Amazing, isn't it, this fervent interest still in one old ballplayer? Why, I'd suggest that if you took every argument about who belongs in each of the sports halls of fame in the world, there would be more discussion involving Pete Rose than all the other candidates put together.
So now there's a big fuss because Rose is finally admitting what everybody who is not in the Flat Earth Society already knows: that, when he was a manager, he bet on baseball. Having properly propitiated, Rose may again be embraced by Holy Mother Baseball and then accepted into the warm folds of the shrine at Cooperstown.
Either way, many true believers will be absolutely furious.
Rose inspires such strong opposing feelings, I believe, because he so perfectly represents extremes. His divide is too stark, too much to bear.
On the one hand, there is no question that in his personal life he's a scoundrel with a notorious demeanor that seemed almost bound to eventually land him behind bars. On the other, in his uniformed station, he was all that we could ever want a hero to be. At a time when we are so disappointed in sports stars, finding them cold and greedy, distant and disloyal, Rose is remembered as an athletic paragon, playing every moment of every game to the hilt. He even ran to first base on walks, remember? The cool sophisticates mocked Rose, christening him Charlie Hustle -- but he turned that sneer into a noble badge. It was not just that he loved the game he played so well. Just watching him, he made us love baseball more.
Alas, in every phase of his life, his passion always bled into compulsion. The late Richie Ashburn became an announcer with the Phillies after his playing career ended. I'll never forget asking Ashburn about Rose after the latter had spent his first season with the Phillies. "Yes, let me tell you about Pete Rose," Richie said. "If ever Pete took one drink at lunch, he would be an alcoholic by nightfall. It doesn't matter what: baseball, gambling, women. Rose is the most obsessive man I've ever met."
And, until now, of course, he was just as obsessive about sticking to a lie that was so terribly transparent. Ultimately, just as Rose's enthusiasm made those watching him more enthusiastic about baseball, so did his obstinacy make others just as stubborn about giving in to him.
In the end, we are all -- however we feel -- just so angry at Rose. That's the crux. And, invariably, it is the people who love baseball the most who are most torn. If we support Rose's claim to the Hall of Fame, we're furious that he's tarnished his brilliance so by malfeasance and deceit. Yet if we find him unbearable and unworthy, maybe it pains us more because we know that it is precisely this curious, flawed creature who, better than anyone who ever played the game of baseball, played it as we idolize it, played it as we wish everyone did.
No one can meet Pete Rose halfway. Just as he never met life.
Sports Illustrated senior contributing writer Frank Deford is a regular contributor to SI.com and appears each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. He is a longtime correspondent for HBO's Real Sports and his new novel, An American Summer (Sourcebooks Trade), is available at bookstores everywhere.