Before you forgive Pete Rose for stealing the china, you should always count the silverware.
And before baseball lets Rose into the Hall of Fame, much less back into a big league dugout, he should do more, much more, than ask us to take his word that he is a changed man. Especially when his confession, after 14 years of lies, arrives between hard covers with the promise of piles of money for Rose. And, most tellingly, when Rose cannot bring himself -- even now, even once -- to say an honest, heart-felt, “I’m sorry.”
Rose has finally told the truth. But he still has not seen the truth -- that his sins go far beyond gambling on baseball games and that his contrition must go far deeper than any TV quote or book excerpt available so far. At the most elemental level, Rose owes the profoundest of apologies to the sport itself, which he injured badly.
And he needs to get down on his knees, if not literally, then figuratively, to those like John Dowd, who got the facts right in their investigation, yet have endured more than a decade of lying accusations from Rose in every media venue he could grab.
Before fans grant their forgiveness, or Commissioner Bud Selig decides whether Rose should be reinstated to the sport, perhaps we should listen to a story told by former commissioner Fay Vincent.
When Rose was a player, he went to Japan, signed a bat endorsement contract, collected $100,000 in cash and put it in a suitcase so he could sneak it through customs without paying U.S. taxes. Rose was caught, but the story never got out and no charges were filed. A few years later, Rose’s bat contract expired. He went back to Japan, got another $100,000 in cash, put it in a suitcase (maybe the same one) and tried to get it through customs. Again.
“Bzzzzz,” said Vincent Monday, imitating the sound of a buzzer going off. “They caught Rose again. Now the feds were really livid -- a two-time loser. They wanted to indict him. But he had a good lawyer who got him off. Nobody found out. Nothing happened to Rose. Those are facts. You can quote me.
“So, when you look at Rose today, you have to realize we’re at fault, too. We teach great athletes their whole lives that they are above the law. We create the monster, then we have to go out and deal with it.”
Only a man who has lived by his own version of the law, or no laws at all, could make as hollow an attempt at confession and restitution as Rose has. One book excerpt, to appear in Sports Illustrated this week, should be enough to make any person of conscience -- which has never included Rose -- see red. Once you send something like this to the printer, you have to live with it. No rewrites next week, Pete. If a ghost wrote it, it’s still yours.
“I’m sure that I’m supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I’ve accepted that I’ve done something wrong. But you see, I’m just not built that way,” wrote Rose. “So let’s leave it this like this: I’m sorry it happened and I’m sorry for all the people, fans and family it hurt. Let’s move on.”
No, let’s stay right here.
Let’s do a little exegesis of the text as the old-time hellfire preachers used to say. Rose says he’s “not built” to “act all sorry or sad or guilty.” Well, if he can’t even act that way, with his whole future hanging in the balance, we can be sure he’s incapable of actually feeling that way. Our prisons are full of people who aren’t “built” to feel remorse or guilt or sorrow at the damage they have done. This attitude is a pathology, Pete, not a bragging point.
Even more chilling is Rose’s using the word “it” twice, instead of “I.” The truly contrite person would instinctively say, “I’m sorry I did it and that I hurt people.” Instead, Rose says that “it” did the damage. And what is “it”? Well, “it” is the investigation, the exposure of his gambling, the scandal. In other words, like any unrepentant scoundrel, he’s mostly sorry that he got caught. He still hasn’t come to terms with the deed itself.
The more Rose talks, the more he exposes rather than redeems himself. “During the times I gambled as a manager, I never took an unfair advantage. I never bet more or less based on injuries or inside information. I never allowed my wagers to influence my baseball decisions,” writes Rose. “So in my mind I wasn’t corrupt.”
That’s like a bank robber asking for parole because he didn’t scare the tellers.
Baseball has only one cardinal rule. You can’t gamble on the game. In any form. Ever. It’s posted in every clubhouse. Everybody, down to the densest rookie, understands it. If you take drugs or become an alcoholic, that’s entirely different. It’s a personal problem. You deserve and get rehab. But if you gamble on the game -- let alone, good Lord, bet on the team you are managing -- you have stabbed a dagger into the heart of the game’s competitive credibility. Yet Rose, in this damning attempt at rationalization, shows how the mind of an egotist and amoralist works. Rose set up a completely different code -- in his own mind -- so that he could get around the rules that apply to everybody else in baseball.
This isn’t how you get reinstated. This is how, without knowing it, you make the case against reinstatement. Mercy should always be the order of the day. But, in this case, balanced against enormous skepticism.
This week, America will talk about Rose, now baseball’s all-time leader in both hits and lies. But we ought to be talking about Vincent, Dowd and A. Bartlett Giamatti -- men who paid a high price to dig out a hard truth, then stick by their guns. But the sinner gets the headline, doesn’t he? The Prodigal Son gets the feast. What a lousy parable.
Perhaps the valuable story this week isn’t that Rose finally admitted what we all knew -- that in one season, he had a bet down on more than a third of all the games in the majors. The tale that matters, a parable in its own right, is that, for 14 years, in the face of sentimental public opinion, a legion of Pete apologists and attacks on the game’s leaders, baseball did not buckle. The sport kept the scoundrel where he belonged -- out of the game.
Now we’ll see if Selig, who gets high grades for his constancy for a decade, can stand one final test of character from Rose. With millions of fans chanting “forgive,” will Selig demand that Rose show true contrition and, in Giamatti’s words, “reconfigure his life,” rather than merely reshape his image with a book tour?