Rose and Fall
Gotta hand it to Charlie Hustle. It’s 8:30 in the morning on an already-hot San Fernando Valley day at a city little league field, and Pete Rose is there — red shirt, red sweat pants, gold chain on his wrist — getting his hand shaken and back slapped by the fathers of the kids being dropped off for Pete Rose Baseball Camp.
He’s looking pretty good for his age, or as good as I hope to look at 70. He’s got a hefty gut, his famous bowl cut is long gone and what’s left is hidden under a cap, and his walking is a bit hobbled — two decades of barreling into catchers will do that to you — but he’s engaged and carrying a bat that he pretty clearly knows how to use.
He’s going to speak to the kids before they start four mornings of training, with a bunch of burly men who have been trotting around, placing buckets of balls, laying down chalk, warming up. They look like pro ballplayers, gone to seed in varying degress. Maybe they were in the farm league and never made the cut. Maybe they were in the bigs for a stint, replacing someone on the DL. Heck, maybe they spent their careers as journeymen, bounced around teams until they got pushed out by cheaper kids who could also hit .200. What happens to ball players then they’re not allowed to play ball anymore, and their name doesn’t make any sense in front of the words “Baseball Camp”?
It’s the fathers pressing up against Rose because maybe a third of the kids actually know who he is, or was. That’s the ratio for my boys: the 12-year-old is deeply immersed in his stats and history, the 11-year-old is aware of his stature but not the specifics, and the 9-year-old is just a fan of running and throwing and hitting things. They’re all here to improve how they play — a little baseball tune-up during the minor-league basketball season — but “here” exists because of Rose.
It’s easy to write Rose up as Greek tragedy, the hero done in by his own weaknesses. He’s a legend, one of the best to ever play the game: the most hits in history, the most at-bats, five-hundred games in five different positions, the MLB record for singles, the NL record for doubles — the man had two or three good careers packed into a single go-round.
But he’s not in the Hall of Fame, and may never be. His number isn’t retired by the team he spent most of his career with. He’s not allowed to officially attend MLB events without dispensation from the Commissioner. He’s a pariah, an outcast.
Pete Rose bet on baseball games, including those of his own team. He lied about it for fifteen years, and there’s still some question if he ever bet on the Reds to lose. He says no. But of course he would.
And so what to make of him? What to make of his legacy? I’ve always been a Rose hard-case. Ban him. He’s gone. He made his bed and it was in Vegas instead of Cooperstown. Maybe if he’d come clean when caught, you could make a case that he was in the thrall of an addiction, or foolish, or short-sighted. But he didn’t. Presented with the evidence, he lied, and kept lying, for a decade and a half. If baseball — all-American baseball — can’t even pretend to have integrity, then what hope is there for business, or politics, or the culture in general?
But watching a 70-year-old man with a slight limp walk over to a bunch of excited kids — each dressed up in a t-shirt with the word “ROSE” on the back and the number “14” beneath it — it’s hard not to think that he’s gotten a raw deal. If he didn’t bet against his own team, then he never had a reason to give less than one-hundred percent on the field. He broke rules, but he never cheated the game. How many steroidal monsters are going to waltz into the Hall of Fame — their bats powered by chemistry instead of true effort — while Pete Rose is locked out? How many cheaters — on-the-field, in-the-dirt cheaters — get to be immortalized in the Pantheon, while Pete Rose sits forlornly outside? And why? Why is that fair?
I don’t have a good answer to that question.
I’m eager to talk to my boys tonight, to see how the camp went. I want them to have fun. I want them to get better. And, yeah, I want them to brush up — just a little — against someone who was one of the very best at something they love. Whether they realize it now or not, they’re going to tell stories about the next four days, when they played baseball under the eye of Pete Rose. The 12-year-old wants to hit, and what he hears today will leave a deeper impression on him than anything I’ve ever said. The 11-year-old wants to be a catcher, and any little tidbit of advice is something he’ll carry around in every game he plays. The 9-year-old is going to love the idea of sliding head-first, because it will allow him to get dirty in an entirely new way.
And for these next four days, I don’t want Pete Rose to be the gambler, the tax-evader, the ex-con, the banned, shamed liar. I don’t want Pete Rose to be the Pete Rose that we all know exists, the dark half that has almost irrevocably eclipsed the — oh, yeah — baseball great.
For the next four days, I want him to be the hero, and just the hero. I want my boys to spend time with Charlie Hustle. They can learn — or more, understand — all that other crap later, in time. They’ll be let down by someone they admire, eventually. They’ll have their hearts broken. They’ll see the purity of something they love shamed. It will happen. They may even end up thinking all that about Rose.
Just not this week.