Media-hyped distractions are as common as politicians under investigation these days, but none seemed more complicated than the Jan. 9 appearance of a former baseball player, Pete Rose, at a Borders bookstore on lower Broadway.
At noon, the line of reporters and photographers was longer than the one for book-buyers as Mr. Rose signed his name on the inside flap of his ghostwritten $25 tome. Sometimes he would look up to greet fans and engage in some inside-baseball banter while eBay entrepreneurs-angry that they could get only five books signed-ignored directives telling them they couldn’t take pictures with the great man.
In the book, Mr. Rose finally admitted-after lying for 14 years-that he bet on baseball as a player and, later, a manager. Cynics say he confessed only as a way to ensure his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, from which he has been banned because of his suspected gambling. As the bookstore frenzy unfolded around us, I wondered to a friend what the point of all this was and why we were there. We decided that it’s more fun than thinking about mad-cow disease, Iraq, orange alerts and the fact that next week, fewer than 125,000 “caucus-goers” in Iowa-about twice the population of Co-Op City -will more or less decide who the next Democratic nominee for President will be.
It is difficult to keep things simple in the Rose affair, or to discern any larger meaning. My friend believes that Mr. Rose should be in the Hall of Fame based solely on his accomplishments as a player. On the other hand, my friend also is worried about what conclusions his three children will reach from any attempt to honor Mr. Rose.
But then again, Pete Rose was not always the ill-mannered lout he often seems to be. For example, also waiting in line at Borders was Paul Lozito, who was a bat boy for the New York Mets in 1963 at the old Polo Grounds on 155th Street. He was assigned to the visiting team during Mr. Rose’s rookie year. He told a charming story about how he got so busy between games in a doubleheader that he forgot to eat lunch. Seeing this, Mr. Rose walked to the centerfield clubhouse-a round trip of more than 900 feet-and returned with a sandwich and a soda. “You gotta eat between games, kid,” he said.
The lesson for children is this: The key to success for a hitter like Pete Rose is to bat .300 for 20 years-a 70 percent failure rate that we would never tolerate in our schools. That is the example for your kids: Don’t “succeed” like Pete Rose. The other lesson is that you can’t tell a lie for 14 years and then expect everyone to believe what you say later in your act of contrition. Mr. Rose swears he never bet against his team-a preposterous notion to anyone who knows compulsive gamblers. But Mr. Rose still doesn’t get it. In his book, he “writes” that “betting on baseball is not illegal.” That’s true if you live in Nevada. If you happen to live in any one of the other 49 states, it most definitely is illegal.
When you bet on baseball, you are financing the mob. Mr. Rose was pals with low-life gangsters who took his money and sold drugs, corrupted labor unions and public officials, poisoned kids with toxic waste, chopped foes into 40 pieces and jacked up the price of everything from fish to clothing to concrete.
Mr. Rose thinks he has apologized for his lying, but he hasn’t. Some prefer the confession of Governor Rowland of Connecticut, who asked for forgiveness by saying, “I lied. It was my fault.”
Mr. Rose often compares his situation to that of former Giants and Dodgers manager Leo Durocher. Leo the Lip was suspended for a season in 1947 after the baseball commissioner accused him of associating with “known gamblers.” Nevertheless, he is in the Hall of Fame. But the better correlation for Mr. Rose is the late manager of the New York Giants, John (Muggsy) McGraw, who lived in Pelham, just over the Bronx border.
According to a masterful book titled John McGraw by Charles Alexander, McGraw punched out umpires, was arrested for gambling, was accused by the Sporting News of betting $15,000 on a game, was suspected of sending his team doctor to bribe umpires and owned a racetrack with the team’s owner. He was partners in a pool hall with the gangster Arnold Rothstein, who continued to sit in the owner’s box at the Polo Grounds even after he fixed the 1919 World Series.
McGraw is in the Hall of Fame. His plaque hangs not far from one honoring the stone-cold racist Ty Cobb, whom Pete Rose surpassed as baseball’s all-time leader in hits. Also in the hall are two team owners who fought to keep blacks out of the game: Charles Comiskey of the Chicago White Sox and Clark Griffith of the now-defunct Washington Senators.