I went to Cincinnati, Ohio two weekends ago to see a baseball game. So did 42,431 others. That kind of turnout there is rather unusual. Yes, the high-flying Los Angeles Dodgers were in town to take on the Reds. But quality baseball alone has not been enticing enough to lure fans to Great American Ballpark. Since the team’s last World Series in 1990, the Reds have routinely been at the bottom of baseball in that measure, and attendance is down even further the last few years. In 2017, they sit thirteenth out of fifteen National League teams, averaging only a little over 23,000 a game. A Reds game these days is hardly the place to be seen. Besides, on this day, June 17, 2017, it was nearly 90 degrees. The Reds were mired in last place, coming off a string of dismal loses. Father’s Day was the next day. There were plenty of other places to be.
But Cincinnatians weren’t at the ballpark to see the Reds. They came to see Pete Rose. On this hot Saturday afternoon, the Reds revealed their new statue of Major League Baseball’s all-time leader in hits, captain of two Reds championship teams, and native Cincinnatian. Rose’s statue is cast in the heroic pose of sliding headfirst into second base. It is placed directly in front of the ballpark’s main gate so that the words “Great American” hover directly above it (though the stadium is nominally in recognition of an insurance company). Reds fans responded enthusiastically, completely, and uncomplicatedly in celebration of the local hero.
I came to the ballpark to see Pete Rose, too, although with entirely different emotions. To any baseball fan who has lived through the past twenty-five years, Rose (though he was banned from the sport in 1989) has been a constant presence and source of debate. After then-Commissioner Bart Giamatti declared Rose permanently ineligible for betting on baseball games while a player and a manager for the Reds, the Hall of Fame followed suit and refused admission to a man that based on ability alone was deserving. Rose never accepted the punishment, indeed never fully accepted the crime, and so he continued to push and push for vindication and absolution. Under that pretense, Pete Rose never really went away, which was actually pretty good business for the old grifter they called “Charlie Hustle.” For some, and those that ran Major League Baseball, Rose had violated the only inviolable rule. For most, though, Rose was one of the greatest hitters of all time, and come on, he was such a likeable guy, damnit.
I wrote about Pete Rose last year. At that time, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred had just announced he was declining to reverse Rose’s permanent ban. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s decision was not surprising. As the Dowd Report concluded in 1989, Rose bet extensively on games while a player and a manager for the Reds in the mid-1980s, including on games in which he was a participant. New records obtained by ESPN in 2015 just months after Rose applied for reinstatement proved that, despite his denials, Rose frequently bet on Reds games while playing for them and had extensive ties to organized crime as a result. What was startling, however, was Manfred’s revelation that Rose, after two decades of lobbying for reinstatement, had not made even the most modest correction to his behavior to warrant it. Commissioner Giamatti had required that Rose “reconfigure his life” as a starting point for that discussion. Yet, in his published decision, Manfred wrote that Rose lied to him about the contents of the ESPN report while admitting that “he has continued to bet on horseracing and professional sports, including baseball.” In a footnote, the Commissioner explained that “Rose initially denied betting on Baseball currently and only later in the interview did he ‘clarify’ his response to admit such betting.”
You can read more of Rose’s history in my previous article, but in case it isn’t clear from what I’ve written there or here, let me just state it plainly: Pete Rose is the worst kind of person. He is a liar. He is a criminal. He is utterly remorseless and without shame. Pete Rose has lived a privileged life and yet has spent twenty-five years telling anyone and everyone who will listen how aggrieved he is, while profiting handsomely for the effort. Also, Pete Rose is wildly popular.
When I wrote my first piece about Pete Rose, I focused on how our society elevates athletes by equating feats of strength with moral rectitude. Of course, when I wrote that, Donald Trump was not President of the United States, and did not appear likely to become so.
Now, I’m not so sure that’s the most incisive conclusion to draw from the adulation of a man like Rose. Certainly, we are more than willing to overlook the faults of our favorite players when we would never think to do the same for others in their shoes. But listen to the words of the local denizens, from Cincinnati’s statesmen to its impressionable youth. It’s not so much what Rose did as who he is. Rose is their guy; their kind of guy. “He was a great guy. Just a very normal guy. Down to earth,” said a native Cincinnatian turned Reds infielder named Scooter recalling his childhood interaction with Rose. “Do we love Pete Rose in Cincinnati?” asked Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley before answering his own question. “Yes, we do.” Or as the Hall of Fame Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman said in advance of the ceremony: “If he lived to be 1,000, he would be as popular on his 1,000 birthday as he was when he played.” You might even say he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and they would still love him.
Consider Rose’s interview with the Reds television announcers during the game on his statue day. Rose was in the broadcast booth for a puff-piece segment and began by telling Reds’ play-by-play man Thom Brennaman (Marty’s son), “Tommy, the only reason you play sports is to win.” I found this to be the disingenuous pomposity of a narcissist. Rose played to the bitter end to break Ty Cobb’s hit record long after he could contribute meaningfully to his team, built his post-career life on the premise that all that mattered was making the Hall of Fame, and, again, was banned from baseball precisely because he played not only to win but also to make money gambling. Besides, the Steinbrenner-ian ethic that winning is everything, even taken at face value, is objectionable. Then again, Rose isn’t my guy, and I’m not one of his. The Reds announcers ate it up. The segment ended with Brennaman breathlessly promising another half-inning of banter with Rose: “Stick around here,” Brennanman implored his viewers. “We’ve got the hit king.” They and their fellow citizens sat through a weekend of lies and self-aggrandizement with smiles and self-satisfaction.
Which is why I went to the ballpark with all the rest. I wanted to see the show. I wanted to see it with my own eyes. That despite everything we know about Pete Rose, he would still get a hero’s welcome.