Book review: “Pete Rose: An American Dilemma” by Kostya Kennedy

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Book review: “Pete Rose: An American Dilemma” by Kostya Kennedy

kennedy --- pete roseKostya Kennedy paints a compelling portrait of one of baseball’s greatest — and most scandal-laden — players in Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. The “dilemma” part, though, is more problematic.

As it is with many baseball fans, I know Pete Rose from watching him play, and later from watching him being banned from baseball, from watching him deny and then, finally, admit that he bet on baseball games, including those of the Cincinnati Reds when he was the team’s manager.

Here in Chicago, we loved to hate him. I suspect that’s how it was for all other fans, except those rooting for Rose’s team. His hustle of running to first base on a walk was, as Kennedy notes, “a piece of showmanship, a splash of needless panache.” We saw it as a piece of hot-dogging.

But his hustle in fielding and in running the bases, his hustle in out-thinking his opponents as a hitter and as a manager, his hustle in supporting, promoting, mentoring and cheerleading his teammates — those were game-changers. And we hated him even more for that.

Even as we respected him and his accomplishments which, ultimately, included reaching and passing Ty Cobb to become the all-time Hits King with 4,256.

About Rose’s hustle, Kennedy writes:

Rose’s approach to the game elevated not only his career, of course, but also the careers of many players around him, Hall of Famers as well as legions of less accomplished players…there was nothing superfluous in the way he went after it when the all was live. “If playing with Pete Rose did not inspire you to play the right way I don’t know what did,” says Dough Flynn, who was a part-time infielder for the Reds in the mid-1970s. “He ran out everything. I mean everything. Comebacker to the pitcher in the ninth inning of a lopsided game, Pete is busting down the line.”

Chatter-scat

In baseball, Pete Rose is one of a kind. His hard-nose, blue-collar, take-no-prisoners approach to the game was unparalleled in his era and remains so today. There were players in the early decades of the game who had some of his qualities — Cobb, of course — but they fit their times. Rose was someone, not just out of the past but out of another dimension.

He just never stopped. Never thought of stopping. On the basepaths, in a game, in a season, in his career. In his life.

An example of his forever-revving motor, Kennedy writes, can be experienced today anytime and anywhere Rose appears:

Rose’s talk — which, in some ways, is the essence of the man — is an eternal spatter of language, a ragtime of quips, anecdotes, jokes and memories ever unfolding. Baseball, horse-racing, Cincinnati, his wife, his son, a remembrance of running out of gasoline 50 years before, the Los Angeles Lakes, the idiosyncrasies of some small American town, dugouts, clubhouses, breasts, Mike Schmidt, Bud Selig, infield dirt. …In banter, Rose has a bright face with bright things in it: a joker’s mouth and a rascal’s eyes.

In a reference to jazz, Kennedy calls this Rose’s “scat” and “chatter-scat.”

Who he is

There’s no filter on Rose’s talk. Just as there’s no filter on how Rose deals with people:

You’d get the same Pete Rose whether you were President Reagan or a fan in the leftfield bleachers. Whether you were [Reds owner] Marge Schott or a bookmaker; a trackhand or the commissioner of baseball; the third basemen on Pete’s team or the third baseman on the other team. You could be a guy mooked up on steroids running shitcan errands for Pete or a gentleman in his tennis whites up on Given Road. Dugout, green room, box seat, back alley. For better and for worse everyone got the same Pete Rose.

In a way, Rose is hyper-authentic. He is who he is. And part of that is that he is, Kennedy writes, devoted to money and is upfront about that devotion. After doing some celebrity spots for Wrestlemania, he was criticized by baseball writers for acting undignified. To which he responded: “I would let them throw me into the stands if they paid me enough.”

“Ill-equipped”

In a 1979 Playboy interview, Rose summarized his philosophy: “Nothing bothers me…I don’t worry about a bunch of things.” This, Kennedy writes, is key to grasping who Rose is:

If there is one thing to understand about Pete Rose, to understand what helped him keep an almost inconceivable level of concentration on the field and also to understand the mental blinders he wore at crucial times through both his ascent and his fall, it is this: He did not worry.

Kennedy throws around a lot of literary allusions, most of which seem superfluous. But he doesn’t call Rose’s life a Greek tragedy — although he might have. It certainly plays like the plot of a tragedy from any civilization’s literature. The hero’s fatal flaw does him in. In Rose’s case, the flaw — his drive, arrogance, self-sufficiency; his single-mindedness, his lack of distractions — won him great success and also laid him low.

This is clear, Kennedy writes, in the 2004 autobiography that Rose co-authored with Rick Hill, My Prison without Bars:

What hits home by the end of the book, and what is reinforced by years of watching his public life, is the depth of Rose’s limitations, how ill-equipped he is to answer the demands for humility, contrition and self-awareness that society asks of him. It is indeed enough to make you feel, if not empathy, sympathy after all. There remains something heart-breaking about the way Rose revealed himself at the time of his public confession — a man tapped like many men by his own pathology, trapped by his own delusions and denials. Indeed, a prison without bars.

All these transgressions

I’m buying what Kennedy is selling. He seems spot-on in his evaluation of Rose and what makes him tick.

It is a sad story, ultimately. A man of great hubris and great ambition who triumphs because of how limited his life is. And who fails for the same reason.

But when it comes to the “American dilemma” of the subtitle, I think Kennedy oversteps.

He makes a run at trying to compare the cheating of the steroid era with the gambling that Rose did. It seems he would like to, somehow, find a way to say Rose’s sin was more venial than the sins of Alex Rodriguez and the other players who have used performance-enhancing drugs. Yet, to my mind, at least, he gets lost in the murkiness of it all.

Kennedy finds himself arguing that the widespread use of amphetamines — by Rose and many other major leaguers during his era — “did not grossly transform player production, wreak havoc on the record book and distort the day-to-day product on the field. Steroids have.”

Well, maybe. But, maybe, it’s just that we could identify the steroid users more easily because of their bulked-up bodies.

And is one form of cheating worse than another? Kennedy points out that, while Rose has been kept out of the Hall of Fame, Gaylord Perry was welcomed with open arms — despite bragging, throughout his years in the big leagues, about his use of the illegal spitball and even titling his mid-career book Me and the Spitter.

Is the spitter worse than gambling? Is gambling worse than steroids? Are steroids worse than the spitter or than amphetamines?

Kennedy gets snowed under by all these transgressions. As, in fact, we all tend to do when looking at sports figures whom we saw as heroes but now recognize as flawed human beings.

Moral clarity

Nonetheless, I come away from in Pete Rose: An American Dilemma with a clearer head.

Rose’s story is his. Still, I think there are parallels in the lives of many of the steroid-era heroes who denied their involvement up to the moment they were caught.

Cheating is cheating is cheating.

I have come to think that the Baseball Hall of Fame is a place separate from the game itself. No question, Pete Rose is the Hits King with 4,256. But, as great as he was, I would hope that the Hall never lets him in.

Yes, I think character counts. Or, better put, I think bad character isn’t something the Hall should celebrate.

I hope they don’t let the steroid guys in either — although I’m sad because some of the players I cheered on and was inspired by are in that group.

It’s a lesson about heroes. Great athletic skill doesn’t require moral clarity.

Indeed, as in the case of Rose, moral clarity only complicates things. He could do so much for so long with such energy because he wasn’t distracted by such complications.

He didn’t worry.

Patrick T. Reardon
8.6.2014

2 Comments

  1. Craig Weed says:

    Good evening, Patrick–

    I came across your review of the Pete Rose biography, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, by Kostya Kennedy, while searching for another book.

    I grew up in the greater Los Angeles area; Orange County, to be precise. I was 8 years old when the Dodgers–and, sadly, the Giants–moved to the West Coast. I became a big fan of the Dodgers, bleeding more Dodger Blue than that blowhard Lasorda ever did. But I digress.

    I used to play a game with myself; a time-or-three a season, I would consider the question, “What player not on the Dodgers would I like to see on the Dodgers?” Now, that was a long time ago, but I cannot remember a player OTHER than Pete Rose ever being the answer. The man was focused on winning the game.

    Now, I can understand his being banned from baseball for his gambling habits. But there is NO WAY in the world that the ALL-TIME HITS LEADER SHOULD NOT BE IN THE HALL OF FAME.

    I think it would be appropriate for his plaque in the HOF to have as asterisk(!) after his name and, at the bottom of the plaque, have the words: “Banned from Major League Baseball for betting on games while he was manager of the Cincinnati Reds,” or words to that effect.

    As to your opinion that “…as great as he was, I would hope that the Hall never lets him in. Yes, I think character counts. Or, better put, I think bad character isn’t something the Hall should celebrate,” if such a standard were upheld by the Hall of Fame, a few of the residents would be homeless.

    Ty Cobb, the man supplanted by Rose as All Time Hits leader, serves as a prime example of my allegation. To put it bluntly, Cobb was an All Star asshole. He was all about winning, too. And a man who one would not want to take home to meet the parents. I wouldn’t have minded having him on the Dodgers, had be been a few decades younger.

    The Hall of Fame is not “… a place separate from from the game itself.” Without the game of baseball, there would be no Hall of Fame, due to the lack of inhabitants.

    To end this note in a gentler fashion than my taking you to task for your opinion of Pete Rose’s ban from baseball rightfully including residency in the Hall of Fame, I’d like to end this with an anecdote involving Ty Cobb, in his later years.

    Cobb was interviewed for a book by a sportswriter name of Al Stump during the years 1960 & ’61. You’ve may have seen the movie “Cobb,” starring Tommy Lee Jones as Cobb and Robert Wuhl as Stump. At some point during those interviews, Stump asked Cobb how well he thought that he would do against the modern-day pitchers. Cobb replied, “Oh, .330, maybe,” or words to that effect. Stump replied that, given Cobb’s career batting average being “.366 or .367, depending on the source,” do you think that the pitchers are that much better, today. Cobb came back with, “You’ve got to remember that I’m almost 80 years old!” Stump did not have the impression that Cobb was joking.

    Sincerely,
    Craig Weed

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      Craig —

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m a Yankee fan, and, like you, I wonder on occasion what player I wish my favorite team had from the rest of the league. Usually, I come up with Dustin Pedroia or Justin Verlander (at lest when he’s not injured).

      Regarding the idea of putting Rose in the Hall, you may be right. The idea of a plaque with a note has some merit.

      Still, I’m troubled by guys like Rose and A-Rod. It seems that their bad character involved threats to the game (through gambling and through steroid cheating). Cobb’s bad character made him a more fiery player, and some of his more noxious characteristics, such as his racism, were of a more private nature. If Cobb had been a public leader of the Ku Klux Klan, that could have been seen as a threat to the game.

      Thanks for writing.

      Pat

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