It’s often noted that, in these days of Twitter and TMZ and (at least) three 24-hour ESPN channels, it’s hard to think of an athlete as a flawless hero. It’s just not possible for a public figure to completely control their own image anymore. Fans are inevitably going to know more about the private life of Derek Jeter than they did about Mickey Mantle. We can (and do) argue about whether this is a good or bad thing for our culture and The Children, but pretty much everyone accepts it as a fact.
Except Pete Rose (and Alex Rodriguez, though we’ll get to that). And for fans of a certain age that grew up rooting for the Cincinnati Reds or Philadelphia Phillies (or Les Expos!), Rose’s present-day state as the excuse-making, memorabilia-shilling shell of a once-great player must be tough to reconcile. From bygone days, there was the irascible Charlie Hustle, the Hit King, the eat-my-dust attitude. Today, there’s the sad-sack autograph salesman and irrelevant exile who keeps finding new ways to jump into the public sphere and beg people to like him again. His latest attempt is to martyr himself on local sports radio by comparing himself to drunks and addicts and wife-beaters, the ones who (in his words) “get a second chance” from baseball:
“You have to understand, I don’t call these guys to do shows, they call me. And of course with all this steroid talk and the 12 guys being suspended and A-Rod appealing, they want my input because I’m suspended for life. Hey, everything is a different case. I made mistakes. I can’t whine about it. I’m the one that messed up and I’m paying the consequences. However, if I am given a second chance, I won’t need a third chance. And to be honest with you, I picked the wrong vice. I should have picked alcohol. I should have picked drugs or I should have picked up beating up my wife or girlfriend because if you do those three, you get a second chance. They haven’t given too many gamblers a second chances in the world of baseball.
“I understand what happened there. I understand the whole thing about guys throwing the World Series. I don’t like to be compared to Joe Jackson. because Joe Jackson, I think, took money to throw World Series games. Well, I know I bet on my own team to win. There’s pretty much a big difference there, but both of us were wrong.”
Rose is using the none-of-us-is-perfect defense, which is true as far as it goes, except for the part where he thinks that anyone, at this point, cares whether Pete Rose is formally rehabilitated by Bud Selig. Rose’s cluelessness is vast if understandable. At 72, and nearly 24 years after MLB’s decision, Rose has now spent a third of his life in a very specific state of denial, evolving over time from claiming he never gambled on baseball (he did, a lot) to campaigning for baseball to have him back. Exactly how detrimental his actions were to the game, and whether he does deserve Hall of Fame election in the face of such actions, is a fine debate to have if you’re into that kind of thing. But here’s something that an official pardon from MLB won’t do: change anyone’s opinion of Rose or his legacy. That might have been true in the days when a widely respected figure like Bart Giamatti used MLB’s authority to actually ban Rose from the game — but now, after the 1994 strike, the farcically inept policing of PEDs, and countless public revelations of misbehavior by Rose and other players past and present, what fan is going to base their opinion on an official statement from the institution that tried to sell advertising space on second base to the producers of Spider-Man 2?
What Rose seems to want is to return to the Charlie Hustle days — the time that people liked the officially endorsed version of Pete Rose they saw on TV. It’s the same kind of inability to let go of image control that we’ve seen from, yes, Alex Rodriguez. At this point, many players have been busted for using PEDs. Most of them serve their suspensions and resume their careers without becoming clubhouse cancers and punch lines. The modern fan can handle flaws — if a player does something ill-advised, it’s going to get out, whether that’s via a reporter or someone at the club taking pictures with their phone. But A-Rod couldn’t leave well enough alone, take the hit, and carry on: He had to go and make a maudlin public apology and do a Katie Couric interview and make appearances for anti-PED organizations while, if reports are to be believed, continuing to dope with the help of the Biogenesis clinic. Like Rose, A-Rod still thinks that he’s one staged PR coup away from being a hero to the children.
He’s not. And he’d be better off realizing it and letting his impressive career speak for itself. As less-than-sympathetic figures, Rose and A-Rod have always been best-served by letting others fight for them. Maybe they’ll come to grips with reality one day and we can all get a second chance ourselves at moving on, but betting on that feels like a fool’s wager.