What is Pete Rose’s explanation for failing to remember, throughout his life, his mother’s birthday?  “I just can’t seem to concentrate on things I’m not interested in.”

Ever since the news broke that Pete Rose was ready, after 14 years of lies, to admit what most people already believed—that, yes, he did bet on baseball—the sports world, and territories beyond, have been obsessed with the story.  The fullness of Rose’s confession can be found in his new book, My Prison Without Bars (written with Rick Hill).  The book begins with Rose’s desire to clear things up before heading off for “the big dirt-nap”; and it ends with his resolution to leave his pre-nap future in the hands of “the big Umpire in the sky.”

As for what Rose has to say in the intervening pages . . . well, where to start?  The book is one huge detonation of denial, blame-shifting, contradiction, and defensiveness, not to mention screaming ego, utter obtuseness, colossal—even awesome—self-absorption, and total macho b.s.  It is shocking without being engaging, hilarious without being funny, and believable without possessing the slightest hint of emotional truth.  To experience 322 pages of Pete Rose’s personality is to be in the presence of a man whose mind is inside out: Everything is positioned directly opposite its proper place.  To endure the logic of My Prison Without Bars is to understand anew the meaning of the phrase beside the point.  Rose’s idea of being a stand-up guy: “Throughout my life, if I did something wrong, whether it was making an error [on the field] or cheating on my wife—I took responsibility.”  Rose’s explanation for avidly spending 40 years’ worth of free time losing money at racetracks: “I reckon you might call me ‘a creature of habit.’”  Rose’s reasoning as to why, even now, as he seeks reinstatement in Major League Baseball, he will not stop gambling: “Hell, nobody said I had to become a monk!”  And oh, what a task now faces the big Umpire in the sky.  One imagines him staring blankly at the celestial walls and muttering, “Sinners I can handle.  But boneheads . . . ”

Pete Rose exhibits two fundamental problems, neither of which is interesting within the context of his personality.  Both are compelling, however, when seen as reflections of our current cultural condition.

Rose’s first problem is that he is constitutionally incapable of accepting the fact that two plus two equals four.  He cannot absorb the principle of cause and effect.  The effect with which he struggles is his banishment from Major League Baseball.  The cause was his betting on Major League Baseball.  The foundation of the circumstance that generates his misery is MLB’s legendary Rule 21, the most famous commandment in all of sports: “Any player . . . who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.”  Rose broke that rule—with a vengeance, it turns out—and suffered the consequences.  His response to that thoroughly unambiguous instance of cause and effect is the angry refrain of his book: “The punishment didn’t fit the crime!”

In other words, two plus two does not equal four.  It equals 7 or 12 or 31—whatever sum convenience or desire dictates.  Rose wants what he wants because he wants it.  He wants what he wants because politicians get away with corruption and celebrities get away with lies; because athletes in other sports get away with drug addiction and spousal abuse (behavior that, Rose implies, makes compulsive gambling by comparison a positively healthy form of recreation), and because ordinary citizens get away with things that famous people cannot.  He wants what he wants because he is Pete Rose, and despite the fact that he is Pete Rose.  He wants what he wants because there has to be a way to get it, and, if there is not a way, there should be.

If Rose’s perspective sounds familiar, that is because, while extreme in him, it is not unique to him.  The fact is, we live more and more in a Roseian world, a place where two plus two does not always equal four because—well, who the hell says it has to?  We see around us the creeping application of a new syllogism: Being stigmatized is wrong; rules are stigmatizing; therefore, rules, by their nature, are unjust.  Furthermore, no matter what you have done, it is not that bad because there is someone somewhere who has done something worse.

America is now divided pretty much between the Roseians and the non-Roseians, and, in such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that the Rose case stimulates heated debate, even outside the sports world.  It is bigger than baseball because it offers uncomplicated, even streamlined, consideration of personal responsibility.  It is a metaphor for our times, one of the cleanest possible encapsulations of the question Do the rules matter?  (For those keeping score: The non-Roseians are being steadily inched toward defeat.)

Pete Rose’s second problem is that he is constitutionally incapable of engaging in what has become the required public ritual for celebrity rehabilitation.

There was a time when public figures who found themselves in trouble went into lockdown mode: Don’t be seen; don’t be heard; hide out and hope it all blows over.  Sadly, those wonderful days are gone.  The contemporary method for handling a public-relations crisis requires a sequential series of specific maneuvers.  The drill has become universal and applies equally to politicians, film stars, sports figures, and corporate honchos.  The drill’s all-important final move demands, as we know all too well, the public—i.e., televised—spilling of guts and tears, along with great showy displays of both remorse and wounded innocence.  And the more humiliating and self-debasing, the better.  This spectacle is now the unavoidable price a cornered celebrity must pay for the chance to be allowed back into the public’s good graces.

Of course, nothing in the ritual requires the celebrity actually to be remorseful.  The consideration of real remorse—felt contrition—simply is not part of the drill.  What the ritual requires is that the display be sufficient—sufficient to give us, the public, a sense of power.  Examples are ubiquitous.  On one side, you have, say, some huge ex-NBA star, ginning up tears and self-regret for Barbara Walters, finally putting the cherry on the sundae by turning and blubbering into his wife’s bosom.  On the other side, you have the public (and the media), its most cynical instincts aroused, smugly scoring the performance: Not enough, Mr. Bigshot, not enough.  A little more . . . a little more . . . still more.  There! Yes! You are now blubbering into your wife’s bosom.  I declare you sufficiently demeaned and your performance a success.  Go forth and blubber no more.

Pete Rose’s strategy for getting back into Major League Baseball has blown up in his face not because he lacks contrition but because he will not fake contrition.  He is the Gary Condit of sports.  Both sportswriters and fans are in a state of agitation with Rose because he is either too stupid or too stubborn to debase himself.  Says Rose, in a much-quoted passage from his 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.”  Personally, I doubt Rose truly has accepted that he has done something wrong (he is not built that way, either), but that is not his problem.  His problem is that he has denied those on the other side their rightful role in dispensing absolution.  Say what you will (and I have said plenty over the years), Pete Rose is not a guy who is going to go publicly blubbering into his wife’s bosom.  And for that—not for the betting on baseball—he will not soon be forgiven.

And therein lies the irony of Rose’s dilemma.  When he finally accepts (on whatever level) the traditional concept of cause and effect, he is undone by its modern counterpart.  He waits 14 years to offer a confession, only to be blindsided by the fact that what is required of him is a performance.  In his book, Rose talks repeatedly of his lifelong desire to “give the fans their money’s worth.”  What he cannot or will not grasp is that his confession is being judged by showbiz standards, and emotionalism is the currency of our times.  In this system, everyone counts as a fan, and no fan will have gotten his money’s worth until Rose has been sufficiently humbled.

Pete Rose wants what he wants, and he wants it bad.  He wants to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he wants (horrors) another shot at managing a Major League team.  What he does not want is to have to “act [act] all sorry or sad or guilty.”  So the guy is in a bind, and we will just have to wait and see whether a man so self-absorbed and lacking sentiment that he cannot remember his mother’s birthday can bring himself to pull out the stops and do the full-blown contrition dance.

I am not banking on it.  The thing about boneheads is that they are nothing if not predictable.  And with that, let us thank the big Umpire in the sky for small favors.


[My Prison Without Bars, by Pete Rose, with Rick Hill (New York: Rodale Press) 288 pp., $24.95]