Pete Rose: 25 years in exile

Pete Rose

PETE ROSE LIVES PRECISELY 1.2 miles from the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, so it takes him just six minutes to drive to his de facto office in a mall music store attached to the hotel. The gap between his glorious past and his ignominious present is more challenging to navigate. Five decades ago, he built a reputation as a hardscrabble Cincinnati kid who would walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play ball. Now he's a 73-year-old baseball persona non grata who dresses in designer sweats and spends his days signing, smiling and schmoozing to make a living.

The items are pricey at "The Art of Music!" store where Rose wields a smile and a pen, but folks get an added-value dose of banter with their $399 signed jerseys and $199 bats. And if they're lucky and on the lookout here in Vegas, fans can interact with Pete at the breakfast table as well as the signing table. One morning during spring training, as Rose is immersed in a plate of egg whites, tomatoes and crispy bacon at a hotel restaurant, a waitress passes him a note from another diner. The hash brown grease on the paper doesn't obscure the sentiment:

Pete,
We're Cincy west-siders and we hope some day soon MLB wakes up [and] realizes how much you're needed in the sport! We appreciate all you've done.
Thanks!
2 Reds Fans

That's a common sentiment expressed by heartland folks who consider Rose a baseball hero and think he has done the requisite penance for his mistakes to warrant a second chance. Other observers are more conflicted and discern shades of black or very dark gray in his portrayal, along with shortcomings that can't be dismissed with yet another mea culpa. In January, former commissioner Fay Vincent opined in a Treasure Coast Newspapers editorial that Rose should be forever excluded from Cooperstown because he committed the "one capital crime" that is "well absorbed into the baseball DNA."

Rose understands he has built a very complicated legacy for himself.

"I'm one of those guys, when I'm gone, you can think about me in nine different ways," he says. "You can think about me getting all the hits. Or you can think about me going to prison or getting divorced or sliding headfirst or knocking catchers down. You can think of me being brash. Or you can think about me being the biggest winner in the history of sports. That's the best record I've got."

Rose played in 1,972 winning games from 1963 to 1986 -- still more than anyone else in professional sports. Yet most people think of him as the guy who got banned from baseball for misconduct related to gambling and who attained pariah status with the Hall of Fame. Inside the game, he's a toxic enough commodity that commissioner Bud Selig and Hall of Fame Chairwoman Jane Forbes Clark had to be fidgeting when Cincinnati native Barry Larkin paid homage to him during a brief Q&A session at the recent inductions in Cooperstown. When asked to name his favorite baseball memory, Larkin cited Rose's record-breaking 4,192nd hit to pass Ty Cobb.

The distinctions in the Pete Rose narrative are pronounced. There's the pedal-to-the-metal, Ray Fosse-slamming, Cobb-passing, Pete Jr.-hugging monument to hit collecting and winning, contrasted with the forlorn, post-1989 Pete who is perpetually banging on a locked door no one answers. That Rose spent five years in a federal prison camp for tax evasion in 1991, absorbed a grilling from Jim Gray in front of national television cameras at the All-Century celebration in Atlanta in 1999 and finally admitted to betting on baseball in a 2004 interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson after he swore up and down for 15 years that it had never happened.

Non-sports fans who watch TLC on cable might think of the Pete Rose who starred in the short-lived reality show "Hits & Mrs." Rose says he enjoyed that experience, but in true Pete style, he thinks viewers would have been better served if the plot had focused less on baseball and more on his fiancée Kiana Kim's breast reduction surgery.

Me? I'll always remember him as the first big league manager I ever covered. I was there when his descent into baseball oblivion began 2½ decades ago in Plant City, Florida, the winter strawberry capital of the world and, at the time, the spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds. The fall reached bottom 25 years ago this Sunday, on Aug. 24, 1989, when baseball banned him for life. The suspension was accompanied by an apology from Rose and a chance to apply for reinstatement in a year.

I WAS IN MY SECOND year as Reds beat writer for The Cincinnati Post that summer, and I was already well-acquainted with Pete's flair for attracting attention in colorful ways. The most indelible moment from the first season came on April 30, 1988, the night Pete got into an argument with umpire Dave Pallone and responded to an inadvertent scratch in the face with a body block that produced a 30-day suspension. Coins and batteries rained down from the stands, and radio broadcasters Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall were summoned to the commissioner's office and chastised for their role in inflaming the tension. I remember thinking, "I'll never see a crazier story than this."

The series of events the next spring quickly disabused me of that notion.

Shortly before the arrival of pitchers and catchers, Rose told the trainers, the clubbies and his coaching staff that he would be leaving camp in Plant City for a day or two. At the same time, general manager Murray Cook received a phone call from the commissioner's office with a strangely cryptic request.

"They said, 'We're calling Pete to New York for questioning. Don't tell anyone where he is,'" Cook recalls. "The team was reporting the next day, and I was supposed to tell the press that I don't know where Pete is? I always thought that was a bit humorous. As it turns out, by the time Pete got to New York, everybody knew where he was. The media was there en masse."

After four straight second-place finishes in the National League West, the Reds were a trendy preseason pick in 1989. But there were ominous signs as they tried to balance winning with small-market economic constraints. Outfielder Kal Daniels left camp in a contract dispute that was settled in the parking lot at the Plant City complex when owner Marge Schott flipped a coin to determine his financial fate. It came up tails, and Marge splurged to give Daniels $325,000 instead of $300,000.

Needless to say, the commissioner's office was not amused.

A few days earlier, that same parking lot was abuzz over a much bigger and far-reaching news development.

"You're in Plant City, and it's in the middle of nowhere," says reliever Kent Tekulve, who commuted from nearby Lakeland each day with Rick Mahler. "You usually had all the parking spaces in the world. But we drive in one morning, and it's filled with satellite trucks. We're like, 'What the hell is going on?' That was the first any of us had heard about the investigation or any of that stuff. It just came out of the blue."

The reports were clear that Rose, dressed in a shiny green suit, had met in New York with commissioner Peter Ueberroth, commissioner-elect A. Bartlett Giamatti, chief operating officer Ed Durso and Vincent, then the incoming deputy commissioner. But the details were sparse.

"One guy is leaving, and another guy is coming in," Rose told reporters upon his return. "They wanted to ask me my advice on a couple of things."

When asked about a New York Times report that he had been a betting partner in a $265,669.20 Pik Six payoff at a northern Kentucky racetrack, Rose denied gambling had been discussed at the meeting.

But the rumors gained momentum, and from the moment "Sports Illustrated" published a story in late March revealing Pete had bet on baseball, revelations began to come out regularly -- with bombshells and inflammatory rumblings emanating from outlets in and beyond Cincinnati.

One day, the Dayton Daily News reported Rose had sold the bat and ball he used when he passed Cobb on the career hit list. Another report said Pete had spent $100,000 a day betting on Thoroughbreds and had incurred nearly a half-million dollars in gambling debts when he left the Reds to play for the Phillies in 1978.

The mood around the team constantly shifted. On Opening Day at Riverfront Stadium, Paul O'Neill went 4-for-4, the Reds beat the Dodgers before a crowd of 55,385, and Rose received the loudest cheers from fans, many of whom carried signs on his behalf. "Free Pete," one said.

A week later, Rose vehemently denied he had a betting problem and said his association with Tommy Gioiosa, Paul Janszen and other friends with gambling ties and/or criminal records was limited strictly to lifting weights together at Gold's Gym.

"I keep hearing this bull about how I'm a chronic gambler or something," he said, seemingly incredulous.

Eventually, each day brought a grim, foreboding sameness for me and my fellow beat writers -- Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News and Michael Paolercio of the Cincinnati Enquirer -- as we juggled covering the team and chasing investigation-related news. ESPN and CNN weren't nearly as prominent on the landscape then, so most of the attention came from the three major over-the-air networks, which popped in sporadically to follow Rose. Anticipation of a tipping point in the coverage began ratcheting up after special counsel John Dowd submitted a 225-page report to Major League Baseball in May, and everyone tried to guess where it would lead.

"ABC must have shot miles and miles of B-roll that summer," says Jim Ferguson, the Reds' media relations director at the time. "They shot Pete walking down the tunnel to the interview room, walking to the hotel and pushing the elevator button, walking into the ballpark, walking to the bus, walking to the plane. Every day, they shot minutes and minutes of him walking to wherever he was going."

UNDER NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES, Pete was the gift that kept on giving for the media. When the Reds lost and players would mouth platitudes or find sanctuary in the trainers' room, he filled our notebooks with pithy observations and television sitcom references. He referred to O'Neill as "Jethro" for his likeness to Max Baer Jr.'s character in the "Beverly Hillbillies" and called Tom Browning "Otis" because of his facial resemblance to the town drunk on "The Andy Griffith Show." Rose also gave high-energy third baseman Chris Sabo the nickname "Spuds MacKenzie" for his likeness to the Budweiser celebrity bull terrier. The moniker was inevitably shortened to "Spuds."

Pete was handy with a malapropism, as well. "You're making a mountain out of a mole," he once admonished me. And in assessing Giamatti's suitability to judge him for his indiscretions, Pete observed, "All I want is an impractical decision-maker."

But the constant scrutiny and barrage of questions inevitably produced a change in Rose. He became more irritable and defensive as the days passed. In the spring, I wrote a column for the Post and opined that Rose had shown all sides during the crisis -- "at times innocent victim, at times feisty competitor, at times petty and baiting, at times almost desperate in his paranoia."

As beat writers, we were like his personal focus group. He would ramble and concoct explanations until he found one that sounded plausible, then he'd dust it off and repeat it for the national media hordes. As the explanations fermented in his brain, he would go from cautious to forthright to downright indignant if anyone questioned his version of events.

Pete kept an industrial-size vat of Rolaids on his desk to absorb all that stress, and the supply dwindled like the sand from Dorothy's hourglass. It bothered him that his son Pete Jr., who was playing in the minors, had to put up with fans waving dollar bills and harassing him from the stands, and it clearly surprised him when Gentleman's Quarterly quoted his daughter Fawn as calling him the "world's worst father."

Pete's response: "I'm a great father. I just bought my daughter a Mercedes Benz."

Twenty-five years later, over breakfast in Las Vegas, I ask him what he remembers most about that summer.

"The easiest part of my day," he says, "was managing the game."

THE PLAYERS, SURPRISINGLY, felt insulated from the worst of the attention, as Rose ceded much of the daily preparation to his coaching staff. Scott Breeden took care of the pitchers; Tony Perez dealt with the hitters; and Pete rarely if ever showed his face during pregame stretching or batting practice. He would emerge from the clubhouse and take a seat in the dugout right before the national anthem and would disappear down the runway after the final pitch.

With or without the manager's full attention, the Reds' season gradually unraveled. They were 35-24 and in first place on June 10, before they encountered an almost comical run of injuries and weird occurrences. On two occasions that summer, I woke up in hotel rooms in California to see the lamps rattling because of earthquakes. Perhaps it was a harbinger of the big one that wreaked havoc on the Bay Area during the 1989 World Series.

On July 5 in Philadelphia, O'Neill grew so frustrated with his inability to corral a base hit to right field that he kicked the ball back to first baseman Todd Benzinger. A few days later, Larkin, the team's best all-around player, blew out his right elbow while making a throw in the All-Star Game skills competition. Then pitcher Danny Jackson, who had challenged Orel Hershier for the 1988 Cy Young Award with 23 wins, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in late July. Benzinger and Eric Davis were the only players to appear in more than 120 games, and the Reds dropped 63 of their final 103 games and finished in fifth place.

Tekulve, who had signed with the Reds in spring training for the purpose of tutoring young relievers Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton, packed up his things and retired shortly after the All-Star break.

"I always joke with Barry Larkin that he's the guy who caused me to retire," Tekulve says. "I told him, 'Here I am, a 42-year-old sinkerball pitcher, and I'm out there one day, and I turn around, and Whitey Richardson is my shortstop. It's time for me to go home.'"

The rest of us were forced to endure. As the summer dragged on, Rose's attorneys pursued remedies through the legal system. A Cincinnati judge named Norbert Nadel gave Rose a temporary reprieve when he blocked a hearing at which Giamatti could have banned Rose from the game. But the escape hatches eventually closed for good, and Rose was finally forced to come to grips with reality. He accepted a lifetime ban on Aug. 23, and his lawyers and MLB drew up the paperwork.

Forever oblivious to appearances, Rose flew to Minneapolis that night to hawk memorabilia on the Cable Value Network. The next morning, he appeared at a news conference, apologized to fans and steadfastly denied he had bet on baseball. The interview room at Riverfront Stadium was so packed with reporters I had to watch the announcement from outside the front door. And still the wave of heat washed over me like a blast furnace.

Tommy Helms, Rose's close friend, bench coach and perpetual good soldier, took over as manager, and the Reds prepared to play out the string and recede from view. We were in the visiting clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh when the word came down that Giamatti, 51, had died of a heart attack a mere eight days after rendering his decision on Rose. That became another blot on Rose's legacy, of course. No one ever flat-out accused him of killing Giamatti, but it was easy to suspect the Rose-induced stress from the summer of 1989 gave Giamatti a push.

Rose, true to form, has responded to that implication with a flair for self-preservation that far outweighs diplomacy. He was angered in 1989 when Giamatti publicly expressed the belief he had bet on baseball. But no one expected Giamatti would die -- a stunning twist that heaped more pathos on a summer already chock-full of it.

"Who went through more stress than I did in 1989?" Rose told me in an interview in Cooperstown in 1998. "Bart Giamatti was one of the smartest guys around. But how smart could you be if you're 70 pounds overweight and smoke five packs of cigarettes a day? He was a walking time bomb."

MY ENCOUNTERS WITH PETE have been sporadic since the summer of '89. He briefly caught the golf bug the next spring, and I followed him for a round at the Walden Lake Golf & Country Club in Plant City. At one point, a fellow golfer took a swing, and the head of his driver disengaged from the shaft and sailed down the fairway before rolling to a stop 50 yards from the tee. "My luck must be changing," Pete cracked. "Last year, that thing would have flown off and hit me in the back of the neck."

Three years later, I caught up with him in Boca Raton, Florida, where he was hosting a radio show and promoting Hit King sports apparel, Ballpark Café Frozen Pizza and 4,256 Picante Sauce.

In recent years, writers have made a habit of dropping by Rose's annual July autograph sessions in Cooperstown for updates and entertainment value. In the summer of 2000, Rose engaged in a verbal sparring match with Hall of Fame great Bob Feller, a longtime antagonist who strongly believed Rose had no place in the baseball shrine.

"I'm tired of hearing about Pete Rose," Feller said that year. "He's history. Has he ever read what's posted in the clubhouse? If he can't read, he better get glasses."

Rose countered by calling Feller a hypocrite who gladly sat near him during an autograph show when the crowds were big and he could benefit financially.

"I have the rarest thing in the hobby -- an unsigned Bob Feller picture," Rose said.

At times, there have been signs of a thaw in his relationship with Bud Selig and occasional glimmers of hope for a comeback, but something has always happened to gum up the works. Nevertheless, Rose maintains he has never held any personal animus toward Selig for refusing to consider reinstating him.

"Bud's a good guy," Rose says. "I have nothing bad to say about Bud Selig. I defended him in that All-Star Game when [Joe] Torre and [Bob] Brenly ran out of pitchers. How would you like to be the commissioner, sitting in your hometown, and they're giving out the first Ted Williams award for Most Valuable Player, and all of a sudden the two managers come over and say, 'Mr. Commissioner, we've run out of pitchers. What are we going to do?' How did people blame him?"

It's only natural for anyone with an appreciation of baseball history to reflect on the past 25 years and what Rose has lost -- what we've all lost, really. No one enjoys talking baseball more than Pete does, and very few have a more genuine connection with the average sports fan. Rose's deceptions and lapses in judgment have deprived the game of a tailor-made ambassador.

As a baseball writer and Hall of Fame voter, I have no direct role in Rose's ultimate fate. Two years after Rose went on baseball's ineligible list in 1989, the Hall's board of directors decreed that players with that distinction could no longer appear on the ballot for induction. So even if the voters are inclined to forgive Rose, they've never been given an opportunity.

At this stage, it takes an active imagination to envision Rose ever making it to Cooperstown through the expansion era committee. The Dowd report produced evidence of betting from the 1985 and '86 seasons, when Rose was a player-manager, and Vincent has long maintained that Rose wagered on the game as a player. But Rose, to this day, contends that his baseball betting began in 1987, when his playing days were over and he needed an adrenaline rush that baseball no longer provided.

"I was always a competitive guy," Rose says. "I said, 'Well, I like these guys. They're like my sons, so let me bet on them.' I shouldn't have did it. But I did it, and it's history, and there's nothing you can do about it to change it."

If Rose is being inducted for his playing career and not his managerial exploits, is it possible to construct some sort of firewall that might permit him entrée to Cooperstown for his 4,256 hits and numerous other records? I've always thought that was a discussion worthy of debate, but it has never gained much traction.

On a personal scale, Rose sullied his name, betrayed friends and lived a lie for years before finally coming clean, yet his inherent likability has earned him forgiveness in some quarters. In the course of reporting this story, I spoke with several longtime Rose acquaintances to fill in gaps or provide a different perspective on the summer of 1989. As a rule, they view him through too complex a prism to brand him as a villain for eternity.

That list includes Larry Starr, the longtime Reds trainer who was with the team from the Big Red Machine days through Rose's demise. Starr watched Rose hit safely in 44 straight games, break Cobb's record amid incalculable pressure and play through more injuries than anyone ever knew. To this day, he maintains Rose is the best he's ever seen at blocking out real-world distractions in the name of competition.

"He was so amazing that way," Starr says. "As soon as he came in the locker room and went across the lines, it was all about baseball. I hope this doesn't come out in a condescending or derogatory way, but I think Pete was a pretty simple guy. He was a Western Hills [Cincinnati] guy who came from an environment where you're paid to do a job, and you just keep on going about it. I'm sure that's the way his dad approached things. Sure, he liked the cars and the other stuff. But the bottom line is, he was a baseball player. That's what I loved about him, really. There was no conflict or complication with him.

"People say, 'If Pete would have just admitted [to gambling] the first time he was asked, everything would have been OK.' But I still think they could have come down on him just as bad. And why would you expect Peter Edward Rose to give up like that, when he was probably being told by lawyers, 'We can fight this. We'll beat this'? I think, in a lot of ways, Pete's Charlie Hustle mentality hurt him in that case."

It was always about the action. Starr remembers the Reds' team bus pulling into New York for a series with the Mets and Pete hopping out so he could catch the last few races at Aqueduct.

"One time, he asks me, 'Who's your bookie?'" Starr says, laughing. "He said it the way somebody might ask you, 'Who's your dentist?'"

It apparently never occurred to Rose that some people don't have their own bookies or, more amazingly, don't even wager on sports.

Tekulve, who grew up in the Cincinnati suburbs rooting for the Big Red Machine teams and pitched for Rose at the end of a career that produced 184 saves and a World Series ring, speaks from the vantage point of a fellow ballplayer. It's a perspective tinged with admiration and bewilderment.

"The first thing any player thinks of is competition, and obviously, the man competed like crazy," Tekulve says. "As the saying goes -- and they say it way too many times about way too many guys -- Pete played the game the right way. He played it the way a professional is supposed to play it.

"But you go in from day one representing your team, yourself and your city. And because of the Black Sox scandal, baseball had clearer rules about what would happen to you if you gambled, as opposed to if you killed somebody. So every player had it beaten into them. As a fan, I'm disappointed in Pete. Here's this guy who played the game the right way, but he let me down, he let the Reds down and he let the city down. He let down everybody who was a fan of his. It was such a wasted opportunity for him to be the whole face of baseball."

THROUGH THE YEARS, Rose has tested the patience of Mike Schmidt, Joe Morgan and others who have tried to lobby MLB on his behalf and has done his best to make peace with those he alienated on his road to self-destruction. In the summer of '89, for example, Johnny Bench had the misfortune to go into Cooperstown with Carl Yastrzemski while his former teammate was dominating the news for all the wrong reasons. Rose believes the events of that summer produced a major strain in his relationship with Bench, until time helped heal the wounds.

"Once I took responsibility for what I did, it changed a lot of guys' minds," Rose says. "Johnny is a smart guy. He knows I [messed] up, but he's willing to give me the benefit of the doubt."

Bench, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has not been especially supportive when asked whether Rose should be Cooperstown-bound.

"I've been on three committees that have drawn up ways for Pete to get on the non-restricted list, and Pete's failed to do it every time," Bench said in a November 2012 public appearance in Pennsylvania. "The question always is: 'Do you believe Pete should be in the Hall of Fame?' And I ask, 'Do you have kids?' [If Rose is in,] you can tell them that there are no more rules.' We've all had to abide by rules."

Rose's Cooperstown exclusion goes well beyond the absence of a plaque in the Hall of Fame. He was always at home in the locker room, a place denied to him since '89, and some people close to him believe he is just as pained by the ostracism he feels during induction weekend. While the other baseball greats mingle in the dining areas, the golf course and the scenic back porch of The Otesaga Resort Hotel, with its postcard view of Otsego Lake, Pete is consigned each summer to card tables in memorabilia shops on Cooperstown's Main Street.

Selig, who has steadfastly sidestepped Rose-related questions through his tenure as commissioner, recently said the Reds will have some latitude to celebrate Rose when the All-Star Game takes place in Cincinnati next year. That's an encouraging crumb, but more enduring forms of recognition are elusive. Now that Rose is off the writers' ballot, would the expansion era committee ever deign to consider him? And would enough Hall of Famers be outraged by his induction that they would boycott the ceremony or walk off the stage in July?

Rose is still enough of a battler (or a master of self-delusion) to believe in best-case scenarios. Rob Manfred, who will succeed Selig as commissioner early next year, has a lot on his plate. But Manfred is not particularly burdened by history, as Selig is, and Rose clings to the hope that his case will get a fresh look.

In the spring and summer of 1989, Rose's son Tyler often scurried around the clubhouse and the manager's office as a 5-year-old mini-me with spiked hair. Now, Tyler is 29 years old, stands 6-foot-5 and helps out with Pete's autograph-signing enterprises. At the music store in Vegas, they're surrounded by artifacts from the past, such as a $15,550 framed collage of the "Rat Pack" and a $10,500 Paul McCartney Hofner bass guitar.

Amid the smiles and signatures, Rose is trapped in a bizarre time warp in which he seeks forgiveness and a trace of a wisp of a presence. But baseball studiously avoids him, and the anniversary of his ban amplifies how little has changed. Giamatti famously told Rose he needed to "reconfigure" his life. Twenty-five years later, Rose is still pleading his case and wondering aloud why he's the only person in the game who can't get a second chance. As jerseys, bats and balls go out the door, he'll always be pitching Pete Rose.

"If I can make the Hall of Fame, I'll be the happiest guy in the world," Rose says. "But I don't go to bed at night worrying about the Hall of Fame. I understand what it means and what it takes to get there, but I'm the one who [messed] up. Why should I get mad at Bart or Bud Selig?"

Baseball should give him a second chance, Rose contends, because he's an "attitude-changer" and a master of outreach -- those messy loose ends notwithstanding.

"The last thing in the world I'd do now is bet on baseball," he says. "I would be the cleanest guy in the world when it comes to that because of the scrutiny I would go through. You may think I'm crazy, but I think baseball is in a better place if I'm in it."

-- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 25086586. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 25086586.
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...