Confession not enough

Pete Rose's confession merely confirmed the obvious. What's missing, so far, is true remorse.

Originally Published: January 5, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Let's get this part of the Pete Rose saga straight, right off the old bat:

The big revelation here in Pete Rose Week is not that the Hit King is finally admitting that he bet on baseball.

Pete Rose
Pete Rose's return to the game remains very much in question.

If there was actually anybody left on the continent who still believed he didn't, we've got a major story about the Easter Bunny we'd like to break for you.

If John Dowd was really inventive enough to make up all that stuff in the Dowd Report about Rose placing 412 baseball bets in three months, this guy should never have been a private investigator. He should have been cranking out more best sellers than John Grisham.

So whether you like Rose or dislike him, whether you thought he should be reinstated or you didn't, you should never have been basing that opinion on any na´ve notion that the Hit King never bet on his favorite sport.

If you want to argue that Pete Rose has already paid for his crime, that's a fine argument. But this was never about guilt or innocence. Not anymore.

We should recognize that all Rose is doing now is exactly what he was told he had to do if he ever wanted to get back into this sport in any form -- admit he bet on baseball. So he admitted it to Bud Selig 14 months ago. Now he's admitting it in public.

But what you should be judging this week -- as you read Rose's book, as you hear him talking to Charles Gibson on ABC on Thursday -- is whether he has done the other things that Selig and his reps have told the Hit King he has to do. Here are the five questions we wanted answered this week:

1) Has he sufficiently reconfigured his life?

2) Does he now really understand the evils of gambling?

3) Has he apologized -- sincerely and convincingly -- for doing what he did, and for lying about it for nearly 15 years?

4) Has he expressed any true contrition for the damage he did to baseball?

5) And, maybe most importantly, how can this man possibly express the right words to admit to baseball's most heinous crime -- but do it in a way that would make it acceptable to then turn around and reinstate him?

We've now heard and read excerpts from Rose's interview with Gibson on "Prime Time Thursday." We've now read a 10,000-word excerpt from his book, "My Prison Without Bars," which appears in this week's Sports Illustrated. So if we jump to any conclusions now, we concede we're jumping to them without having read the entire book and without having heard the whole interview.

But based on what we've heard and read, here is how we would answer those questions at the moment:

Has he reconfigured his life?
There's no easy way to answer this, short of hiring our own private detective to follow the Hit King 24/7. But we've known Rose long enough and spoken to him enough in recent years to believe there is nothing he wants more than a second chance.

When we spent some time with him one afternoon in Cooperstown 2½ years ago, we heard him admit, for the first time in our memory, that he'd royally screwed up his life and he was looking for a way to unscrew it.

"Do you think anybody is more unhappy about the way the last 10-12 years of my life have gone than I am?" the Hit King asked -- between nonstop signatures at a Cooperstown memorabilia shop. "You think this is how I wanted my life to turn out?"

We've spent many hours of our life talking to Pete Rose. And we've never heard him sound sadder or more unhappy with his fate than that. So if baseball wants him to reconfigure his life, we believe he's trying -- even if it's within the unique confines of the Pete Rose Universe.

Baseball has been watching him long and hard. And so far, the baseball people we've spoken with are convinced that at least all his current betting is legal. The question is: Is that enough.

Rose writes in his book: "Nobody said I had to become a monk! And yes, I continued to visit the racetrack, but I went only three or four times a month -- not every day like I used to do. And I always stayed within my means."

Would he be better off dodging the track 31 days a month instead of 27? Of course. But he's made some effort. Whether it's good enough is Bud Selig's call.

Does he understand the evils of gambling?
In his book, according to the Sports Illustrated excerpt, Rose reveals that he saw a psychiatrist after he was banned from baseball. He says the psychiatrist eventually was able to convince him that he had "a problem."

"I had gambled past the point of being able to control it," he writes. "I had slid right past inappropriate gambling and right into gambling with my career -- a bet I lost."

So if the Hit King is finally admitting to the "problem," that's a good thing. What's not a good thing is that, while he obviously understands how all that gambling harmed him, we get no sense that he understands how it harms his sport.

He speaks of how he never bet against his own team, and how he never placed a bet from the clubhouse, and how he never used "inside" information, and how he would never, ever fix a game -- no matter how much money he could have made.

But we're still waiting for some recognition that he now understands that a manager who gambles -- even on his own team to win -- is just as dangerous to his sport as a manager who bets on his team to lose.

Remember, if a manager has a couple of thousand bucks riding on any given game, his perspective on everything changes.

Is he really caring about what's best for his team, over the long haul, that night? Does it matter that if he's already used his closer three nights in a row and probably ought to give him a break? Can he really afford to give his cleanup man the night off the day after he's tweaked a hamstring?

Heck, no. All he sees are the dollar signs at stake in that game. Which raises a million questions about everything that goes on.

But there are no signs, in either the book or Gibson excerpts available so far, that Pete Rose understands that side of his gambling "problem." And that's a major red flag.

Does he say 'I'm sorry' convincingly enough?
In what we've heard and read to this point -- both in the Gibson interview and in the Sports Illustrated book excerpts -- how often does Rose use the magic words, "I'm sorry?" Exactly twice.

You'll find words like "mistake" and "stupid" and "wrong" in there -- many times, in fact. But here is the only context in which he uses the word, "sorry":

"I'm sure that I'm supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I've accepted that I've done something wrong," Rose writes in the book. "But you see, I'm just not built that way. Sure, there's probably some real emotion buried somewhere deep inside. And maybe I'd be a better person if I let that side of my personality come out. But it just doesn't surface too often. So let's leave it like this: I'm sorry it happened, and I'm sorry for all the people, fans and family that it hurt. Let's move on."

There may be more "I'm sorry's" coming -- in both the book and the interview. But if that's all we get, that isn't enough.

It's fine to say he's sorry to the "people, fans and family" who were affected by all of this at some level or another. But the first impression of one baseball man we spoke with Monday was: "It's all about him." And that's not the way this was supposed to work.

He can't just be sorry for how this hurt Pete Rose. Or Pete Rose's family. Or all those anonymous "fans" who were disillusioned by this. No, there's a bigger question we need answered here. Which is ...

Is he sorry for what he did to baseball?
Whatever you think of Pete Rose, you need to understand one thing:

He does care about baseball.

He knows more about current players, about all 30 teams and about every game in the big leagues just about every day than almost any former player we run across. We've spent too much time talking with him about baseball stuff he has no business caring about to doubt that the Hit King has a legitimate passion for the game that defines him.

But nowhere in the book or interview excerpts we've seen or heard does Rose express any sense that he has harmed his sport -- or that he's looking for ways to undo that damage in any way he can.

When Rose went to visit the commissioner in Milwaukee last winter, our understanding was that he was told that expressing guilt was just the first step toward reinstatement. Among other things, he was also going to have to express honest contrition for what he'd done to a sport he loves.

Since he has about 100 interviews scheduled this month to pump up this book, he'll have many opportunities to express that contrition publicly. But if what we've read and heard so far is as far as he's willing to go, then he hasn't gone far enough.

Has he helped or hurt his chances of reinstatement
As of Monday, Bud Selig hadn't read this book. When he does, you can (ahem) bet he'll be reading it verrrry carefully.

We're not sure why Rose's publishers decided to release this book this week. We'd always assumed it was because Rose thought he'd be reinstated by now.

But that isn't how it worked out. So the response to the book -- and all the interviews that will be part of the promotional package -- will give Selig a chance to evaluate where the public really stands on Rose's reinstatement. And it's more material for the commish to study to determine whether this is a man who deserves to get that second chance.

For 14 months now, Selig has known this day was coming. He has known there was going to come a time when Rose looked into some camera somewhere and admitted: "Yeah, I bet on baseball."

The question was never whether that was going to happen. The question was how Rose explained himself, how he worded his confession and apology.

Well, now we know his take. He has painted himself as a guy who went through the ultimate "midlife crisis" and had his life spiral out of control. In both the book and the ABC interview, he does what he has done for years -- compare himself to a player who has a drug or alcohol problem.

Baseball gives those players a way out -- through rehab. But all it gives gamblers is a boot out the door. So Rose portrays himself as a man who felt he "should have had the opportunity to get help," like those drug and alcohol guys. But because his only reward for admitting his crime to Bart Giamatti would have been permanent suspension, and because he wasn't sure baseball had any "hard evidence," he denied the charge.

And once he'd denied it, he got himself so far out there on a plank of lies and denial that he didn't know how to get back. Then, after almost 14 years, Selig offered what he interpreted as the chance for a plea bargain. So the Hit King is only doing now what he thinks is his last hope to crawl off that plank.

But has he done enough? Said enough? Said it convincingly? Said it in a way that would make the men who run baseball, his former teammates, the players he once managed and the fans who form the court of public opinion think it's OK to let him back into the game?

Our feeling is: He may have done enough and said enough to be allowed back onto the Hall of Fame ballot. But he needs to do more. We would let Pete Rose work in baseball, but not the way he wants to work.

This shouldn't be just about him, and about his desire to manage and make money. The question should be: What's in this for the sport of baseball?

Let him work to sell the game he loves -- promote it, talk it up, teach it, remind people of why they once loved it back when guys like him had dirt all over their pants 162 times a year. If somebody in baseball wants to pay him to do that, great.

But should Pete Rose ever be allowed to manage again? Not off what we've heard and read so far this week.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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