Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Review: Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, by Kostya Kennedy (2014)

Cover of Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, by Kostya Kennedy, 2014.

Pete Rose collecting hit number 4,192, breaking Ty Cobb's all-time record, September 11, 1985.

Special Topps cards from 1986 commemorating Rose passing Ty Cobb.

Pete Rose playing for the Phillies, illustrating why he was nicknamed "Charlie Hustle."

Rose during his brief stint with the Montreal Expos in 1984. He collected his 4,000th hit with the Expos.
Pete Rose is baseball’s all-time leader in hits, games, at-bats, and plate appearances. He’s 6th all-time in runs scored, 2nd in doubles, and 7th in total bases. Rose led the league in hits 7 times, doubles 5 times, runs scored 4 times, won 3 batting titles, was the 1963 NL Rookie of the Year, and the 1973 NL MVP. He was a 17-time All-Star, and made the All-Star team at 5 different positions, a record that will most likely never be broken.

Pete Rose played in his last major league game in 1986 and has been banned from major league baseball since 1989, yet he might still be baseball’s most divisive figure. Lots of ink has been spilled over Rose in the past 25 years, and Kostya Kennedy’s 2014 book Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, is the latest attempt to dissect the life and career of baseball’s all-time hit leader.  

Kennedy does a good job of analyzing the different parts of Rose’s life, with detours into the history of Cincinnati, and Pete’s relationship with his brother Dave. A highlight of the book was the section on the baseball career of Rose’s son Pete Rose Jr., who played professional baseball from 1989 until 2009, accumulating just 16 plate appearances and 2 hits in the major leagues in 1997. Like his father, Rose Jr. is a player with a tremendous work ethic. Pete Rose Jr. is now a manager in independent baseball, continuing his love affair with the game.
Pete Rose: An American Dilemma assumes a great deal of familiarity with Rose’s playing career, as it jumps around in chronology and doesn’t cover every year of Rose’s 24-year playing career. I was already quite familiar with Rose’s career, but I wish the book had provided more context for Rose’s remarkable accomplishments. 

Throughout the book, Kennedy never really comes down on one side or the other, for or against Rose. Does he think Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame? Does he think that Pete Rose should be reinstated? Kennedy never really says. Kennedy is harsh on Rose throughout the book, yet he clearly feels that the Hall of Fame’s treatment of Rose was unfair when it singled him out and changed the rules in 1991 so he wouldn’t appear on the ballot. The new rule stated that anyone on baseball’s ineligible list could not appear on the ballot for the Hall of Fame. Since Rose was the only player on the ineligible list, the rule change was obviously targeted at him. The Hall of Fame clearly didn’t want to deal with the possibility of Rose being voted into the Hall of Fame while at the same time being banned from baseball, which seems like the biggest oxymoron imaginable. 

Pete Rose’s behavior since 1989 is oftentimes incomprehensible to rational people. When it became clear during Major League Baseball’s investigation of his gambling habits that Rose would be banned, Rose and his lawyers fought for a paragraph in the document banning Rose that said he neither admitted nor denied having bet on baseball. This was a ridiculous assertion to make, and I don’t understand why then-Commissioner Bart Giamatti allowed such unclear language into the final document. If Rose wasn’t admitting that he bet on baseball, why was he being banned? If Rose hadn’t bet on baseball, why did he accept the ban? Major League Baseball should have forced Rose to admit in 1989 that he did bet on baseball. Instead, Rose lied for 15 years, not telling the truth and admitting that he bet on baseball until the release of his 2004 autobiography, My Prison Without Bars.
If Pete Rose were a smarter guy he might have been reinstated and be back in baseball by now. But I think he’s a dumb guy who really doesn’t understand what he did wrong. He knows that he broke the rules, but he’s never seemed ashamed that he broke the rules. As Kennedy says, Rose isn’t sorry for what he did, he’s only sorry that he got caught. Rose’s half-hearted apologies have never seemed sincere. 

In my opinion, in order to have any chance of getting back into baseball, Rose needed to do three things:

1. Come clean and tell the whole truth about betting on baseball
      2. Apologize for betting on baseball
      3. Stay as far away from gambling as possible

Rose has failed miserably at those three tasks, as he didn’t tell the truth or apologize until 2004, and he spends most of his time in Las Vegas, signing autographs at memorabilia shops. But signing his name for money has proven to be most lucrative for Rose, as according to Kennedy, Rose pulls down a guaranteed income of $70,000 a month in Las Vegas. Rose also might not have told the whole truth in 2004, when he said he bet on baseball “four or five times a week.” He amended that to saying in 2007 that he bet on baseball “every night.” Is there anything else Rose is saving for his next book?

Pete Rose is a contradiction. On one hand, he seems guileless, unflinchingly honest, and yet he lied about betting on baseball for 15 years. During his playing career, Rose was extremely savvy about cultivating his image as “Charlie Hustle,” by always running to first base on a walk, and always sliding into bases headfirst, whether it was necessary or not. But since he was banned from baseball, Rose seems tone-deaf to how he comes off to the public. 

Part of me likes Pete Rose. He was a great baseball player, someone who gave it his all out there on the field every single day he played. I met Pete Rose at a baseball card show to get his autograph, and he seemed like a nice guy in the thirty seconds I talked to him. I even watched his terrible reality show on TLC, “Hits and Mrs.” But he’s also a jerk who bet on baseball and doesn’t really seem to get why that’s such a big deal. And that’s the contradiction of Pete Rose. I think that Rose deserves to be in the Hall of Fame as a player, but I don’t think Rose should be in the Hall of Fame as long as he’s banned from baseball. I know that the Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball are different organizations, but for me, personally, if you’re banned from one, why should you be in the other?

If you’re interested in Pete Rose’s baseball career, and his post-baseball life, you should read Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. It’s a great introduction to one of baseball’s most controversial figures.

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