02 August 2017

The Unforgivable Pete Rose

During the summer of 1989, Arby's and WDRB, the Louisville Fox TV affiliate, ran a promotion to win tickets to a Cincinnati Reds game. The visiting team was the Atlanta Braves. I was a Reds fan, my baby brother was (is) a Braves fan. We and our mom all signed up for the raffle. Amazingly, my name was drawn and we all got to go!

[I am not allowed to tell this anecdote without mentioning that the morning of the game, my mother had a horrible migraine and wanted nothing more than to stay home in dark silence and puke her guts up, but endured sheer agony on our behalf.]

We convened with all the other raffle winners at Mall St. Matthews to board two Greyhound buses. I was, to put it mildly, stoked. A guy in charge of the whole operation took notice of my enthusiasm. He came over and started chatting, and then asked me if I would like to go down on the field before the game. I have no idea how I responded, other than to say that it was in the affirmative. When we got to the ballpark, we made a mad dash to the nearest souvenir shop so I could buy a baseball to take with me to get signed. My mom even had the presence of mind to buy a ball holder to keep it safe and clean.

There were two other boys who had been selected for this once in a lifetime experience. It was a bit like getting a golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka's factory. We went into parts of the stadium otherwise off-limits to fans. We took an elevator down to the clubhouse and quickly walked through to the field. The Reds were still taking batting practice. We were introduced to a few players, all of whom indulged us and chatted for a moment or two and signed our baseballs. Dave Collins. Chris Sabo. Even Eric Davis, whose swing was by far my favorite to try to emulate.

Then we were led to the dugout to meet the Reds manager, the Hit King himself: Peter Edward Rose. No one in my lifetime has loomed as large in the world of baseball as him. He could have blown us off. He could have even been polite about it and said something like, "I'd love to chat, but I'm trying to get ready for this game." We would certainly have understood that. Instead, he invited us to come over and took questions. He asked us questions. He signed all our baseballs, shook our hands, made us feel like true VIP's.

Shortly thereafter, Rose was banned from baseball for having violated the game's policy against gambling. Like others of my region and generation, I've always defended Rose. No one has yet presented any evidence that he bet against the Reds. There have been insinuations that maybe he did, but nothing has been demonstrated to affirm it. So far as I've ever been concerned, the integrity of the games in which he had the ability to affect the outcome was not compromised and that's been good enough for me.

Last year, the Reds inducted him into their team's Hall of Fame and retired his #14 jersey number. I went to the final game of that weekend, the day they retired his number. I went with two of my oldest friends. In fact, we were all teammates in 1990, the only season of Little League I ever played. That's how far back we go, and baseball was what brought us together in the first place. It was as much a celebration of our friendships as it was of Rose. My physical health was cooperative for most of that day, though it was unbearably hot and I had to retreat to the cooler indoors part of Great American Ball Park for the final two innings. Still, a glorious day!

I've just finished reading a New York Times article, though, that has truly gutted me. In it, I have learned that during Rose's time as a player, he had a sexual relationship with a girl who at the time was under the age of consent--which was just 16 then. He has readily admitted that he did have this relationship, though he maintains she had turned 16 already.

Suppose for a moment that I believed his version (which I don't). This sexual relationship took place during the 1970's. Let's be as generous as possible and say it was 1970. He's telling us he was 29 years old and thought it appropriate to have sex with a 16 year old girl? No. No, I can't go along with that. The NYT piece goes on to mention that this was not Rose's only such transgression:
Monday's filing also included an excerpt from the 1991 book "Collision at Home Plate: The Lives of Pete Rose and Bart Giamatti," in which James Reston Jr. wrote about Rose having a 14-year-old girlfriend, and allegations from the former USA Today reporter Jill Lieber Steeg in a 2000 SportsCenter documentary that Rose had a sexual relationship with a high schooler.
How the hell I managed to miss both the 1991 book and the SportsCenter doc, I have no idea, but I did. By 1991 I'd lost most of my interest in baseball, so I may well have seen the book for sale, but I would have walked right past it to the Star Trek paperbacks. I was certainly following SportsCenter in 2000, though, so it's genuinely surprising to me that I would have missed that.

I can't explain how I missed it, but I can understand how I managed to not hear about it after it was broadcast. It's true that we collectively do have some kind of fixation on tearing down public figures, but it's also true that we have collectively protected the sexual predators among us. Look no further than Bill Cosby, whose predatory acts had attracted some attention ages ago and then been promptly dismissed out of hand and covered up so thoroughly that many of us had even forgotten we had, in fact, once been warned about what he was doing.

You may recall, Dear Reader, that two years ago, I shared in this blog that I had experienced what I euphemistically refer to as "an incident" in my childhood. Rose must surely have benefited from that same protectionism as Cosby, because there is no conceivable way I would ever have heard such a thing and ever forgotten it. Hearing about it today is upsetting enough; hearing about it before I'd finally begun to address and work through my trauma in the last few years would have been overwhelming for me.

It gets worse, though. The NYT piece continues:
Years later, during a 2015 radio interview, [John] Dowd [the special prosecutor whose investigation exposed Rose's gambling in 1989] said that a memorabilia dealer, Michael Bertolini, had stated that Rose had girls as young as 12 brought to him during spring training. Bertolini denied telling Dowd this, and last year Rose sued for defamation.
I haven't had TV service in a few years, so I've not kept active with the Reds or anything else to do with baseball. But this was recent enough that again, I'm at a loss to explain how this failed to come to my attention. There was no social media to be sure that the SportsCenter revelation was passed around, but in 2015 this radio interview aired and nothing ever came across my Facebook or Twitter feeds?

Had I been aware of any of this, there is no way I would have ever agreed to have gone to his jersey retirement ceremony last year. And yes, it does sour me on the experience that I had in my youth that I shared at the opening of this post. This is where it would be fashionable for me to claim that Pete Rose has now ruined my childhood. Except, he didn't ruin mine. He ruined the childhood and teenhood of his victims.

There will surely be defenders who will want to argue that I don't know definitively what happened; that without a conviction, it's just hearsay; that even if he was convicted, that it would still be separate from what he accomplished as a player. I wrote a few years ago another piece, Rape Is More Than Legalese. I would encourage you to take a look at that in its entirety, Dear Reader, but I will leave you here with the final thought from it:
We can accept at face value those who come forward and say that something happened to them. We can offer compassion to them. We can try to help them to feel safe. We can listen. We can trust. We can do all of these things independent of whatever may (or may not) take place in a court room - and we must, because living with the experience and aftermath of rape exists outside of a court room.
I hope that the woman who has come forward recently, any of the survivors implied in the other things reported by the New York Times piece, and anyone we don't know about, are all able to find some peace and to heal. They're the ones who matter in this; not the preservation of hero worship from those of us who grew up admiring the guy who set the all-time Major League Baseball record with 4192 career hits, and certainly not Rose. He didn't deserve to be our hero, and the survivors damn sure did not deserve for him to be their villain.

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