Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On the Curious Case of Pete Rose

For some reason, I don't remember the day that Pete Rose was banned from baseball. I don't remember where I was, and I don't remember what I was doing, and I don't remember how I felt about it. Maybe that's because the argument has carried on for so long that it no longer seems like it ever didn't exist; it has become the Great Running Sports Debate of the past two decades. Your opinion of Pete Rose is now indicative of your politics, of your upbringing, of your tastes, of your viewpoint on the entire direction of modern society. It is, as former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent admits in this excellent "Outside the Lines" piece on the 20th anniversary of the Rose decision, about something far bigger than Pete Rose; it is essentially a parable, a deterrent, a running commentary on the consequences of gambling in sports. And I guess this could be a valid viewpoint (I do recognize that gambling in sports is perhaps the worst transgression imaginable), even though I disagree completely, even though I find it sort of haughty and naive to imagine that the spectre of Pete Rose's banishment could possibly serve as a deterrent any more than handing out copies of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song to members of the Crips could stem gang violence.

At this point, unless I'm missing something, it seems obvious what's happening here. Rose has become such an iconic outsider that he engenders more and more sympathy as the years pass; a recent USA Today poll found that an overwhelming number of people found Rose's crimes to be far less severe than those of the Steroid Generation, proving that there are still inherent advantages to martyrdom. In the OTL piece, Rose's former teammate, Joe Morgan, says that Rose's greatest strength, his willingness to keep on fighting, is actually working against him. That may be true, but at some point, I think it became irrelevant whether Rose actually gets back into baseball, or gets into the Hall of Fame. At some point, this whole thing clearly became about the fight itself.

The Fight has become the new definition of Pete Rose; it's become his identity in the latter half of his life, and it's reinforced the identity he established as a baseball player, as a willfull overachiever who never gives in, as the kind of man who would trample over a catcher in an All-Star game if it served his own singleminded purpose. If anything, admission into the Hall would defuse Pete Rose's entire persona, which may be the best reason, at this point, for Bud Selig to just let him in. It would render Rose into an ordinary human being. All the reasons for his defiance would wither away, and Rose would finally appear the way he should have from the start: As a great figure in the history of baseball, and an extremely small man.

(Also, it should be noted: This book will no doubt give far more insight into Rose's psyche, then and now.)


jweb271 said...

Your metaphor betrays you I think. The obvious implication is that the Crips would not read the book, that the mere act of handing it out would be stupid. And you're probably right. But if they did read it, they would change. Maybe they wouldn't drop their guns and hug, but their worldview would be affected.

Meanwhile, everyone has "read" the Rose story. And it influences an athletes worldview, obviously.

You are using the word deterrent as if it must be absolute or it holds no value. Human nature makes that impossible. But a deterring effect has influence. And if everyone read Executioners Song that would have a deterring effect.

Michael Weinreb said...


You are correct--that is probably not an apt metaphor, the more I think about it, especially since I have never actually read the entirety of the Executioners Song myself (perhaps it would lead me to regret all those drive-bys in my youth). However, I still disagree with your fundamental point--I just don't see how the Rose story still influences an athlete's worldview after two decades. But then I've had the same argument (often with myself) about the Len Bias story.