Monday was the first day of the supposed redemption of Pete Rose. It did not go well. The Hit King whiffed.
Rose thought it would be enough to open the door to reinstatement if he made a public admission that he bet on Reds games while he managed the team. What Rose didn't understand, however, is that an admission, especially one that follows 14 years of brutal lies, gains him no quick favor without real sincerity, honesty and a changed life attached to it. And so as difficult as it was for Charlie Hustle to admit that he's been lying all these years, now that concession may blow up on him.
As the first print journalist to read the entire Rose book, I can tell you that Pete Rose: My Prison without Bars is an excellent read. Rose has always been an engaging storyteller, and the book succeeds on that level. His youthful days spent with his father at the racetrack make for instructive, entertaining reading. The chapter about his five-month prison stay is rich with anecdotes, some of which are unintentionally funny and sad at the same time. While Rose seems proud of his rules-skirting ways, the word "incorrigible" should come to every reader's mind.
Rose seems way too comfortable around his fellow felons, believing all of them, too, got a raw deal from people on the outside. Rose's co-author, Rick Hill, did a splendid job of capturing Rose's voice. It is stubborn, defiant, vulgar, off-key. (Rose, for instance, writes of an event leaving "a sour taste in my gut.") But the authors had to know that Rose's standing in baseball was on the line in this book. Why, then, didn't Hill and Rose venture a few steps down the path of contrition? Why isn't there some real acknowledgement about the harm Rose has done to the game?
There are mentions that pass for weak apologies. Rose, for instance, says he's sorry that "it" (the scandal of his own making) hurt so many people. But he noticeably does not say "I'm sorry." Indeed, he seems incapable of even uttering those words, just as he is incapable of admitting he is a compulsive gambler. Instead, what comes naturally for Rose is to attack. He attacks the Dowd Report, the baseball investigation that nailed his gambling habits 14 years ago. He attacks the bookies and runners and who turned on him. He attacks the late Bart Giamatti. He is, however, shamelessly complimentary of commissioner Bud Selig.
Rose waters down his own culpability by blaming others who helped bring him down, blaming the dopamine in his brain chemistry, blaming baseball drug users as sinners of a worse kind, blaming baseball for not giving him due process, and on and on and on. The searchlight shines everywhere but into his own conscience.
The initial media reaction to Rose's admission was generally scathing. And remember, those reactions were only to the excerpts released by Sports Illustrated and the portions of an interview with Rose conducted by ABC, not the whole book. The silence from Milwaukee made a profound statement. Selig smartly had nothing to say. He is waiting to see how the book, and now the publicity tour, play out across America before he takes a position. The most valuable asset for Rose toward his reinstatement has been his popularity. But now Rose has jeopardized the very best thing he had going for him. He has made those supporters who believed him all these years into fools, and left those who want to forgive him baffled when it comes to finding the sincerity in him that forgiveness requires.
The next few weeks are crucial for Rose to do some damage control. He has to go places in his publicity tour where he did not in his book: introspection, self-awareness and an understanding of the damage he caused the game as one of its iconic players. Even that, however, may not be enough. The impact of a book has much more permanence than interviews with a television station, a national baseball writer or a late-night talk show host. Rose spent more than two years on this book. It was done willingly and with deliberation.
Whether Rose has the savvy to sell himself, not just books, on this tour is far from certain. He can be charming, especially in the avoidance tactic he likes to use when he dismisses delicate topics with a one-liner or funny story. But he is, at heart, a fighter.
The other downside to Rose's admission is that it re-opened the ugly file on his life and the characters that crawl through it. There is Tommy Gioiosa again, telling the Boston Herald that Rose discreetly culled inside betting information from other managers, such as Sparky Anderson and Tommy Lasorda, by placing telephone calls from the clubhouse. There is Fay Vincent telling TheWashington Post that Rose twice tried to smuggle suitcases of undeclared cash into the United States from Japan.
What else will we learn? Rose, for instance, mentions that his gambling on sports "finally" rolled into baseball while he managed the Reds in 1987. But in an earlier chapter had written about betting on the 1986 baseball playoffs. Was that the beginning? Or, as Dowd suggested, did it begin earlier still?
All the while, Selig is watching, listening and measuring. Remember, Rose confessed to Selig about betting on the Reds 14 months ago and he's still on the ineligible list. Selig has always insisted on a probationary period if he were ever to bring Rose back in any form, but these 14 months have turned into a de facto probation. And that probation will continue for many months. Selig is in no hurry. The only significant timetable is December 2005, when Rose's chances of getting on the baseball writers' ballot for the Hall of Fame run out. (After that, the grumpy old men of the Veterans Committee would love the opportunity not to vote for him.)
Rose wrote that he left his November 2002 meeting with Selig with "every reason to believe that I would be reinstated to baseball within a reasonable period of time" and that Selig said it would take a "nuclear bomb" to make him change his mind. Rose is the same man who was placed on the permanently ineligible list and considered it a suspension with the right to get back after one year. He gives new meaning to Rose-colored glasses.
The court of public opinion, which matters so much to Selig, is now in session. It is easier to buy the book than it is to buy Rose as someone worthy of sympathy. The book is well done, painting a detailed portrait of a man so driven by "action" and money that he recalls the birth of his son by the joy of hitting on the Bengals-Steelers Monday Night Football game that night. You will know Pete Rose much better upon reading the book. You will like him not a bit more.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.