Pete Rose is inching closer to that apology that so many want from him. I bet, if you'll pardon the expression, he never gets there.
Baseball's all-time hits leader has admitted for the first time in a new book that he did indeed gamble on baseball when he was managing the Reds, which he'd denied ever since the allegations arose and he was banished from the game in 1989. And he told ABC's Charles Gibson in an interview that will air Thursday, "I bet on baseball in 1987 and 1988."
Pete Rose's claim that he never bet on baseball for the last 14 years has to be one of the great unbelieved lies of modern times, right up there with "I am not a crook," "There are no American infidels in Baghdad" and "Your call is very important to us."
And yet Rose has remained an immensely popular figure, given standing ovations on the rare occasions he's been allowed to appear at baseball events and coming out ahead in poll after poll asking fans whether he should be reinstated to the game and allowed into the Hall of Fame.
On Monday's ESPN special about Rose's admission, anchorman Bob Ley said the network's polls have consistently run 3-1 in favor of Rose's reinstatement over the years. As of 11:15 p.m. EST Monday, more than 34,000 people had voted in an unscientific poll on ESPN.com, and while 91 percent said they didn't believe Rose when he denied betting on games and 58 percent said they still don't believe his story now, 60 percent want him in the Hall of Fame "as soon as possible."
In 2002 I wrote that I'd forgiven Rose despite his lack of contrition, that any contrition after all this time would have rung hollow: "A Rose apology now would be nothing more than a statement that he's willing to say whatever he has to say to get back in."
That's exactly what seems to be happening with the publication of "My Prison Without Bars," Rose's latest autobiography, which should come with an author's note that reads, "Please disregard previous autobiography." In that one, "Pete Rose: My Story" in 1989, Rose denied betting on baseball.
The release of the book, written with Rick Hill, coincides with Tuesday's announcement of the Hall of Fame class of 2004. Rose has heard the loud and clear signals from Major League Baseball that he'll have to admit to betting on baseball before he can be readmitted, and the clock is ticking on his chance at being enshrined in the Hall of Fame. If reinstated, he'd be eligible on the writers' ballots only twice more, in December of '04 and '05. After that he'd have to be voted in by the Veterans Committee, which is known to be far more hostile to his candidacy than the writers are.
"This was an obstacle in the eyes of Major League Baseball," Reds broadcaster Chris Welsh, who was a pitcher on Rose's 1986 Reds, told MLB.com. "They were not about to do anything until Pete said, 'You guys were right; I bet on baseball.' Now it opens the door for the sympathy vote for Pete. That's going to be hard to muster after 14 years of being a liar, but it opens the door for Major League Baseball to act."
But judging from the book excerpt published in this week's Sports Illustrated and the released highlights from Rose's ABC interview, contrition is not a part of his admission. He seems to be saying he did it, but not that he's sorry. "During the times I gambled as a manager, I never took an unfair advantage," he writes. "I never bet more or less based on injuries or inside information. I never allowed my wagers to influence my baseball decisions. So in my mind, I wasn't corrupt."
There's no asking for forgiveness. There's no acknowledgment by Rose that his actions brought disgrace on himself, his team and the game he always says he loves so much. No apologizing for creating one of the ugliest, most divisive controversies in that game during a period when it was struggling with one public relations disaster after another (though none of those other than his own case were Rose's fault).
"People have to understand I wish this would have never happened," Rose said to Gibson, "but I can't change it. It's happened. And sitting here in my position, you're just looking for a second chance."
The message is: Hey, I did it, I'm admitting it, deal with it. Let's move on.
I wrote in '02, "We Americans love our flawed, tragic heroes, and if they won't redeem themselves, as the unrepentant Rose won't, we'll handle the redemption part for them." I still believe that. I think Rose's ploy is going to work. The American public that's still pretty fond of Rose in spite of everything will become impatient with commissioner Bud Selig if he takes too long reinstating Rose. "He said he was sorry," the public will say, even though he hasn't.
People hear what they want to hear, and people want to hear Rose apologize so they can get on with the business of his resurrection, the tearful moment on the dais at Cooperstown. It'll be great TV.
The question for Selig is going to become whether he wants to keep pushing Rose to apologize, or to "reconfigure his life" -- in the words of the late Bart Giamatti, the commissioner who banished Rose -- in the face of increasing fan pressure to reinstate him. The only real reason to reinstate Rose in the first place is to please the customers who want him reinstated. It defeats the purpose to antagonize them too much before pulling the trigger.
I think Rose should be reinstated because I'd like to see him in the Hall of Fame, which I think should be about performance on the field, not behavior off it or in retirement. I also think the death penalty for gambling, instituted when the game was in its corporate infancy and in danger of being ruined by gamblers, is far too harsh in an era in which gambling is above-board, legitimate, legal and, in some cases, actually run by the government. Fourteen years away from the game, plus some public service and perhaps a longer ban from managing, seems like plenty of punishment to me.
It's been argued, primarily by former commissioner Fay Vincent, Giamatti's successor, that if baseball reinstates Rose, it has to reinstate Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other Black Sox, and in fact everyone on the permanently ineligible list, since there's no logical argument for reinstating Rose and not the others. I agree with that. I think life plus 52 years, to use Shoeless Joe as an example, can hardly be considered too lenient a sentence for just about any crime.
Let 'em all back in, enshrine the best of them in Cooperstown, and put the whole story on their plaques, warts and all. I didn't need Pete Rose to admit the obvious fact that he bet on baseball for me to think he belonged in the Hall of Fame, and now that he's done that I don't need him to apologize. Which is a good thing, because Pete Rose is not the apologizing type.
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