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Baseball : Rose’s Integrity Can Never Be Thought Of in the Same Way

Charlie Hustle as Charlie Hustler?

What is our reaction supposed to be?

Do we sigh but shrug, immune to this latest jolt in an age of NCAA death penalties, quarterbacks as drug dealers and Olympic champions on steroids?

Or is this more?

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Are we not too jaded to weep and borrow a line from a betting scandal of baseball’s past?

Do we beseech Pete Rose to “say it ain’t so,” knowing these allegations of gambling involvement are probably true to some measure and that our images of Rose will be forever clouded now?

I have been a baseball writer for more than 25 years. I have followed Rose through his hits and hair styles, his hurts and triumphs. I have stood before classes of students and groups of adults and been asked who my own favorite player was, who my favorite interview was, and the answer was always the same.

Always I would say Rose, the original American beauty, as colleague Jim Murray has written. Always I would point to the trademark hustle--the relentless energy and enthusiasm--as epitomizing the way the game was meant to be played. Always I would relate how Rose had time to stand at his locker or sit in his office and discuss any subject a reporter might want to raise.

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Invariably, I would then turn the question around and conduct a poll as to the group’s favorite player.

Invariably, with young and old, the response was again Rose, the throwback, the man who gave 110% before it became a meaningless cliche.

Now?

Rose’s life has been enough of an open book that we know he is an inveterate sports fan and historian who can discuss Magic Johnson’s career statistics almost as easily as his own.

There is a satellite dish in his backyard, and he seldom falls asleep at night until ESPN has shown its final rerun.

We know that he has always brought odds into his discussions of various sports and that he has been part owner of race horses. Seldom has he spent an off-day in Los Angeles without attending Hollywood Park or Santa Anita. It is not unusual for a visitor to the clubhouse office of the Cincinnati Reds manager to find a Racing Form on the desk.

Baseball does not prohibit betting on races, and is there anyone that naive, that unaware, to think Rose has never bet on other sports? But which sports? For how much? And with whom? A clubhouse pool on the NCAA basketball tournament or the Indianapolis 500, a Super Bowl bet in the confines of a living room are different than the kinds of wagers, debts and associations now being linked to Rose.

Baseball’s prized integrity is at stake even if Rose has never bet on it, as he is accused of doing by flashing signals from the dugout. Suddenly the hit and run has new meaning. And frighteningly, so does the squeeze. Who’s to say a debt might not be erased if Eric Davis was to be kept out of a certain game? Who’s to say what might happen if Rose failed to do it?

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Integrity . A strong word that has been the essence of Rose’s style. Play hard, no matter what the stakes.

Who will ever forget his National League playoff scuffle with the New York Mets’ Bud Harrelson or the collision with Ray Fosse when the Cleveland catcher stood between Rose and the winning run in an All-Star game? How many know that Rose went to Sparky Anderson after Anderson had been named manager of the Cincinnati team that would become known as the Big Red Machine and told him that if he ever needed a player to chew out in front of the rest of the team, Rose would be his man.

Now, we will never be able to think of Rose’s integrity in the same way. That, and so many other portraits, have changed. The camera of the mind sees him at first base after he collected the hit that broke Ty Cobb’s career record. He is pointing a finger toward the sky. A thank you to his father, the original Charlie Hustle, as he later claimed, or a signal to get a bet down?

Cruel? Perhaps. But how cruel is it for a person in the public eye, a leader of his sport, a person thought of as epitomizing that sport, to forsake his responsibilities, his integrity? Did we applaud the winning of a batting title so that the Silver Bat could be sold off to pay a gambling debt? How big does the fallen idol have to be before he is just another headline?

This one has obviously caught my attention, my emotion.

I think of the three framed Sports Illustrated covers that Rose was gracious enough to autograph for my son and now hang on his bedroom wall. Is that still a youth’s innocent celebration of a baseball hero, or are they to be removed in disgrace? Did Pete Rose consider those and all his other autographs before he made his first bet?

I think, too, about a recent visit I made to the Florida training base of the Reds. The purpose was to research a story on the possibility of Rose’s managerial honeymoon nearing an end in Cincinnati. The talented Reds have finished second in the National League West for four consecutive years. Some players have accused Rose of a lack of communication and a double standard that gives preferential treatment to his young stars, Eric Davis and Kal Daniels.

Rose has a two-year contract, but unless the team got off to a fast start it was speculated that he could be fired.

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Now he may be removed earlier than anyone envisioned--suspended or even barred for life by the commissioner’s office.

Rose and I sat on a bench by the clubhouse on a March afternoon and he said how he would never step down unless he were to lose control of the team, which he could not envision doing.

He said that in his four years the Reds had established the best record in baseball, that he felt he had righted a sinking ship, that he had gone through good and bad times in Cincinnati and still felt the Reds and Rose were synonymous, that he was the perfect man for the job.

“I care more about how the Reds do than any player, any fan,” he said.

“I came through the system and I’m now the only manager in the world who manages in a place that has his name on the street that the stadium is on.”

He alluded to Riverfront Stadium on Pete Rose Way.

Pete Rose’s way.

Would you have ever believed it might be the wrong way?


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