Baseball: Rose hustles one last time in pursuit of enshrinement

Letter From America: Public's love-hate relationship with baseball great continues with release of a third autobiography

You might think an initial print run of 500,000 is a bit optimistic for an autobiography whose sole selling point is that it confirms what everyone remotely interested in the matter has known for 15 years. But My Prison Without Bars, say trade insiders, will enter the New York Times book list next weekend at No 1 - proof anew of America's consuming love-hate relationship with the disgraced baseball idol Pete Rose.

Rose, beyond argument, is one of the game's all-time greats. In a 24-year career spent mostly with the Cincinnati Reds, he collected 4,256 hits, a record that will probably never be beaten. In the modern era, no player has come within 900 of that mark. In a sport which reveres statistics like no other, Rose leads in half-a-dozen separate statistical categories.

Surely therefore, if anyone is a shoo-in for admission into baseball's ultimate cathedral, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, it is Pete Rose. But there's just one problem. As My Prison Without Bars belatedly admits, Rose committed the sport's ultimate, unforgivable sin. In the 1970s and 1980s, as both player and manager, he bet on games.

As a rule, baseball takes a pretty accommodating view of human shortcomings. Ty Cobb, for instance, whose hits record Rose surpassed in 1985, was a bigoted racist cheat, who, as a player for the Detroit Tigers in the early decades of the last century, even jumped into the stands to pummel a crippled fan to whom he took exception. The accepted view of Cobb was succinctly put by Babe Ruth (himself an epic boozer and fornicator): "Ty Cobb is a prick."

But Cobb was elected a founder member of the Hall of Fame in 1936 without a murmur. Today, steroid use by players, which may contaminate baseball as much as betting ever did, goes virtually unpunished. Indeed, Satan himself would probably be let into Cooperstown provided he had pitched enough no-hitters.

Gambling, however, is different. It raises baseball's worst nightmare, the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal when a betting syndicate bribed several Chicago White Sox players, including the legendary "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, to throw the World Series, and almost destroyed the sport in the process.

Immediately afterwards, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote Rule 21, posted to this day in English and Spanish on the wall of every major league dressing-room. Bet on baseball, it says, and the penalty is a minimum one-year suspension. Bet on your own team, as Rose now publicly admits he did, and the punishment is life.

Thus Rose, who was banned in 1989, and Jackson are both excluded forever from the Hall. But their public images could not be less alike. Jackson, owner of baseball's most romantic nickname as well as its third highest lifetime batting average, has become an almost elegiac figure. Over the half-century since his death, admirers have fought in vain to have him reinstated. He now exists in a sepia-tinted universe, in feel-good movies like Kevin Costner's Field of Dreams. Pete Rose, on the other hand, has as much poetry in him as a punter in a betting shop on a rainy Wednesday afternoon.

As a player he was never endowed with special speed, grace or power. Grit, determination and chutzpah were the qualities Rose had by the truckload. His own nickname, "Charlie Hustle", says it all: a fast-talking scrapper with a permanently bad haircut, who took life by the scruff of the neck. A typically schizophrenic baseball writer once labelled him "one glorious jerk".

Contrition, naturally, is not his forte. "Yeah, I said I did it, isn't that enough for you guys?" is his version of a confession. To be fair, however, when Rose insists he only bet on the Reds to win, you have to believe him. No one ever tried harder than Pete Rose. No one is less likely to have thrown a game.

As always, though, doubts remain. For one thing, this is no less than the third Pete Rose autobiography. The first avoided the subject of betting, the second was a pack of lies - and some wonder even now whether even this latest and very lucrative effort belongs in the fiction, rather than non-fiction, category.

And what about the timing of its publication? As the book sales show, the public has a soft spot for "Charlie Hustle", an affection already apparent when Rose was introduced before the second game of the 2002 World Series, and received a 70-second standing ovation, amid chants of "Hall of Fame, Hall of Fame".

More pertinently, however, under the institution's rules, 2005 is the last year when he can be elected by the baseball writers. This group is broadly sympathetic to his cause. Thereafter he can only be elected by the Veterans Committee, made up of his fellow players, who are much less so.

In short, Pete Rose is hustling one last time, for speedy reinstatement. But as a betting man, he must agree his odds of making the Hall are 50-50 at best.

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