Brunt: A ghost doomed to haunt the game

Pete Rose (Rob Burns/AP)

Sometimes, it’s just fine for ends to remain loose, for a bow to remain untied. Nothing wrong with a little ambiguity, since life is lived mostly in the grey.

It had seemed for a while that the Pete Rose story was headed for a neat, tidy and emotionally uplifting conclusion. A new baseball commissioner was in place, Rob Manfred, who wasn’t involved in the decision to suspend Rose for life for gambling. A page turned, a fresh chapter, and a forgiving public—all of the ingredients necessary for a grand reconciliation. With the All-Star Game coming to Cincinnati this summer, where Rose made his name and where he made his forced exit from the national pastime, there was a perfect stage. Unbar the doors to Cooperstown, embrace Charlie Hustle and return him to his rightful place in the baseball pantheon before it’s too late. There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house.

Great athletes are put on pedestals not just because of their freakish abilities, or because they won the genetic lottery, but because in the narrative that justifies all those hours spent watching kids’ games, there has to be something more. The word “character” is the great catch-all—it can mean dedication to training, or rising out of challenging personal circumstances, or scoring a Stanley Cup–winning goal on a broken leg, or flipping a ball to a kid in the stands, or being able to utter a convincing post-game quote. The bottom line is that it’s comforting to believe athletes succeed at least in part because they possess admirable human qualities.

The myth of Pete Rose, ballplayer, was wrought of that intangible stuff. Here was no superman, a relatively ordinary guy who seemed to have willed himself to more than 4,000 hits, who seemed so dedicated to the cause of winning ballgames that nothing else mattered. Running out every groundball to the max, breaking up every double play as though his life depended on it, plowing into a catcher and breaking his leg in a meaningless exhibition game because that run still meant something—we want players to care about the outcome of every game as much as the most dedicated fan does, and wasn’t that Pete? (Though Ray Fosse might have had a slightly different take…)

Then came the scandal that brought him down. Baseball is rather sensitive on the subject of gambling—see Black Sox, 1919—and unlike its decades-long “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on PEDs and amphetamines, it has enforced explicit rules against betting, which are posted on the wall of every clubhouse. Rose, while a manager, broke those rules, and then lied about it, and then attacked the Dowd Report, and then was caught in his lies, and then admitted them in a self-serving book, and then went off to a life in seedy exile, doing whatever he could to make a buck while barred from any direct association with MLB, and, of course, barred from the Hall of Fame ballot.

The truth is, he wasn’t and isn’t a particularly endearing figure. But we love redemption stories. It’s in our DNA. No matter what the level of righteous indignation, no matter how hurt and betrayed we feel, give us a little time, give us a sincere-ish apology, and bygones will be bygones, at least in the pretend universe of spectator sports.

And the truth is that, for fans who might have bet on the odd game themselves, Rose’s sins were more easily forgivable than those of Mark McGwire or Alex Rodriguez. It wasn’t cheating, per se. He didn’t throw games, as far as anyone knew. He didn’t bet against his own team—at least so he said. He wanted the Reds to win. Heck, he had money on them.

Now, thanks to some fine investigative work by the Outside the Lines team at ESPN, we know that Rose also placed bets with underworld figures on games he played in, something he had always vociferously denied even as he was coming clean about other accusations that he had previously claimed were untrue.

No chance he will be welcomed back now. No chance for a fairy-tale ending. Rose can return to his place in the window of that Las Vegas sports memorabilia store, signing for cash, a ghost who will haunt baseball from afar until he’s gone, and probably for some time after that.

A great ballplayer. An athlete with an impeccable work ethic. A guy who never quit. And a rule-breaker. And a degenerate gambler. And a liar.

Yes, all of those things at once.

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