By Jason Keidel
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We often see legends through the lenses of our childhood. Just listen to Bob Costas, Billy Crystal, or Mike Francesa talk about Mickey Mantle with the high-pitch, preteen adoration reserved for Santa Claus. That’s the kind of hypnotic hold our icons have over us, and no age, wage, or page in the history book can change it. For better or worse, we are the sum of our childhood trials, traumas, and triumphs. And for most American boys, they invariably intertwine with sports.
If you were a kid from the five boroughs in the 1970s, there were only a few ways to feed your baseball fix. We had the Mets on Channel 9, the Yanks on Channel 11, and Mel Allen’s weekly, weekend sermon on TWIB, the de facto national anthem before America’s game of the week
Saturday was the schoolboy’s slice of heaven. After cereal and Scooby-Doo, we scooped the crust from our eyes, clutched our allowance money, and scampered to the local magazine store. My destination was Gus & Bernie’s on 94th St. and Columbus Avenue, a sleepy temple on our Holy Day, it’s locked gate glowing with graffiti. The neighborhood boys, the only ones who weren’t sleeping off Friday night’s sins, waited until Gus or Bernie lifted the metal curtain so we could duck in and snatch our goodies.
The packs of baseball cards were sprawled across a tin bin, and I was sure not to pluck two packs together, keeping in the baseball spirit of superstition. I didn’t step on cracks in the sidewalk, or snatch adjacent packs of baseball cards.
Once I gave Gus or Bernie my cluster of quarters and balled-up bills, I darted home and squatted in the dining room, spreading my bounty across the glass table. Using my teeth to tear open the packs, the first chalky cloud puffed out of the plastic, and you could smell that slab of crusty gum inside. I stacked the carcasses of plastic wrappers on the right, chomped on a stick of splintered gum and stacked the rest to the left, and then thumbed through the cards with a bank cashier’s precision. I scanned each card for that red, All-Star bar across the top. I looked for the usual suspects: Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Reggie Jackson, and Pete Rose.
Rose’s card was particularly fun because in 1978 or ‘79 he was almost two decades deep into his transcendent career and his stats had to be crunched together to fit all the seasons, on the cusp of needing two cards to cover his accomplishments. (George Blanda was the only other player in any sport whose card needed an addendum.)
And no player is so decorated and desecrated as Rose: a corporeal lightning rod whose name ignites endless intrigue. I don’t know how it started yesterday, but Mike Francesa’s show morphed into a symposium on Pete Rose. And it was a true debate because the sentiment was split down the middle, every caller disagreeing with the last, and each side was earnest, honest, and a true believer either way.
I have no dog in this hunt. I’ve never been to Cincinnati and don’t give a damn about the Phillies. The Big Red Machine stomped my Yankees the year before I became a fan. But some names are avatars of an era, when the sport and the time were considered more pure, before free agency money drew an indelible line between the players and the proletarians. And I was just one of millions of boys with bowl haircuts who choked a stickball bat way up the handle, crouched and swatted at some sponge ball pretending to be No. 14. As much as anyone in my lifetime, Pete Rose is our pastime, and he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
But I won’t use logic to lure you to my side, because the tide of reason flows against Pete Rose. He is nasty, narcissistic, and dishonest. But he’s not the first fella or Hall-of-Famer with those characteristics.
To Baby Boomers, it doesn’t matter that Mantle was a hopeless drunk who aged as poorly as possible, ungrateful for the gifts God gave him, contemptuous of his fans, the congregation that made him rich, famous, and kept him galaxies away from the very zinc mines that killed his father and was sure to kill him had he not accidentally been born into Superman’s body.
And some kid thinks Barry Bonds is a hero, despite the fact that he, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa shot steroids into their colossal haunches, synthesized the record books, and make a joke of Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, and Hank Aaron – three men who weren’t perfect but broke the records without breaking the rules.
Keeping in line with ugly icons, Pete Rose is a snake who bet on games he managed and lied about it, and lied about it…and waited until he could turn his confession into coin – an autobiography – before he broke the seal on the worst kept secret in the history of American scandals. And there’s not point in moral relativism because Rose’s crime is clearly worse than all the others.
But if the man with the most base hits in history isn’t in the Hall of Fame, why do we have one? Every major sport keeps a phalanx of lawyers on retainer, all of whom can surely craft some contract that allows for Rose to get his day in the sun and his due back in the basement. Surely there’s room in some lighted, class cube for 4,256 hits and a place for the hit king to finally retire his crown while keeping his tentacles from further infecting the game.
I don’t pretend to be reasonable here. Indeed, I’m clearly moved by the wrong muscle: heart, an organ and emblem of Pete Rose’s career. No one doubts that he took a can of Krylon and defamed the cardinal rule, sprayed his own rules over the greater good. But Pete Rose is also as much a baseball fixture as peanuts, hot dogs, and Cracker Jacks. But for the fixture to cross the fissure he created requires a little softening, on both sides.
This whole case is haunted, from betting slips to secret reports to the commissioner losing his grip on the gavel, literally dying a week after he banned Rose from baseball. And if you honestly feel he killed Bart Giamatti, then you probably don’t want Rose to bloom anywhere near Cooperstown anytime soon. And it understandably irks you and MLB that Rose uses the yearly inductions to pitch a tent right on the town line to open his own flea market, a monetary web he spins, signing this and that for those suckers who stray too far from the festivities. Nothing is sacred to him when a buck can be made.
There are about ten sound reasons to keep a Pete Rose plaque off the wall of the Hall of Fame. And there are nearly no reasons to reinstate him. Except that he’s Pete Rose.
I guess the softest landing is to pat his rear posthumously, give him his due when he’s dead. That’s the easy way. But we know Pete Rose never took the easy way in, out or to the top. The least baseball can do is tip their cap to a better time, for all of us. The man has paid dearly enough, even if he hasn’t learned his lesson.