No denying: Rose in world of his own

October 27, 1999|By Bob Ryan | Bob Ryan,BOSTON GLOBE

Among all the greats and greatests who are being properly honored as the first full century of baseball draws to a close, there is no doubt which of them is the most misunderstood by the preponderance of the American sports-loving public.

Among those who care, the warts and foibles of the game's greats are well-documented. Babe Ruth was a world-class carouser. Ty Cobb was a world-class bully and bigot. Grover Cleveland Alexander was a world-class drunk. Other Hall of Famers have had monumental human failings. But no player of great stature has succeeded in charming and conning the American public anywhere near as well as Peter Edward Rose, the degenerate gambler and world-class denier who gives new meaning to the phrase "own worst enemy."

Pete Rose is a reverse alchemist. Everything he touches turns to excrement. Thanks to his presence at Turner Field last Sunday evening, millions of Americans now think Jim Gray is a bad guy while others whose opinions count think commissioner Bud Selig is a fool for allowing Rose to be a participant in the All-Century ceremony in the first place.

Among those espousing the latter viewpoint is John Dowd, the Washington attorney whose investigative report on behalf of the late Bart Giamatti led to Rose's lifetime ban from baseball in 1989. Dowd has been widely quoted as saying it was a "sham" to allow Rose on the field with the other 17 living members of the so-called "All-Century Team" (anyone who doesn't understand that Honus Wagner remains the greatest shortstop of all-time or who thinks Nolan Ryan is one of the top six pitchers ever is a baseball ignoramus). Dowd is furious with Selig for allowing it to happen.

Poor Bud. He was in a lose-lose situation. If he had barred Rose from participating, he would have been branded by most people as a heartless Inspector Javert who was denying a persecuted Jean Valjean his one remaining moment of baseball glory in front of adoring fans. But by permitting Rose to take part, he is now being vilified by the hard-nose likes of people like Dowd, who believe that Rose's presence alongside men who chose not to break baseball's most sacred law is an obscenity directed toward the game itself.

As usual, Bud was simply trying to be Mr. Nice Guy. He is a baseball fan to the core who loathes what Rose did, but he was willing to allow Pete his opportunity to be remembered for his baseball achievements. Selig never will lift the ban on an unrepentant Rose. He was saying, "OK, Pete, I'll let you have this because you were the fans' choice, but don't ever expect anything more." Selig was also stroking the MasterCard people, who undoubtedly would not have been pleased had a banning of Rose become a pre-ceremony cause celebre.

Gray absolutely did the right thing, asking the only proper opening question of a serial liar. The fact-lacking public, far more ready to believe Rose's ludicrous denials of clear damaging evidence than it is to do a little homework, has chosen to besmirch Gray. Should he have let up when it was obvious Rose wasn't going to admit culpability? Perhaps. It was a very uncomfortable interview to watch, and after the second Rose denial, it was going nowhere.

Gray has gotten where he is because, unlike 99.9 percent of his TV brethren, he will ask the tough question. Some of the people criticizing him for roughing up Rose loved it when that same Jim Gray conducted an award-winning interview with Don King that was handled in the exact same vein. But it's one thing to grill one of America's chosen punching bags, and another to put Pete Rose's feet to the fire, isn't it?

Rose is an amazing American phenomenon. He made more out of himself athletically than he had any right to accomplish by virtue of his limited physical gifts, and he did as much during the first four-fifths of his career to promote the game as anyone not named Babe Ruth ever has done.

And then he ruined it all.

Rose says he loves baseball, and that is undoubtedly the truth. What's equally and undeniably true is that what he loves more than baseball, more than his wife, more than his four children, and more than life itself, is gambling. He is a totally sick gambler who is so twisted and demented in his ongoing pursuit of his truest love that he has concocted a fascinating fantasy history for himself during his tenure as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, in which there are no betting slips with both his fingerprints and his signature on them; no lengthy list of eyewitnesses; and no phone records that were, in Dowd's words, "totally devastating evidence."

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