Steroids rap and all, Pete Rose Jr. plays on

Originally Published: August 31, 2006
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. -- It's not easy being Pete Rose Jr. Not when you can't swing the bat like the old man. Not when you're 36 years old, still busing around the independent leagues in a delusional pursuit of another big league shot. Not when you hear the nightly rags from well-lubricated fans about Charlie Hustle's banishment from the game.

Get this straight, though: The kid adores his dad. Always has and always will. His own 1-year-old son is Peter Edward Rose III. But if you listen to Petey, as he's known in baseball circles, the hot-button Rose name -- not the guilty plea Pete Jr. entered last November to distributing performance-enhancing drugs to teammates -- is the reason he spent a month earlier this summer locked up in a 10-by-10 foot jail cell in Boone County, Ky.

Pete Rose Jr.
Dan Minicucci for ESPN.comThe son of the Hit King stands in for the Bridgeport Bluefish these days.
"Your worst nightmare and top it by 10 times," Rose Jr. says about his jail stint. "I was put in the back where I was in my cell 23 hours a day, and got to be out for an hour to shower, walk outside if I wanted to. I was back with three other guys. And those guys made it real easy on me as far as just talking to me, kind of keeping me calm. It was scary."

Rose freely admits he used GBL, a steroid alternative. He says he took it as a sleep aid to help in his recovery from a knee injury in the summer of 2001 while he was playing for the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts in the Cincinnati Reds' farm system. But he disputes the distribution charge. Rose told ESPN.com he provided the GBL, which was legally sold in health food stores until it was banned in 2000, to only two teammates -- one nursing an elbow injury, the other a bum shoulder -- and never scored a profit.

"You know what? It stinks," says Rose Jr., who signed with the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League after his release from jail. "But who am I? I got a name. And people tell me the only reason I am in this mess is because of my name. It kind of makes you shake your head. It is just not fair.

"From 1-to-30 in this case, I was 30 [in terms of involvement]. But now all of a sudden, they have a name in their investigation and case. There was no reason to come after me. There was no reason to send me to jail for 30 days. I wasted taxpayers' money. What did that do? Nothing. But I did it and I am accepting responsibility. But the whole thing is, I'm not a shady person. I never have been. I never will be."

The Drug Enforcement Administration described Rose as part of a larger investigation into a national GBL trafficking ring. At least 18 people were charged in the probe, including Bruce Michael Wayne, a Murfreesboro, Tenn., bodybuilder who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute the steroid alternative and money laundering charges, then became a fugitive while awaiting sentencing.

Federal prosecutors said this week that aspects of the GBL investigation remain ongoing, and sternly disputed Rose's assertion that he was targeted because of his name. In his signed plea agreement, Rose admitted to supplying GBL to a "number of players'' on the Chattanooga team.

Pete Rose Jr.
Dan Minicucci for ESPN.comPete Rose Jr. has at least one thing in common with his famous father now: a criminal record.
"We don't charge people based on what their name is,'' said Zach Fardon, first assistant U. S. attorney in Nashville. "We charge people based on evidence and where the investigation naturally leads. This is an investigation that started well before we knew that Mr. Rose would ever be caught up in it. By virtue of the way the investigation evolved, we ended up at his doorstep. So the notion that he was charged or convicted because of who he is just not accurate.''

On a recent afternoon as he sat by his locker inside Citibank Park before a game with the Long Island Ducks, Rose Jr. detailed his legal woes for the first time since his release from jail. Much like his famous father's tone back when he was fighting gambling charges, Rose Jr.'s words rang defiant as he rationalized his own legal scrap. Back in May, he described the judge's sentence -- which includes five months house arrest to be served after the baseball season -- as "very generous." He had faced a maximum sentence of 20 years and a $1 million fine. But Petey is bitter about the family name being publicly sullied again.

"[Prosecutors] say in court that they know you didn't make a dime off of something, [so] how do you sell something if you're not going to make any money?" Rose says, trying to minimize his role. "I helped out two of my teammates. It wasn't half of the team. And it wasn't what everybody cracked everything [up] to be. I was always taught to go to the ballpark, show up on time and play hard. And that was right before my big knee surgery. I used the stuff and that was the mistake I made. But as far as the whole distribution thing, it is all a bunch of crap. But it is because of the whole steroid thing, everybody thinks that I'm this big East Coast dealer of this stuff."

Rose says he was introduced by a friend to a personal trainer, who pitched him on the virtues of GBL. At the time, Rose was 31, struggling to grind through another season of Double-A ball, and desperate to stay in the game.

The left knee on which he'd had surgery in the offseason (and on which he'd eventually need more surgery following the 2001 season) had flared up, the throbbing pain keeping him awake nights. The Reds were giving him a second chance in Chattanooga. Rose said he forced himself to play through the pain, with the help of GBL.

When taken orally, GBL (Gamma-butyrolactone) converts in the body to GHB (Gamma-Hydroxybutyrate Acid), described by federal officials as a potent drug that has been promoted as a sleep aid, a sexual stimulant and a steroid alternative. Advocates claim that the drug stimulates production of human growth hormone and thus produces muscle mass and weight loss.

Pete Rose and Pete Rose Jr.
AP PhotoFather and son posed at the 1977 All-Star game in New York City.
"It is unbelievable," Rose says of GBL. "They say a lot of body builders take it. Yeah, they do, because it puts them in such deep sleep; and they probably can't sleep from being on so much [performance-enhancing drugs]. It was sold as a cell-recovery [aid], where it helped you rest. Got a good night's sleep; woke up the next day feeling great. That is why I used it. I'm a baseball player. I wanted to do everything I could to get to the ballpark. I just got released from the Phillies' [Double-A team early in the 2001 season]. I don't want to get released by the Reds [organization] again. I want to do everything I can.

"It helps you recover. And that is what we were all looking for, helping us to recover from the day-in, day-out of the grind. You get something that can help you sleep and help you recover, why not try it? It's one of those things where you tried it, and 'Wow, this stuff is pretty good.' It is like anything else. If you drink too many beers, you're going to get in trouble. If you do too many shots of whatever, you're going to get in trouble. If you smoke too many cigarettes, you're going to get in trouble. But if you do it the right way … It is something I don't want anybody to do; but I did it because, hey, I was trying to get back to the big leagues. It helped me."

In March, Major League Baseball hired former Sen. George Mitchell to spearhead an investigation into steroid use among big-league players. To date, Rose says he hasn't heard from anyone associated with the Mitchell probe.

John Clarke Jr., an aide to Mitchell, told ESPN.com it is a matter of policy to decline comment about the investigation.

"Why I would hear from them?" Rose asks. "I'm not a steroid guy."

As for how common the use of GBL and other performance-enhancing aids is among minor-league players trying to cope with the physical daily grind, Rose told ESPN.com: "I can only speak for myself. I'm a different kind of ballplayer. I do whatever I have to do to get ready to play. I mean, that is what I was taught. I'm an old-school kind of guy. I'm sure guys do different things. But you'd have to ask different guys that, because I'm not a guy that looks around and sees what everybody else is doing. Nor do I care what everybody else is doing."

Rose Jr. has his father's stocky build, and there is a strong facial resemblance, too. As a left-handed hitter, he uses his father's famous crouched stance at the plate, although it is not quite as pronounced. And, like his father, Rose Jr. is a gregarious baseball lifer.

Pete Rose Jr.
Dan Minicucci for ESPN.comIt's the minor leagues, but Rose is still a celebrity in Bridgeport.
He was 15 that night in September 1985 when his father laced a single to left-center that made him baseball's all-time hit king. The kid rushed from his dugout perch to embrace his dad at the first-base bag.

Since then, he's watched as his father was jailed for tax evasion and banned from baseball for betting on the sport. But his devotion has never wavered.

"You got to understand something: I got a normal dad," Rose says. "The only difference is, my dad has the most hits in the game. We talk about baseball. We talk about his grandson. We talk about everything. It is the press that makes me and my dad out to be like some kind of aliens or something. We have a normal relationship. He is my idol. I love him. If I need him for anything, he is a phone call away. And if he needs to get on a plane and come, he does.

"I am so thankful and lucky that I get to call him dad. People don't understand that, because people think he is some horrible, degenerate-type of person. And he is a great guy."

On this August night on Long Island, as No. 10 strides to the plate, he is introduced over the PA system not as Pete Rose Jr., but as P.J. Rose. That's the way he's listed on the lineup card and stat sheet, too. He made the switch last year as a tribute to his young son, nicknamed "PJ" for Pete Jr.

Of course, it also allows him to slide under the radar of some of the hecklers, though he still catches abuse most nights on the road. It always gets back to the family name and his dad. Petey, here's 100 bucks. Want to bet on the game?

Pete Rose and Pete Rose Jr.
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesPete Jr. had the stance mastered at an early age, if not the hit-machine swing.
"I have been dealing with crap about my dad since Little League," he bristles. "I'm not supposed to make an out, because I am Pete Rose's son. It's just typical too-many-drinks stuff, and non-Pete Rose fans that want to just bury you because of who you are."

The infielder with the famous name is a journeyman minor leaguer, one whose best days came at the Double-A level. Hard as he has tried, Junior has never been a carbon copy of his old man on the field. Not even close. He's bounced around a laundry list of minor-league towns for 18 years now.

His only sniff of the big leagues came in a September 1997 call-up to the Reds. Petey had two hits in 11 at-bats (a .143 average), leaving him 4,254 hits shy of his father's major-league record. Nearly a decade later, Rose Jr. gripes that he wasn't given a fair shake, that he got only one start, that he didn't get invited to the Reds' camp the following spring.

He's been begging for chances ever since. The past three years, he's played in unaffiliated independent leagues, hitting .262 with 14 homers and 55 RBI last summer for the Long Island Ducks, another Atlantic League team. After Wednesday night, he is hitting .307 with four home runs and 22 RBI in 30 games for the Bridgeport club.

"I'm like everybody else in here. I want to play in the big leagues again," says Rose, glancing around the clubhouse at a group of big-league castoffs and career minor leaguers. "Will I have the chance? I don't know. I'm here playing; and whatever happens, happens.

"This is all I have ever done in my life. I'm just playing baseball. I'm having fun. I am doing something I love to do and I have done for 18 years."

Pete Rose Jr.
AP Photo/Al BehrmanIn Pete Rose Jr.'s first-ever major league at-bat, he struck out using a bat given to him by his father.
It certainly isn't the paychecks that keep Rose & Co. suiting up every night. The average salary in the Atlantic League is around $2,000 a month. After housing and other cost-of-living expenses are factored in, there is little to bring home. And that's tough on Rose Jr.'s young family back in Cincinnati. His wife is expecting their second child around Thanksgiving.

His chances of seeing another big-league check are "probably a long shot," says Bridgeport manager Dave LaPoint, a former big-league pitcher. It helps a little that he hits left-handed and can play both first and third base. The scouting report also reveals that he's a decent clutch hitter, a contact guy who doesn't strike out a lot.

At 36, Rose still doesn't have any plans to get out of the game. LaPoint suggests it'll only happen when the uniform is yanked off his back.

"Being a celebrity is like a drug in itself," LaPoint says. " It's in your system. You're in the limelight. Even in this league, every night we're playing in front of 3,000, 4,000, 6,000 people. And there are little kids that want your autograph. You're playing under the lights against Juan Gonzalez (currently playing for the Long Island Ducks) and guys who made a name in the big leagues. And we're not prepared to do anything else, basically. This game doesn't really train you for a whole lot of occupations afterward."

And so Pete Rose's kid, tough like his old man, grinds it out and keeps waiting for a call. It isn't easy.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.