When I was a kid I loved baseball. I played whenever I could. And when I wasn’t playing, I was practicing. Sometimes, when I couldn’t find anyone to throw a ball with, I’d go outside, throw the ball as high up as I could and practice running under it to catch it. When I wasn’t practicing, I was thinking about it, reading about it, watching it on television, or listening to it on the radio. I collected baseball cards and memorized the stats and trivia that were printed on the back. I read all kinds of books about baseball, including baseball encyclopedias. I studied the lives of the legends: Cobb, Wagner, Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Williams, and Mantle. To me, as a kid, the greats of the game of baseball were heroes, demigods even. And the greatest of these, the man I admired more than any other growing up, was Pete Rose.
“Charlie Hustle,” he was called. I emulated his crouching stance at the plate; when I would draw a walk, I would run to first base just like he did. I always wore Rose’s number on whatever team I played: 14. I loved the fact that I shared his birthday. In the mid-to-late 1970s my family lived in southern Michigan. The Detroit Tigers were my AL team (I actually got to see Mark “the Bird” Fydrich pitch the year he was a rookie sensation) but the Cincinnati Reds, because of Pete Rose, were my favorite team. This was in the days of the “Big Red Machine.” I reveled in the Reds’ Word Series victories in 1975 and 1976.
In 1979, when I was 11, my family moved to southern New Jersey. In an act that could only have been the result of divine intervention, Pete Rose went to the Philadelphia Phillies at virtually the same time. My new home was just 20 miles away from the city where Pete Rose would be playing! I quickly switched allegiances: the Phillies were my new favorite team. In 1980, the Phillies went to the World Series for the first time in 30 years. It was a great team full of stars and larger-than-life personalities: Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Steve Calrton, and Tug McGraw (country singer Tim’s dad). But Pete Rose was the heart and soul of the team—he brought a winning attitude and a competitive fire to a talented team that had failed in the playoffs in the late 70s.
My mom, who worked for a bank in Philly, was somehow able to score two tickets to Game 2. She gave them to me and my dad and one of the greatest memories of my childhood was born. I will never forget the energy produced by 70,000 fans jumping and screaming in unison when “Shake ‘n Bake” McBride singled home a run to tie the game in the 8th inning on the way to a Phillies victory. Pete Rose and the rest of the team played inspired baseball that night and throughout the series, beating the Kansas City Royals in 6 games. For the next few years, my dad sacrificed time and money to take me to 16 home games per year, so I could see my hero play. I watched as he broke one record after another and continued his chase to top Ty Cobb as the all-time leader in hits.
Even as I stopped playing baseball and began to pursue other interests, I still watched the game and followed my favorite player with an almost religious devotion. So when, three years after Rose retired, allegations surfaced that he had bet on baseball, I was aghast. Rose denied the allegations. I believed him. He agreed to a lifetime ban in a deal in which he later said he was snookered by Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti. I continued to stand by him. After all, it seemed like it was his word against some loser bookie’s. In a clash of credibility, I gave the benefit of the doubt to my hero. When Giamatti died an untimely death due to heart attack a week after issuing the lifetime ban, I thought perhaps the baseball gods were showing whose side they were on. A year later, Rose was convicted of tax evasion. A mistake that anyone could make, I thought. Why do they keep persecuting this poor man who did so much for the game of baseball, I wondered. In 1997, Rose applied for reinstatement. Commissioner Bud Selig simply never acted on the petition. A cowardly move if ever there was one, I thought.
Then, during the 1999
World Series, Rose was permitted on the field as they honored the
All-Century Team. He received a roaring ovation from the crowd. And
some pipsqueak sportscaster named Jim Gray thought it an occasion to
grill Rose over the gambling issue. Again, I was incensed at the way
Rose was being persecuted—by the media and by Major League Baseball.
That the all-time leader in hits, at-bats, and games played, a 18-time
All-Star at 5 different positions(!) could be excluded from the Hall of
Fame was, in my mind, ridiculous.
And then in 2004 Rose, in an effort to sell some books and make some money, finally admitted that he had been lying for 15 years. Yes, he had bet on baseball. Yes, he had bet on the team he was managing at the time, the Cincinnati Reds. Yes, the original Dowd report detailing his gambling activities was accurate.
I think in the back of my mind, I knew it all along. I just didn’t want to believe it. You see, it’s devastating to learn that the truth about something you had so much invested in is not what you had always thought it was. It’s hard to accept. It’s easier to turn a blind eye, to continue to have faith despite the evidence that is staring you in the face. It’s hard to admit to yourself and to others that you were wrong, that your faith was misplaced, that you made a mistake. The words of truth are hard and cut to the very center. But wrong I was. Pete Rose was not what I grew up thinking he was—oh, we was a great baseball player; nobody can ever take that away from the man—but my faith in him was misplaced. The truth about Pete Rose was more complicated than what I had believed as a child. I am glad that I am able to acknowledge that now, as painful as it was to admit. I am glad the truth is now known and I can accept it.