July 27, 2013 at 11:48am EDT
There’s no great way to get to Cooperstown from New York City. But they’re all kind of great. No matter which series of winding state roads you take to get from the Thruway to the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, you’re sure to pass expanses of green Catskills, mountain lakes, quaint little towns, and cornfields. Bob Ross stuff.
Pete Rose loves baseball, so Pete Rose loves Cooperstown. And Cooperstown — the Hall of Fame notably excepted — seems to love Pete Rose back. I chatted with Rose for over an hour on Thursday as he signed autographs at Safe at Home Collectibles, about 100 yards from the Hall. Nearly every fan that approached Rose came prepared with an anecdote from Rose’s career or a remark about the way he played. And Rose earnestly matched them all, recalling specifics from long-ago games and dolling out advice.
“My son’s a switch-hitter, just like you,” says one man, nodding toward a nervous kid wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his face.
Rose looks at the boy, who is no older than nine.
“You know the tough thing about switch hitting?” the all-time Major League hits leader says. “Don’t practice the new way so much that you get out of the original way. There’s only one switch-hitter in the history of baseball that I know of that was a natural left-hand hitter, and his name was J.T. Snow…”
“Thank you, Mr. Rose,” the man says. “I hope you make the Hall of Fame.”
“You’re going to bat left-handed two-thirds of the time,” Rose calls after the kid.
I love baseball, too. And I left for Cooperstown convinced that a manager gambling on baseball, as Rose did while piloting the Cincinnati Reds in the late 1980s, jeopardizes the game’s integrity in a far more sinister way than any of the sport’s recent and oft-lamented performance-enhancing drug scandals.
Players taking steroids are, for better or worse, still doing everything they can to win ballgames. Players or coaches gambling on baseball threaten the fundamental nature of the contest, which assumes that both teams are working to succeed.
Rose knows so much about the game. He shares historical tidbits and contemporary observations with equal ease, and across the course of our conversation he weighs in on everything from batting grips to Robinson Cano’s pending free agency to MLB team facial-hair policies of the 1970s. He acknowledges that what he did was wrong, and he knows he broke the rules. But he doesn’t see a parallel between his ban and the bans given to eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox.
“That’s not like my case!” he says. “I didn’t bet against my own team. I didn’t throw any games. Those guys threw World Series games, you know that? That’s a big difference between that and betting on your own team every night. That’s like a guy in the Kentucky Derby riding the No. 3 horse betting on No. 2!”
But how could a manager stop himself from managing differently on the nights he’s betting?
“That’s why I bet every night,” he says. “I managed one way every night, to W-I-N.”
No one but Rose can say if that’s true. But given everything we know about Pete Rose, it sure sounds believable. Rose is Charlie Hustle, after all, as legendary for his head-first effort as he is for his record. He is the guy who fractured catcher Ray Fosse’s shoulder in a home-plate collision to win the All-Star Game, way before the All-Star Game even pretended to count.
To an outsider, it’s easy to imagine the various ways someone betting on baseball games he’s involved in could compromise them. But maybe to a guy like Rose it’s more difficult to comprehend. Maybe the almost unimaginable drive and competitiveness required to play 22 Major League seasons, those qualities which helped Rose make 17 All-Star teams and rack up 4,256 hits, prevent him from even conceiving of working toward any end but a win.
“I just needed something extra,” Rose says. “That was my mistake. Managing wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough incentive for me.”
A father and son approach. The son takes a seat next to Rose for a photograph, and the father boasts, “His uncle’s first cousin is Mike Piazza.”
“Mike Piazza,” Rose repeats. “He should be being honored here this Sunday. That’s my opinion. He’s the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history, no question about it. Best all-around catcher is Johnny Bench.”
Neither Piazza nor any other living player will be honored in Cooperstown on Sunday. Piazza, like every great player of the late 1990s and early 2000s, fell short of the necessary votes this year because he hit lots of home runs and played his best baseball during the sport’s so-called steroids era.
Piazza never failed a test and was not listed in the Mitchell Report. In his 2013 autobiography, he denied taking performance-enhancers beyond the over-the-counter Androstenedione and amphetamines – baseball’s once-ubiquitous “greenies,” which Rose dismisses as “diet pills” that provide only “false confidence.”
“This whole community suffers when these guys deserving to make the Hall of Fame don’t make the Hall of Fame,” Rose says of Cooperstown. “It’s bad for the whole damn village.”
If that’s true, it’s hard to tell Thursday. Youth baseball tournaments in the area, coinciding with Induction Weekend, have the shops and restaurants in the area bustling with young families. It’s almost impossible to find street parking anywhere nearby.
I happen to believe steadfastly that great baseball players should make the Hall of Fame regardless of off-field indiscretions, and that the Hall should eliminate the character clause from its annual ballot. It seems pointless, or at least ill-considered, to punish great players who used steroids when the Hall already holds plenty of guys that scuffed balls and corked bats and distributed greenies.
“It’s not all altar boys in there,” says Rose.
Rose knows he made a mistake, and wants a second chance. He believes that if he’s reinstated, he can help baseball. He says he would love to visit minor league camps during spring training to tell young players his story and explain how they can learn from it.
But what if Rose is already helping baseball by sitting there in the memorabilia shop shaking hands and signing cards a block away — but indelibly removed — from the Hall of Fame? Rose has come to Cooperstown for the induction every year since 1994. He stays in an apartment above the store, shows up 15 minutes early for his scheduled autograph sessions and stays a half-hour late. He accommodates media requests and calls into radio shows around the country to discuss baseball’s latest controversy in light of his own.
He wants to win, again, but in his efforts to do so, he serves as a walking, talking reminder to all he encounters of what happens to baseball insiders who bet on baseball.
Still, if I’m to maintain that steroids users deserve spots in the Hall of Fame on the strength of their on-field accomplishments, it’s silly to argue that Rose does not. All 4,256 of his hits still count in the box scores, after all. And it feels a bit coldhearted to say that a man so dedicated to baseball – even one that committed competitive sports’ cardinal sin – does not deserve the game’s forgiveness after some 20 years spent toiling in purgatory, here in baseball heaven.
Cooperstown is a beautiful place and it exists in service to baseball — one of our most beautiful pastimes. Pete Rose did something ugly, as did Barry Bonds, as did legions of ballplayers throughout the game’s history.
It’s impossible to know whether the punishments these players have received at the hands of baseball, the media, and even the fans are just. Without knowing what these players think – without being them – who is to know if they feel genuine remorse, or if they even should? And no matter how frequently or vigorously we claim otherwise, we just can’t really say for certain whether rigidity or leniency is better for the game or the children or the Hall of Fame itself.
“What athletes do today, even me, we make these commissioners jobs hard,” Rose says. “Bud Selig doesn’t want to go through all this (stuff) right now. It drives him crazy, probably.
“We’ve just got to find away to get athletes – including myself – to be more responsible.”