Thursday, July 30, 2009

Baseball's Ultimate Hustler--Part 2

Last time I discussed the joys of being the biggest fan of baseball's most joyful player, Pete Rose. If only it were that simple. Sadly, the same internal forces which drove Rose to achieve more on the field than his natural talent would have suggested possible, also drove him in his personal life. So it is impossible to think about Rose without considering the dark side of his life and career.

Okay, let's talk about gambling, the addiction which led Rose to violate baseball's strictest rule, Rule 21 (d), which prohibits betting on games. Many people think this rule was put in by the first commissioner, Judge Landis, in the wake of the Black Sox scandal which got him his job. Surprisingly, Landis didn't get around to banning betting until 1927, after a little scandal involving something dubious that Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker did back in 1919 came to light. The rule had two parts: betting on games would merit a one-year suspension, but betting on your own team's game meant you'd be declared "permanently ineligible". A big sign with the text of the rule is posted at the entrance to every professional baseball clubhouse, and has been since Rose's playing days. You can't miss it. Rose saw it every day of his playing and managing career. It must have taken some powerful force to make him commit baseball's one unforgiveable sin, don't you think?

Pete Rose has apparently been addicted to gambling his whole life (is it a coincidence that Don Zimmer, who has also been called on the carpet for gambling--betting the horses--attended the same high school in Cincinnati as Rose?), and it was a problem while he was still with the Reds. I've heard (read) that he piled up six-figure gambling debts by the mid-70s and that it was the reason the Reds were willing to let him hit the road when he filed for free agency in 1978. A conditioning nut who would never have let alcohol or drugs hinder his on-field performance, Rose didn't recognize that his gambling was a sickness. It didn't do anything, he felt, but occupy his time, stimulate his competitive instincts, and provide an entertaining way to spend money.

But gambling is a sickness whose psychological origins are the same as those which fuel alcoholism and drug addiction. I lived a long time in Las Vegas and saw the pervasive overlaps among the three addictions. Many people were what we called "triple threats," afflicted by all three. I was even married to one of them. Of the three, gambling was the most difficult to detect and overcome, because of the absence of physical signs and the relative ease of covering up the evidence. But the cure was the same. I worked with one guy who went through it--three times. Giving up drugs came first and was the easiest for him; not only did his health improve right away, but he could save all that drug money and use it to fuel his gambling instead. Then came drinking, and that cure went smoothly, too. Gambling was the toughest for him to give up. It wasn't killing his body, it was merely sucking up his bankroll and his soul. Finally he went back to the rehab center and went through the whole program again of examining his life and his need to escape into addictive behavior. He got cured.

As far as I know, Pete Rose has never considered "taking the cure" for gambling because he still doesn't think he has a problem. He continues his lifelong obsession with playing the horses, and thinks that just because he now does it legally at race books in Las Vegas, that means it isn't a problem. It seems pretty clear in hindsight that in 1989, if he had met the charges of betting on baseball by saying, "yes, I bet on baseball. I have a sickness, an addiction that I'm going to get taken care," then going to a clinic and getting cured, his suspension might well have been lifted years ago and he might be a member of the Hall of Fame today. Might be. It is certain that he'd be a happier human being.

Instead, he took the addict's instinctive course of denial, lying, and avoidance. It cost him his job, his reputation, and his legacy. But those seemed less important to him than his freedom to continue his profligate lifestyle and hustle a living through card shows, talk shows, and the memorabilia racket. Forbidden to make a living in the only business where he had any true ability, he moved to Las Vegas, where he could bet legally and escape into his addiction. Las Vegas is like the French Foreign Legion. No matter what you've done elsewhere, you can go there, start over, and be accepted for whatever you want people to think you are.

By most accounts, Pete Rose has always been a jerk. He was always obsessed with money, declaring early in his career that he wanted to be "the first $100,000 singles hitter" (he was). He became addicted to base hits as a way to gain fame, providing the means to make more money to fuel that gambling habit. His habit of parading his stats before reporters made good copy, but often seemed like simple bragging, the overstated pride of a man who was essentially insecure (have I mentioned that insecurity and a lack of true identity is the root cause of addiction?). He didn't treat other people well, including his own family. Self-centered and self-serving, he became more and more preoccupied with the all-encompassing lure of gambling as the years continued. When you're that self-destructive, you can't do much good for anybody else.

So Rose discovered as his house of cards crashed down upon him in 1989. What I've heard is that he began welshing on bets--stiffing his bookies. A welsher is the lowest of the low in the gambling sub-culture, and someone got revenge by ratting on him to MLB. Facing the loss of his job because of betting, and facing the loss of his freedom with the threat of jail time for tax evasion (he did eventually serve time), he spent the summer engaged in legal maneuvering which resulted in his now-infamous deal with commissioner Bart Giamatti.

Did anybody think that Rose would sign the deal, accepting permanent eligibility, if he hadn't bet on baseball? Forget what Rose thought he was getting in the deal or what he thought he could do about getting the suspension rescinded (what part of "permanent" did his lawyers fail to make him understand?). Never mind that the deal stated that his agreement was not a confession that he had bet on baseball. The simple logic is that if MLB hadn't shoved the evidence in his face, he wouldn't have signed the deal. That's why, at the press conference announcing the deal, Giamatti couldn't help himself when asked whether he himself believed that Rose had bet on baseball. Of course. He had seen the evidence. He said yes. It took Rose 15 years to say yes, 15 years of lying that did nothing but cement his reputation as a selfish jerk.

It didn't take Bill Madden, who broke the story about Aaron's support for Rose's Hall of Fame candidacy over the weekend, to write another story saying that Bud Selig really has no intention of reinstating Rose. I've said all along that if Rose does get into the Hall of Fame, it won't be in his lifetime. There are a couple of other examples of men who incurred the displeasure of the people who run the major leagues, and who weren't elected to the Hall of Fame until after they died and couldn't enjoy the honor. I've felt that would be the case with Rose, if he ever did make it.

I still feel that way, and I think it's because Bart Giamatti died less than ten days after telling the world that, despite what the agreement said, Rose did bet on baseball. A combination of his own bad habits (like chain-smoking) and the stress of spending the whole summer battling Rose's lawyers contributed to his fatal heart attack. I'm convinced that his friends in baseball--most notably his two successors as commissioner, Fay Vincent and Selig--felt that, in essence, Rose killed Giamatti (or at the very least, that if Rose had admitted his guilt on Day 1 instead of fighting tooth and nail for his baseball life, Giamatti's life would have been prolonged). How can they let him get away with it? How can they let Rose be reinstated and enjoy the privileges of a good baseball citizen, when according to the nation's average life expectancy, Giamatti should still be around? How can they even create the possibility that Rose could bask in the glory of Hall of Fame election, symbolically dancing on Giamatti's grave?

They can't, and they won't. And Pete Rose has nobody to blame but himself. He headed down a dangerous path decades ago, and when he got the wake-up call 20 years ago, the bottoming-out revelation that steers so many addicts toward the cure, he ignored it. He arrogantly chose the path of denial, the defiance of the addict who still thinks he can get away with it. That's where he is today. I hope he isn't holding his breath as he searches for that loophole to slide through. Whatever Hank Aaron or anyone else might think about Rose's chances of getting in the Hall of Fame, I for one am betting against it in his lifetime and mine.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


Thanks so much for the accounts on Pete Rose. I've heard them from you firsthand before, but reading it in black and white puts it in perspective.

This is very interesting, because yesterday I read the cover story of the August 3rd edition of Time about George W. Bush's refusal to pardon Scooter Libby. Say what you will about it's accuracy; Bush; or this type of speculative, anonymous-source journalism, but Bud Selig would do well to read it.

The basic premise is that no one is above the law, and pardons are only for those who have suffered a miscarriage of justice. Any evidence of such a miscarriage is lost to Rose's refusal to renounce his lifestyle and make amends.

Before you even used the phrase, I was thinking to myself that this is baseball's one Unforgivable Sin. Let's not forget what's at stake here. It is Unforgivable because without it the integrity of the game is lost. If Rose (especially without renouncement) is pardoned, the power of the consequences of that Sin is forever broken, and with it the integrity of the game.

Rose's is a tragedy of Milton-esque proportions, but not one that nostalgia should forgive.

Thanks again.

Matt Mooney

PS. Aaron confuses me; I seem to remember him not wanting Rose in the HoF. Is this an about face? If so, any speculation as to why?