I can’t speak to Pete Rose fairly. I suppose I will ask that anyone who feels like they can refrain from doing so here. I know what you’ll say. I don’t need to hear it.
You see, Rose was my first and all-time greatest sports hero. To say I worshiped the guy doesn’t come close. I wanted to be Pete Rose.
My Dad grew up in Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati, and my grandparents still lived there when I was a kid. So we actually got to see a fair number of Big Red Machine games. We’d park my grandparent’s car (the 65 mustang that would later be mine) on the Covington side and walk across the bridge to Riverfront Stadium…I in my hat and glove…dreaming my own dreams of Major League greatness.
I worshiped all the members of the Big Red Machine. And I still marvel how I got to see them play so many times. But Pete was at the top of all my worship.
My grandmother waited for hours outside of a grocery store to get his autograph on this tshirt. I wore this tshirt one time.
For as long as I’ve been alive since and in every house I’ve ever lived, I’ve known exactly where that tshirt is. (In a bottom drawer, tenderly folded and stored…)
All this is to say, unlike the many who always hated Rose or who only ever grudgingly admired him, I cannot speak about Pete Rose fairly. Don’t expect me to slam him. And I’m well past defending him.
What there is. for me, is a great, cavernous, and unhealable sadness. Because not only was he my first great hero, he self-evidently also became my introduction to the idea of the fallen hero. He was the one who gave me the innocence of baseball fantasy; and he was the one who took it away.
Unlike many who will read this, I love Pete Rose and some part of me always will.
I even love the part of him that’s an unrepentant liar and cheat. The part that’s so clearly addicted to gambling, fame, and the spotlight. The part that had to know he’s been lying all these years, and yet was so deep inside his deception he couldn’t let it out. (And still can’t).
For all of Pete’s addictions and flaws (and there are many) his scandal also taught me about our greatest societal addition too: the love of the scapegoat.
We love to set up our heroes. We love to knock them down. And then, we love to sit back and watch what will happen next.
Will they be redeemed?
Will they reform and be invited back into community?
Or will they continue their sin, so that we might continue to feel superior to them?
This is our “bread and circuses.” Of all the sports we love, this is the sport we love the most. And we all do it. ALL. THE. TIME.
And at my age, I’ve come to realize that we no longer really cares which choice —redemption or shame- the fallen hero makes. Either way, it provides us the entertainment we crave.
The only mistake we make in all this, of course, is the idea that the ultimate choice is belongs to us (to reject or re-welcome) or to the hero (to sin or repent).
The ultimate choice is always God’s, of course. And God tipped God’s hand long ago.
God has a soft spot for assholes.
When this truth fully permeates our being, we understand why it gets called “The Gospel.”
As I said, either way…whatever choice the hero makes…it’s entertaining along the way. And entertainment and distraction, I’ve come to realize, is more often than not what we’re really after in a hero anyway. Their escapades distract us from our own sins and shortcomings, either choice they make.
So, we soak up our “bread and circuses” from our Arm Chairs, permanently exempted (spectators that we are) from examining our own lives too deeply.
Some might think that all of this moralizing is a veiled attempt to defend Pete Rose.
It is not.
I am well past that with him.
I understand that Pete has likely blown decades of in-process redemption, one final time. And, no, I don’t need to be reminded as to why. Really, I don’t.
Instead, I write all this to say what I said at the beginning. Pete Rose is the one who has taught me the most about heroes, and fallen heroes, and the leering fascination we have with both.
In the end, all I can finally say is what I’ve said for several decades; and, apparently, what I will now say for the rest of my life…
“Say it ain’t so, Pete.”