Monday, January 05, 2004

Pete Rose has finally admitted betting on baseball.

The announcement comes as a shock to no one, but I can't tell you how profoundly strange it is to hear those words coming out of his mouth after all these years of denial.

I worked with Pete Rose at the SportsFan Radio Network from 1995-1997. It would be going too far to say that we were friends, but we got to know each other as well as you get to know most coworkers. I was based (as was most of the network) in Las Vegas. Pete usually did his radio show from his restaurant in Boynton Beach, Florida via an ISDN hookup.

Once every month or two, he'd come out to Las Vegas to do his show for a few days--usually live from our broadcast set at the MGM Grand sports book. Often, I was the on-set producer for those broadcasts. Though he had a roving band of lackeys and hangers-on, they stayed out of the "booth," and so during the two hours of the program, I'd get to shoot the breeze with him during the commercial breaks about everything from the toughest pitchers he ever faced (Koufax, Gibson, and believe it or not, Randy Jones) to his ban from baseball. Through it all, Rose never admitted that he bet on baseball. Not a wink, not a nod, not any indication of the truth. He always relied publicly and privately on the commissioner's official statement in 1989 that baseball made "no finding" as to whether or not he bet on games.

I liked Pete Rose. In my time around him, I saw some very unappetizing things. He's a deeply flawed guy in innumerable ways. He is driven, as he concedes, entirely by appetites. But there is a better side. Despite being a rather big-named star, he treated the rest of us like teammates. He was even nice enough to once let me and another guy hitch a ride with him in his hotel-provided limo for the long trip from Lake Tahoe to the Reno airport. I never saw him turn down an autograph seeker. He doesn't drink a drop of alcohol (which often suprises people). And when he's in a good mood, he can be enormous fun to be around.

The thing about Pete is, he likes to gamble. No kidding, Sherlock. Right? But I mean, he really likes to gamble. He can't not gamble. It's part of who he is. He's the most competitive person I've ever known, and long past the point of being able to compete physically, he seems to channel that competitive instinct into gambling. There was nothing he wouldn't gamble on for the sheer thrill of competition--even eight or nine years after his banishment from baseball.

During the radio program, he'd be doling out $50 and $100 bills for one of his lackeys to run up to the sports book window to bet on the next horse or dog race. The MGM showed races on TV monitors from at least four or five different tracks at once. Pete bet all of them. And he only bet to win--never to place or show. He rarely won. But he couldn't not bet.

One time, we were all watching an NFL game on the monitor, and he bet one of our hosts $100 (off the air) that one team would do an onside kick on the next play. The host, a little embarrassed said "Well, Pete, I really don't have $100 bucks I can spare. I'm not quite in your income bracket." No problem, said Pete. "If I'm wrong, I'll give you $100. If you're wrong, you don't have to give me anything." As it turned out, Pete was wrong, and he handed the guy a crisp c-note. It seemed like it was worth it to him; the kickoff just wouldn't have been interesting without something riding on it.

Another time, several of us watched in amazement as Pete played blackjack (a real rarity--he is almost exclusively a sports bettor) for $1000 per hand. He lost $12,000 in less than ten minutes.

I'm convinced that he frequently bets everything he has. Because of who he is, his name is an endless source of renewable income (at card shows, etc.), but I doubt that he has anything in the bank. During the aforementioned limo ride out of Lake Tahoe, from where we had been broadcasting for their annual celebrity golf tournament, Pete wistfully commented on how beautiful Lake Tahoe was. "I could stay here a while," he said.

"You ought to," I said. "We have to be back in the office for the weekend, but there's no reason you can't stay."

Pete leaned forward and pulled out his empty wallet.

"With what, Johnny?" he shot back with a grin. "I ain't got any (bleepin') money left!"

I never entertained any illusions that Pete Rose didn't bet on baseball. I would have been shocked if he didn't. As I said, betting is who he is. For that reason, I think baseball needs to work out a deal that will allow Rose to enter the Hall of Fame, but not to have any day-to-day involvement with a Major League Baseball franchise. If he were allowed back into the game, it would only be asking for trouble.

But I also know this: the betting rules in baseball are in place to forestall the possibility that a player or manager might be tempted to throw a game to cover a bet. Pete Rose would never, ever, ever bet against himself in anything. The desire to win is the reason he gambles to begin with. Yes, he broke the cardinal rule of baseball, and yes, he deserves to be punished for that (though one could argue that the punishment has been more than served). But no one ever need question the integrity of a game Rose played in or managed, which is what this is all about to begin with.

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