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Pete Rose, Cincinnati Antihero

By Capital Frontiers

Of all the colorful figures in the history of baseball, few are as complicated as Pete Rose.

On the one hand, there’s his mop of brown hair, the unforgettable ‘do jestreaming behind him, flopping back in his face as he careens into third, with his helmet rolling 40 feet behind him. That image, now embodied in a statue outside Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, is the one that first enraptured fans to Pete Rose 60 years ago and the Pete Rose many Cincinnati fans would like to remember: Pete as a kind of patron saint for the Reds, as a hard-charging a player with a workmanlike style, a player whose everyman spirit encapsulates the spirit of a city of paper plates and backyard church festivals. To many, Pete is Mr. Relatable, and to this day might be the most entertaining living radio ambassador for baseball.

The black marks of Pete Rose and his ethical transgressions are an entirely different color. Topping the list are the allegations he slept with underage girls while playing for the Reds in the 1970s. The smoke gathered by John Dowd in his famous 1989 investigation that Pete gambled away his salary many times over on sport after sport, including baseball while he was both playing and managing, got him banned from the game. There are the allegations that Pete stiffed his bookies and hung out to dry those he’d seduced using his fame into insincere and self-advantageous friendships, many to whom he’s never publicly apologized. There’s the conviction for tax fraud that sent him to federal prison for five months in 1991. And of course his legacy of flip-flopping denials of impropriety into admissions of guilt only when cornered. In 1989 Pete had never gambled on horses, in 1998 Pete had never gambled on baseball, and then in 2004 he’d gambled on both, all in his own defiant words. There’s his refusal to face down his own history of addiction to gambling, which could perhaps benefit others, and his enduring claims that he never had a problem. And of course, his long and winding road of whiny and self-indulgent interviews regarding the Baseball Hall of Fame. Altogether, a picture of transgressions sordid, pathetic, and unenviable.

Perhaps no player who has ever lived embodied the kind of effort on the field, enthusiasm for the game, and hardworking commitment to overcoming his own physical limitations that any parent would want to see their own children emulate. And yet to hold Pete up as a role model to one’s kids would be a dereliction of parental duty for an obvious host of reasons that even the most die-hard of Pete’s defenders would struggle to repudiate.

Pete’s legacy on the field, even, is more complicated than most fans realize. On the one hand he’s a larger-than-life figure of legendary statistics: the longest playing career in history, a career .300+ batting average, the all-time hits record, and a “heart and soul” barometer reading blaring tales of his team leadership toward six World Series appearances amid Hall of Fame rosters. And yet on the other his career OPS+ of a mere 118 struggles to scratch the surface of Hall of Fame-worthy numbers (many would be surprised to learn this), while his legacy of longevity also bears the dubious distinction of the all-time outs record, set years before he set the all-time hits record. Per the statistics, after a sensational career in the 1970s Pete was a below-replacement quality player across nearly all of the nine years he played in the 1980s.

So what’s the deal with Pete Rose? It’s a silly question on one hand. What’s the deal with anybody? But with Pete it’s more acute. Now more than 30 years removed from his banishment from baseball, Pete continues to inspire debate. At the forefront of the debate is the enduring question of whether baseball, the institution, should one day reconsider and grant Pete the ability to be considered for the Hall of Fame. But more metaphysically are the questions around what Pete does, and should, mean, to the world at large, both to baseball as a game and to the city of Cincinnati, where despite a bevy of other famous figures no athlete in its history is more embedded with the city’s existential spirit.

I have a unique perspective on Pete, in part because of my fixation on baseball, cities, and statistics, but also because I’m a native Cincinnatian. Unlike those who made the rounds relentlessly defending Pete amid the allegations against him in 1989, many of their sentiments fascinatingly documented at the time in local news footage then-anchored by former Cincinnati mayor Jerry Springer, most of Pete’s most egregious gambling and womanizing transgressions had already occurred by the time I was born. My memories of the Reds were more those of Larkin and Griffey, not those of Pete and the Big Red Machine. Thus it’s always been a bit of an enigmatic mystery to me trying to piece together exactly how, and why, Cincinnati continues to feel such fondness for him.

On many instances growing up I felt that fondness acutely. I remember vividly in 2002 when former Reds pitcher Tom Browning spray-painted a red “14” into the pitchers’ mound during postgame festivities after the final game at Cinergy Field/Riverfront Stadium, in doing so providing a moment of cathartic rebellion for a Reds fandom angry that Pete had been banned from participating in the celebratory gathering. It was hard not to feel not only longing, but anger, alongside fans who felt deprived by paper-pushers in a moment of great emotion of the presence of a hero they clearly still beloved. What harm, in that moment, could it do? “Let Pete in”, they chanted.

To watch Pete play baseball, a native Cincinnatian playing it out for his hometown, clearly lacking in raw talent but deftly focused on the task at hand, lace a looping hit into the gap, to watch him barrel around the bases, stretching an easy double into an aggressive triple, is sensory bliss and the existential essence of the Big Red Machine. For a provincial city where underdog effort and loyalty are among the most defining of civic values, watching Pete Rose may be the quintessential encapsulation of the city.

Unfortunately, however, for me the bliss of watching Pete Rose will always be akin to watching someone else’s romance. Without the personal ties to Pete’s time on the Big Red Machine, that momentary pleasure invariably ends for me in a quick recoil. Consequently, this piece can’t just slather poetic wax. At the end of the day, the overwhelming body of evidence on net is that Pete is a bad guy. He’s an overrated player. His moral failings are too great. His values are incomplete. And Cincinnati has better icons. And I suppose that’s the point here: for Cincinnati Pete Rose is a sort of seductive liqueur. It tastes good, but an addiction to this drink leads to an embarrassing drunkenness that precludes the sobriety demanded from life’s fuller pursuits. Such is the downside of a provincial city bathed in its own rich culture. Cincinnati’s civic culture is as rich and complex as a bath in the city’s signature chili – deep, rich, and faintly chocolatey. But caught up in its own essence, in the 1800s Cincinnati languished in the canals that had made it a good city while Chicago fearlessly rode railroads into a future that made it a great one. Cincinnati’s always danced too long with the antiheroes it would be better off forgetting.

I don’t need to spend this piece regaling readers with the many tales of turpitudes that derailed Pete’s life, though I do wonder whether many of Pete’s most ardent supporters have fully read the accounts about him. It’s a bit of a case of “get with the program”. The gambling case against Pete Rose is rock solid, so rock solid that Pete himself, after finally being cornered, has one by one admitted to nearly every core aspect of the initial case against him. The trail of evidence on the other transgressions is strong too.

It’s a shame that Commissioner Giamatti, who originally banned Pete from the game, died just days after banishing him. Pete said Bart was like a third father to him, after his own father and Sparky Anderson. High praise for the guy who banished him from the only game he’d ever loved. The footprints tell us there was likely a gentlemen’s agreement between the two that if Pete got his act together, showed some contrition and made himself into a more inspiring person that there might be a Prodigal Son redemption story in it for him. Either that or Pete was just receiving bad counsel from his lawyer to voluntarily accept a lifetime ban with the only out an unlikely reapplication process.

Do we really believe that Pete has reformed to the degree he should be held up as a noble story of personal redemption? Over the years Pete’s gradually shifted from indignance to stated admissions, but I don’t see any Prodigal Son story there. Rather than admit his wrongdoings fully and commit himself to some greater calling, Pete’s admitted his transgressions kicking and screaming, step by step, coming clean only about what he absolutely had to at the very last possible moment where no other option would suffice. The evidence suggests to this day he still hasn’t admitted the full story.

And to this day, with Pete there’s always some nugget he’s gotta hang onto. I’ve watched him respond to reporters asking about his “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in unpaid income taxes by berating them that it was "actually only $162,000". I’ve watched him try to justify away his gambling on baseball by explaining he only bet “for” the Reds and not against them. And in response to allegations by John Dowd on the radio that Pete likely had slept with underage girls in the 1970s, Rose sued Dowd for defamation on the grounds the account was false because he believed the girl had actually been 16 at the time, the bare minimum legal age of consent in Ohio, even though he was in his 30s. For 30 years Pete has ferociously defended his honor, but usually, it seems, on the grounds of technicalities. Despite his protestations, Pete, it seems, has never taken ownership of the bigger picture.

To this day Pete makes his living selling and signing memorabilia from his playing days. While it’s certainly up to him how to live his life, it’s eye-raising he’s never figured out another path for where to take his life next. To this day he claims he gambles on sports. One would think he’d have considered reforming his life choices. Pete is entertaining and easy listening when it comes to his takes on baseball, but he’s not an intellectual and you’ll rarely hear him talk about anything other than the sport. His commitment is enviable, but he’s not a renaissance man. What’s one to make of that?

You don’t have to become an MIT scientist to broaden one’s horizons more than Pete Rose, and you don’t have to become Mother Teresa overnight to outpace Pete’s kicking-and-screaming contentions he’s morally reformed his life. Mantle’s deathbed conversion to Christianity out of guilt for his lifetime shortcomings as a father makes me well up every time I hear about it. And Jim Tressel’s pivot from tarnished football coach to his second life path as a university president is a perfectly inspiring story of “lemons to lemonade” transformation. Sports, after all, isn’t everything. I’d gladly tell my kids those stories before Pete’s. In contrast, Pete’s indignant excuses have become tiresome and his half-apologies for the bare minimum elements of his transgressions are more than incomplete. I’ve spent countless hours watching interviews, and I guess that shows Pete still means something to a lot of us, but it would be more inspiring watching if Pete had chosen to move forward, rather than continuing to wallow.

My takeaway sentiment on Pete is that whatever Pete was and whatever the technicalities, he’s just too flawed to be Cincinnati’s conquering hero. I want somebody more talented, more inspiring, and with broader interests, and whose redemption story, if one is necessary, is a bit more earnest. Cincinnati has those figures, and in a future installment perhaps I’ll write about one. It’s a swing and a miss if the city settles for Pete, and an undersell of the city’s potential to simply write off Pete’s failings as some tale of relatable human flaws typifying a midwestern city of ordinary souls. Ordinary souls, in my opinion, have more redeeming potential.

Ultimately, who Cincinnati chooses as its heroes isn’t up to me. After all, you can’t force a role model on someone. Like all cities, Cincinnati’s bedfellows emerge organically, and the romance with Pete has been long and solid. Nevertheless, it must frustrate the generations of other athletes there who at every turn seemed to do the right thing and yet in the local public consciousness can’t quite match the love for Pete. But maybe they should. After all, when they say to stop, sit down and smell the roses, sometimes it’s less about the Rose, and more about the Bench.

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