Reinstatement in jeopardy

Reinstatement once seem inevitable for Pete Rose. Now sources say the Hit King is sinking in quicksand.

Originally Published: January 8, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It's a good thing for Stephen King when he writes a best seller. It's a good thing for J.K. Rowling when she writes a best seller. But Pete Rose? Before long, he might just wish he'd never written anything more intricate than a $25 autograph.

Bud Selig and Pete Rose
Will Bud Selig still be willing to extend a forgiving hand to Pete Rose?

Yes, it sure smells like trouble on the best-seller list for the Hit King these days. "My Prison Without Bars," may be turning into the most talked-about book in America. But there are growing indications that good capitalism and good reinstatement strategy might not necessarily go hand in hand.

Asked this week if Rose's book could put his seemingly inevitable track toward reinstatement in jeopardy, one source who has been involved in Rose's reinstatement negotiations replied: "Absolutely."

"If you're asking me where this is headed," the source said, "I'd say he's going to end up worse off than he was a month ago."

How? Why? Let's count the ways. And we'll need both hands.

1. HE'S CAUGHT IN CATCH-22.

It always sounded so simple: If the guy would just come clean and admit what he did, it would open the door to reinstatement.

But now that it's actually happened, now that Rose has actually admitted -- in public and private -- that he committed baseball's most heinous crime, it's clear that he's caught in one of the most thorny catch-22s of all time.

If he admits to the crime, then he also has to admit to nearly 15 years of nonstop lying about it. And if he admits to being a criminal and a liar, the natural reaction of an astounding number of people this week has been: Why would baseball ever want to reinstate somebody like that? And why would anyone want to put a guy like that in the Hall of Fame?

So the very condition that was laid down to open the door for reinstatement might in fact be opening the door to an earthquake of backlash -- which could eventually make his reinstatement impossible for his personal chief justice, Bud Selig, to sell.

2. THE TIMING.

Could the Hit King have picked a worse possible time to release this book and shove himself back out there to center stage? Even he admitted to that gaffe this week.

He has the people in Cooperstown, who weren't exactly presidents of his fan club before, furious that he's upstaged the election of Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley.

He has the writers who vote on the Hall of Fame -- the same people who would have to elect him -- outraged that he has managed to turn their most prestigious honor into an "In Other News" kind of story.

And worst of all, he looks like a guy who is trying to stuff his own pockets by confessing his crime -- before the jury (i.e., Selig) has returned its verdict.

But from what we're hearing, the plan was for this book to hit Barnes and Noble after Rose was reinstated. The buzz is that it was the Rose camp's assumption that his agreement with the commissioner would have been all set by now.

"They tried to get a deal done before the book came out," said one source. "The problem is, (Rose and his coterie) wouldn't let (Selig) know what was in the book."

That not only left Selig unwilling to make any deals without knowing what Rose was about to say in print, it also left him desperately trying to scrounge up an advance copy of the book. From all accounts, the commish has been trying to get his hands on a book for weeks. But a source close to Selig tells us that, to his knowledge, the commissioner still hadn't received a copy as late as Wednesday.

Rose and his camp tried Wednesday to do last-minute damage control on the timing of Monday's Sports Illustrated book excerpt and on Monday's initial airing of his "I did" confession to ABC's Charles Gibson. But according to one source close to Rose, it wasn't just stories in the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer that accelerated the timetable.

Our source claims that Rose recently gave an advance copy of the book to a Cincinnati friend, Jeff Ruby. And when Ruby (who denied this account to the Cincinnati Post on Thursday) began telling people what Rose would reveal in the book, it was a factor in the decision to move the publication up to this week. The book originally had been scheduled for release in March.

But it was no secret, to Rose or anyone else, that the new date happened to be the same week that the Hall of Fame election results would be released. So no amount of sorry-about-that-timing apologies are going to wipe away the legitimate backlash that come from all who care about the Hall of Fame.

And none of these timing-related snafus have slipped Rose's reinstatement onto the fast track, to say the least.

3. IS HE TELLING THE TRUTH?

Rose hasn't claimed yet that he's been misquoted by his own autobiography. But there are probably better odds on that happening one of these days than there are of the Reds winning the NL Central.

Already, questions are arising about discrepancies between Rose's account of his betting and the account spun in John Dowd's fabled 225-page investigation in 1989.

Some of this can be chalked up to a classic version of the old game, "I-Said, No-He-Said, So-Who-Knows-What-Really-Happened." But Rose's claims that he never placed a bet from inside his clubhouse, that he never used any inside knowledge of his own team and that he never pumped other baseball people for information are ringing more hollow than the Lincoln Tunnel.

And if enough of these factual inconsistencies keep bubbling to the surface, "that could bring the whole Dowd Report out of the woodwork," one source predicted. "And Pete sure doesn't want that."

4. UH-OH. HEEEEEERE'S TOMMY.

Just when Rose's old bet-liaison pals, Tommy Gioiosa and Paul Janszen, had just about faded away for good, now they're suddenly everywhere, getting more air time than Katie Couric.

Not that they're paragons of credibility, either. But Rose's past is scattered with just enough unsavory characters who think they've been scorned that the last thing he needs now is to find them pointing fingers at him on every channel but Nickelodeon.

Meanwhile, friends of Rose tell us that over the last couple of weeks, they've been bombarded by calls from reporters trying to dig up all sorts of dirt from Rose's past -- whether it's relevant to the issues at hand or not.

Maybe none of that will be believable, either. But we live in an age in which the public's ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, relevance and irrelevance, serious journalism and epic tabloidism seems to decline daily. So the more this stuff -- and these ghosts from Rose's past -- pop up, the worse it could be for the Hit King's public image.

5. WHO'S SORRY NOW?

If there has been one common reaction so far to Rose's attempt to apologize for his mistakes, it's that the only thing he has seemed truly sorry about was what happened to himself.

"It shouldn't have been that hard," said one baseball official. "Why couldn't he have just said, 'I made a tremendous mistake. I embarrassed myself. I embarrassed my sport. And I'm truly sorry about that?' "

Instead, we get statements like this, directly from the book: "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. But you see, I'm just not built that way."

Fine. So maybe he isn't. But this is a man whose only real hope for reinstatement is to maintain his status as a sympathetic public figure. And defiance is no way to throw yourself on the mercy of the court.

"The No. 1 law here," said one baseball official, "is: You don't go through the motions of saying you're sorry."

6. DOES HE UNDERSTAND THE GRAVITY OF HIS CRIME?

When a man is trying to strike a plea bargain, the last thing he ought to do is tell the judge -- or jury -- his crime wasn't such a big deal in the first place.

But Rose's insistence, in this book, that he didn't think he'd violated "the spirit" of the anti-gambling rules looks like another monumental faux pas.

Rose made this case by saying: "During the times I gambled as a manager, I never took an unfair advantage. I never bet more or less based on injuries or inside information. I never allowed my wagers to influence my baseball decisions. So in my mind, I wasn't corrupt."

As you read those words, how could you not be asking yourself: "I didn't just read that. Did I?"

"He tries comparing himself to these drug guys and these alcohol guys," said one outraged source. "But it's real simple. If you work for the CIA and you tell somebody something you're not supposed to, that's the ultimate crime. And if you're a baseball player or a manager and you gamble on baseball, that's not the same thing as if your neighbor is betting with a bookie.

"If you're a baseball player or a manager and you bet on a baseball game you're involved with in a material way, you're committing the ultimate offense within the community of the game. But he still doesn't get that."

7. HOW CAN HE JUSTIFY STILL HANGING OUT AT THE RACE TRACK?

Multiple sources tell us that when Rose left Selig's office 14 months ago, he was well aware that he was, essentially, on probation. One thing that meant was that the commissioner planned to intently monitor Rose's behavior -- particularly his gambling habits.

So when Rose almost immediately was spotted in Las Vegas, gambling at two different casinos (including the sports book at Caesar's Palace), it was considered by Selig to be a major violation of his unofficial probation.

While Rose has apparently stayed out of the casinos since, he continues to insist in his book that gambling legally at horse-racing tracks three or four times a month should be considered no big deal.

But the commissioner's office is believed to differ. While Selig apparently is willing to draw a distinction between betting at the track and a sports book, there is still concern that Rose just doesn't get it on his self-admitted gambling "problem."

"Is it legal? Sure," said one baseball official. "But it looks bad. It all gets thrown together under 'bad judgment' on the check list."

8. BEWARE OF TOO MUCH PUBLICITY

Another one of Selig's requests to Rose in that Milwaukee meeting was that the Hit King keep as low a profile as possible while his reinstatement was being considered. But over the next three weeks, the only way Rose could keep a higher profile is if he takes a bullhorn up to the top of the Empire State Building.

Thursday marked the beginning of an intensive promotional tour to pump his book. And that means he'll be doing interviews over these next few weeks with everybody but Homer Simpson.

Oh, Rose is eminently capable of turning that into a good thing. He's done more interviews in his life than headfirst slides, and he's far more savvy than his detractors give him credit for. So he can -- and in fact needs to -- use these sessions as an opportunity to express far more convincing contrition than we've seen so far.

The trouble is, hard as his publisher has tried to hand-pick his interviewers, he has opened the door for an onslaught of tough questions he clearly doesn't want to answer at a time like this. Which creates way too much potential for him to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing and raise more questions about the credibility of the book.

"These interviewers are going to get into his life all over again," said one source. "And they're going to bring out stuff he doesn't need to have brought out again."

Rose's words and actions over the last year have already taken the steam out of any momentum he'd once built toward convincing Selig to reinstate him. Now, if just one rocky interview turns the wrong way, the whole process could sink into quicksand.

SO NOW WHAT?

One thing seems clear: If Selig hasn't reinstated Rose by now, he won't be willing to consider it again until at least next fall. If ever.

By the time this latest wave in the never-ending furor dies down, it will be February. So spring training will be just a long fungo away. And the commish has no intention of upstaging the action on the field with any Pete Rose action off the field.

So we're probably looking at next November, at the earliest, before there's even a chance of Selig bringing the Rose case back into his courtroom. And by then, who knows where the chain of events launched by this book will have led both of them?

For nearly 15 years, baseball has allowed Rose to position himself as a sympathetic martyr in the eyes of a huge segment of the public. Now, all of a sudden, he isn't looking so sympathetic.

After years of living with all the calls and letters from fans urging Selig to bring the Hit King back into baseball, people in the commissioner's office say they've been stunned by the reversal of that tide in the last week. Since Monday, the anti-reinstatement calls and emails have vastly outnumbered the pro-Pete sentiment, they say.

"He's done a lot of damage to himself in the court of public opinion," said one source. "And that's the court he's always thrived in."

It's still possible that Selig is so far down the road in negotiating the terms of Rose's potential reinstatement that it might be tough for him to find a place to do a U-turn. But if this book, or its aftermath, creates an opening for the commish to bail on the entire affair, watch closely to see if he bolts through that hole like Ahman Green.

At any rate, one source involved in all this has reminded us that Selig often referred to the late commissioner, Bart Giamatti, as his best friend on earth. Now the heat on the current commish to somehow honor Giamatti's legacy is beginning to feel like Key West on the 4th of July.

"All I know," laughed the source, "is that Bart Giamatti must be spinning in his grave this week faster than the speed of sound."

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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