Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


April 9, 2014

What To Make of Pete Rose Today?

Sports Illustrated's Kostya Kennedy explores Charlie Hustle's post-baseball quest.

Elliot Magruder

Pete Rose is practically a human Rorschach test. How a person feels about Charlie Hustle—from his all-out style on the field, to his propensity to gamble on his own team (among many others), to his seemingly quixotic quest for reinstatement and thus, potentially, a spot in Cooperstown—is illustrative of overarching views about sports and perhaps life writ large. The fierce battle over whether Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame reflects how we feel about morality, integrity, guilt, and legacy.

Kostya Kennedy
"He is not half-assed. He leaves an impression of a man untroubled by conflict or second-guessing or guilt."

Kostya Kennedy

If you support Rose, you might very well be an ardent supporter of routine, effort, and perseverance on the diamond and in all other pursuits. It's also probable that you support forgiveness after an admission of guilt (as Rose finally offered in 2004), and you believe that with respect to the Hall of Fame, the stats should take precedence over the purported integrity of its members. Steroid users like Bonds and Clemens get a vote, so why not Rose? Fans, former players, and baseball writers echo sentiments of this nature annually once the clamor around Rose's HoF candidacy begins anew. It's as much a rite of spring as Opening Day.

On the other hand, if you're ardently against Rose's candidacy, you feel, as former Commissioner Fay Vincent feels, that "Rose will not be reinstated unless some commissioner takes the risk that it would not weaken the rule [prohibiting gambling]." These same people often center other arguments contra Rose around the concept of "risk." So the hypothetical goes that, if Rose receives the great honor of induction into the Hall of Fame, who's to stop others going forward from threatening the hallowed integrity of the game if they know the penalty would not likely include exile from the pathways of Cooperstown? The argument seems tinged with sententiousness, but it is nonetheless rooted in the conviction that some sins are unpardonable.

One thing that both camps agreed upon is that Rose, even at age 72 (his 73rd birthday is next week), remains a fascinating and polarizing figure. As he spends his days in a casino foyer placing his John Hancock on pretty much anything a fan requests, arguments spring forth both supporting and pillorying the all-time hit king. In the last year, the New York Times editorial page ran an opinion piece arguing that Rose should be on the HoF ballot. The Times op-ed prompted a stern rejoinder in the form of a letter to the editor from the aforementioned Fay Vincent.

The person who argued on Rose's behalf in that op-ed is Kostya Kennedy, an assistant managing editor at Sports Illustrated and author of the new Rose biography Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. In his book, Kennedy contrasts the stages of Rose's life by splitting his narrative between a depiction of Rose traveling to the Hall of Fame ceremonies despite his ostensible ostracism, and a thorough analysis of Rose's entire life leading up to these moments. Kennedy wants the reader to know the story of the thoroughly enigmatic Rose—from Rose's days growing up in Cincinnati idolizing his father, to his banishment from baseball in 1989—while also exploring the feelings, often intense, that Rose inspires within all sports fans. It's the quintessential attempt to view Rose in a panoramic sense.

In an email conversation lightly edited for length and clarity, Kennedy spoke with Gelf and discussed, among other topics, Rose's reciprocal love affair with the people of Cincinnati, his penchant for gambling excessively throughout his life, and whether he is at peace with the idea that he may never receive reinstatement.

Gelf Magazine: Joe Morgan once said that Rose would have a problem after he retired because he "wouldn't be Pete Rose anymore." Do you think that loss of identity, if true, contributed to his problems later in life?

Kostya Kennedy: Baseball is the love of Pete Rose's life, ahead of all other things—family, money, everything. Being outside the game has had a profound impact on him in terms of his own sense of self and in terms of how others see him. In some senses Rose is still the same Rose he has always been, but there is now something unresolved about him, as if he hasn't had a reckoning. This has definitely contributed to some of the mistakes he has made in his post-baseball career.

Gelf Magazine: Can you expand on the "kind of nihilism" that you argue guides Pete Rose's life?

Kostya Kennedy: Rose is focused almost entirely on what is in front of him. He does not, by his behavior, assign any real (or conventional) sense that life has meaning outside of satisfying basic needs and immediate wants. You can see this in part through his relationships with his family. Rose appears unguided by any overriding moral principles aside from rewarding himself. I say "kind of nihilism" because I don't want to be bound by any technical interpretation of the term; and also because it's not clear (or likely) that Rose has intentionally rejected moral principle, or that he has intentionally adopted a nihilistic approach to life. That is just how he is.

Gelf Magazine: You spent some time with Rose in writing the book. Sparky Anderson, who knew him for more than 40 years, once said that "[Rose is] not like the rest of us, nobody will ever know him completely. Can't know him." Do you agree with that statement?

Kostya Kennedy: Essentially, yes. While I came to understand Rose and recognize him on many levels, there is an elusiveness to him along with many contradictions. As soon as you try to categorize him, you find an exception to that categorization. He is wholly unique. He puts a shield around him that even the "closest" of his friends and associates don't get past.

Gelf Magazine: Deep down, do you think Pete Rose cares about anything besides money, sex, and gambling?

Kostya Kennedy: He also cares about baseball. That is genuine. He enjoys bantering with people, an activity at which he is highly skilled. Rose would not do well with a hermetic life; he is happy, and it shows in interacting with people, especially fans. Also, Rose will always care deeply about his relationship with his father, Harry. Forty-four years after Harry's death, it remains the most significant relationship of Pete's life. Rose's betrayal of that relationship, of his father's principles, is the deep pain, the chasm, in his life. He will never get over it.

Gelf Magazine: Pete Rose is revered in Cincinnati, as evidenced by the fan reaction when he returned to a Reds game in 2010. Recently, Ryan Braun returned from a PED suspension to rousing applause from Brewers fans. Does this kind of thing matter to those who have the power to reinstate Rose? Should it?

Kostya Kennedy: Fans will cheer players such as Braun, if they feel it will help their team or if they just want to see him play well for them. But Rose's relationship with people in Cincinnati (where he grew up and achieved so much) is larger than that. He has an almost spiritual connection to those fans—as well as to many fans around the country—because of how singularly he played the game, and what he gave to fans and to baseball each day by embracing the game and its tenets so completely. I think fan response has certainly influenced baseball's decisions to allow Rose onto the field for a few ceremonial occasions, but it obviously has not led to reinstatement. I'm not sure that it should—his not being reinstated rests as much on business/economic principles as anything. But that fan relationship should be considered with respect to a potential induction into the Hall of Fame.

Gelf Magazine: Rose is known as a notorious and perpetual liar, particularly during the years in which he refused to admit to betting on baseball. Yet, you argue that Rose is one of the "few honest people you'll ever meet." How did you come to such a conclusion?

Kostya Kennedy: He is unguarded and entirely committed to the present moment in which he is immersed. He tells you what he thinks of you and he goes about life with an honesty of purpose. We saw that, of course, on the baseball field, and you can see that in his life today. He is not half-assed. He is out in the open. He leaves an impression of a man untroubled by conflict or second-guessing or guilt.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of Pete Rose now?

Kostya Kennedy: I'm really most interested in providing a framework and a language for others to answer that question. On this front, I'd like the book to speak for itself.

Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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Article by Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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