to see or admit mistakes; his unconcern for supporters and friends who believe in him until the last lie. And his conviction that somehow, when all the dust settles, it is he who is the victim.
So Rose is on the television and in the bookstores this week, confessing that he did what everyone who looked at the evidence knew he’d done; the same way we all knew that the Monica stuff was true the minute Clinton denied it and hired a lawyer. In his mea sorta culpa (available at bookstores everywhere) Rose makes some surly comparisons between himself and a hypothetical player who is an alcoholic or junkie, implying that he got an unfair shake. It is an argument that will doubtless fly on Oprah.
Rose has come out with the book and the quasi-confession as part of a campaign to end his banishment from baseball. He would like to manage again and he wants, devoutly, to be in the Hall of Fame. I have no idea how it will turn out, on either count, but in a world ruled by Old Testament justice–which rules everything else in baseball–his exile would last forever.
Benedict Arnold was, arguably, the ablest general of the American Revolution and the decisive battle of the war–Saratoga–might have gone the other way without him. But this is not how those (increasingly few) school kids who know anything about American history remember him. His legend is as a traitor and properly so. He betrayed the cause and that trumps all prior acts. Specialists can study the whole man. For amateurs it is sufficient–and probably necessary–to remember Arnold for his crime.
Gambling is the great betrayal in baseball. Everyone who plays the game knows it. Rose argues that he never bet against the team he was managing and that ought to count for something. Well, there is no way of knowing for sure that he isn’t lying about that, the way he lied for the last 14 years about not betting on baseball. But even if he is telling the whole truth now, so what? He is still guilty.
To deny Rose admission to the Hall of Fame is to give him the immortality he seems to crave and, in truth, that he deserves. He will be known forever as the greatest player not to be enshrined in Cooperstown. One might even feel a little compassion for Rose if he should say, yes, he understood this and then took it like a man and the ballplayer he once was.
–Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.