The Thorn in Pete Rose

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We now remember what we want to remember about Pete Rose: the player called Charlie Hustle running out walks, hurling himself head first to take an extra base, and breaking the most venerable record in baseball--Ty Cobb's 4,191 hits. Those memories are vivid, etched into our baseball consciousness, along with the exploits of immortals like Cobb, Ruth, Robinson and Mays, in whose Hall of Fame company Rose arguably belongs.

Rose, who last week launched a new campaign to be reinstated into baseball, is hoping those mental film clips will outweigh in fans' minds--and, more important, in that of baseball commissioner Bud Selig--the gambling allegations that resulted in his banishment from the sport in 1989. He claims to have evidence refuting charges that he bet on baseball, specifically on the Cincinnati Reds team he managed from 1984 to 1989. He says his mission is twofold: to get elected to baseball's Hall of Fame, from which he is now barred, and to once again manage a big-league club and collect a "seven-figure salary."

While Rose's candor about wanting the big bucks is admirable and polls have shown that the majority of fans want Pete in the Hall, he's had an almost pathological resistance to acknowledging the darker parts of his history. According to the compelling evidence gathered by Major League Baseball on his gambling habits, Pete never bet on his Reds to lose a game. But he didn't always bet on them to win. The implications remain troubling: what would a bookie taking Rose's action infer if the manager of the Reds, who bet on them regularly, didn't bet on them that particular day? "There had not been such grave allegations since the time of [Kenesaw Mountain] Landis," said then commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti in 1989, referring to the commissioner who cleaned up the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Confronted with this evidence, Rose agreed to a lifetime ban from the sport but didn't specifically admit to betting on baseball. Implicit in the agreement, according to former commissioner Fay Vincent and others convinced that Rose bet on baseball, is the fact that the only act punishable by a lifetime ban is baseball's cardinal sin: gambling on the game.

Rose has since been in and out of prison for tax evasion; launched half a dozen businesses, ranging from the Pete Rose Ballpark Cafe to his Hit King line of clothing; and become a regular on the baseball-memorabilia circuit, where his income has derived primarily from signing bats, balls and baseball cards. Throughout his wanderings in the baseball wilderness, he has continued to maintain that he never bet on the game, as if willing himself to believe his own revisionary history. In large part, baseball and its fans chose not to listen.

But when NBC announcer Jim Gray confronted Rose during the introductions of the All Century team before a World Series game in Atlanta this October, asking for an apology and admission from Rose, it became resoundingly clear that baseball fans now want to remember Pete for the good rather than the bad. Gray was vilified as Rose, amazingly, came across as a victim. Rose has seized on that to launch his campaign for reinstatement and arrange a meeting between his attorneys and baseball's representatives early next year. "This is not a reopening of the case," insists baseball spokesman Rich Levin. "The commissioner has not seen any new evidence that would warrant lifting the ban."

Rose says he has lined up handwriting and fingerprint experts to refute baseball's experts, and he has taken to casting aspersions on John Dowd, the special investigator appointed by Giamatti who compiled the original evidence. Dowd is unmoved. "The evidence against him is overwhelming. We have betting slips, records from bookmakers and 113 witnesses."

But suddenly talk of evidence seems fusty as Rose, who now claims he never had a gambling problem and who still regularly bets on horse racing, has succeeded in transforming his case into a sentimental cause, tapping into our national willingness to forgive errant public figures. Think of Bill Clinton, Marion Barry and even fellow baseballer Darryl Strawberry, who all admitted fault, showed contrition and were forgiven. The difference is Pete Rose wants back into baseball on his terms. This is one instance where his greatest traits, his drive, hustle and never-say-die determination, may be the very characteristics preventing him from providing what baseball, its fans and Pete himself need most: a simple apology. Say it is so, Pete.