ST. PETERSBURG — For years, I vowed to avoid reading about Pete Rose. To my everlasting regret, I broke that promise this weekend.
Any Rose headline, good or bad, would make me turn the page. I did not want to read about his tax problems, I did not want to read about his futile Hall of Fame arguments, and I certainly did not want to read about a sex scandal that bizarrely emerged out of his long-running feud with a D.C. attorney.
You see, I was a Pete Rose fanatic when I was a kid. If you grew up in Tampa Bay in the 1970s, you had no major-league team to follow (Atlanta was a world away to a second grader at Blanton Elementary) and so I inexplicably bonded with Pete over a 1969 deckle-edged Topps baseball card.
There were years of my childhood spent keeping a journal of Pete’s batting average that I figured out on a daily basis with pencil and paper by reading the morning box score and doing long division.
I was disconsolate when his batting average dipped below .300 in 1974, was delirious when the Reds won the World Series in 1975-76 and was unabashedly an Expos fan for a few months as a college senior in 1984 when he refused to retire while still chasing Ty Cobb’s hit record.
My infatuation had waned by the late 1980s when I had the chance to cover Rose during spring training in Plant City when he was managing the Reds. By then, I knew he was a flawed man. He was crass and not particularly well-rounded, but was friendly and charming when he wanted to be.
Since the investigation into his gambling became public in 1989, the legacy and allure of Peter Edward Rose has been on a continuous downhill slope. We’ve learned that his personal assistant, who lived with him for years, was later convicted of dealing drugs. That same assistant would later say Rose instructed him to forge his name on thousands of memorabilia items and accused Rose of using a corked bat.
We’ve learned that Rose avoided paying taxes and was sentenced to five months in prison. We’ve learned he denied for years being the father of a child born in Tampa in 1978 although he later acknowledged paternity. And, of course, we learned he bet large sums of money on baseball games, denied the charges for years, then admitted his lies while selling his autobiography.
Somehow, I managed to make it through all of those revelations with my childhood memories preserved. They were tattered and distasteful, but still had a place in my heart.
Then, a few years ago, former Justice department official John Dowd, who led MLB’s investigation of Rose’s gambling, casually mentioned on a radio interview that his probe had uncovered evidence of Pete sleeping with underaged girls during his playing career.
In what might be the most idiotic move of his haphazard life, Rose sued Dowd for defamation. In response, Dowd offered a sworn statement from an unidentified woman who said she had a sexual relationship with Rose in the 1970s before she turned 16. Rose acknowledged the relationship in court documents but said he believed she was already 16, which was the age of consent in Ohio.
He was 34 in 1975, the year he said the affair began.
The lawsuit against Dowd was later dismissed after the two sides reached an agreement before Rose was set to be deposed.
As you might have guessed, that pretty much marked the end of any chance Rose had of returning to MLB’s good graces. He has stayed mostly on the periphery of the game since then, selling his name, likeness and autograph whenever he could.
Until, that is, this past weekend when the Phillies made the curious choice of inviting Rose, now 81, to take part in the celebration of the team’s 1980 World Series title. Then they made the even-more confounding choice of allowing Rose to get close to reporters.
When Alex Coffey, a female beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, asked Rose what he would say to people who questioned whether his presence sent the wrong message to women, he replied:
“No, I’m not here to talk about that. Sorry about that. It was 55 years ago, babe.”
Later, Rose’s handlers had him meet privately with Coffey. She said Rose seemed unsure about their second encounter and he asked if he offended her before saying, “will you forgive me if I sign 1,000 baseballs for you?”
You can imagine Rose has grown weary of defending his life for the past 33 years but you would also hope he would have taken the time to examine his own shortcomings.
Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
If he had been contrite, sincere and honest from the beginning, I am certain, by now, the world would have been ready to forgive Rose for gambling. And tax evasion. And consorting with drug dealers.
But he seems to approach self-reflection with the same hellbent style that marked his playing career.
For better, and often for worse, Pete Rose has always been a hustler.
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