So long as he remains on baseball’s permanently ineligible list, Pete Rose’s presence at any major league team event sends a negative message as things stand already. But when he appeared at Citizens Bank Park to join the commemoration of the Phillies’ 1980 World Series winner, the mere negative went to grotesque in the same speed of light by which Rose made it so in the first place.
Not because of Rose’s Rule 21(d) violations that got him banished from baseball in the first place, but because Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alex Coffey had the temerity to do her job Sunday afternoon.
“I asked Pete Rose what he would say to people who say his presence here sends a negative message to women,” Coffey tweeted. “His response: ‘No, I’m not here to talk about that. Sorry about that. It was 55 years ago babe’.” What “that” was is the early 1970s extramarital affair he conducted with a girl who wasn’t quite at the legal age of consent when it began.
That revelation first emerged in court in 2017, during Rose’s defamation lawsuit against John Dowd, the attorney who first investigated the depth of his baseball gambling under the aegis of then-commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti. Two years earlier, Dowd gave a radio interview in which he said Michael Bertolini—through whom Rose often bet on baseball and whose notebooks had notes aplenty on those bets—told investigators Rose had “underage girls” brought to him during a spring training and, shall we say, engaged sexually with them.
The specific girl in question, the one who prompted Coffey’s question to Rose in the first place, provided the court a sworn statement in a motion. It amounted to saying Rose committed statutory rape, since the legal age of sexual consent in Ohio then and now (Rose was with the Reds at the time) is sixteen years old. (Both sides dropped the suit later.)
Rose was fortunate that he was beyond arrest and prosecution over that, since the statute of limitations for statutory rape expired long before that affair came to light. Morally, of course, it was another stain upon him well before he couldn’t help himself with Ms. Coffey.
“It was 55 years ago, babe?”
Put aside for one moment (and only one) the message Rose’s cavalier dismissal and term of address to Coffey. Consider that his presence Sunday sent a negative message to women and men as well as baseball. For a few grotesque moments the Phillies looked like a team that couldn’t have cared less about anything beyond a cocktail of nostalgic self-celebration and the ballpark gate.
After Sunday’s on-field ceremony, the Inquirer itself noted, Rose was made available to the press and asked about Coffey’s question and his comment. “I’m going to tell you one more time. I’m here for the Philly fans,” Rose replied. “I’m here for my teammates. I’m here for the Phillies organization. And who cares what happened fifty years ago? You weren’t even born. So you shouldn’t be talking about it, because you weren’t born. If you don’t know a damn thing about it, don’t talk about it.”
That’s the man who once said of Cincinnati naming a street after him that they “should have named an alley after me, the way I acted in school” and who once displayed a knowledge of baseball history that was almost as encyclopedic as his at-the-ready knowledge of his own statistics. (“We’re going down,” Rose once told a teammate when the Reds’ flight hit harsh turbulence, “and I have a .300 lifetime batting average to take with me. Do you?”)
He must have missed or ignored history classes having nothing to do with baseball and everything of the very anchorage that says teachers teach and students learn and discuss events far older than a mere half century.
“He’s an intellectual from Yale, but he’s very intelligent,” Rose said of Giamatti’s successor Fay Vincent. What would Rose know about intellect or intelligence above and beyond ninety feet between the bases, sixty feet from the pitching rubber to the rear point of home plate, and how to make enough occasions involving his old teams about himself above them?
What Rose does know is selectivity. Once upon a time it was the kind that enabled him to become (if you didn’t believe it, he’d tell you proudly) baseball’s first million-dollar singles hitter. Today it enables him to dismiss such inconvenient truths as his lifetime banishment for violating Rule 21(d) (he says of it that he was “suspended”) and his ancient but no less disgraceful extramarital dalliances with a girl who should have been thinking of the prom instead of the ballplayer old enough at minimum to have been her father.
Rose’s permanent banishment, of course, means that any of his teams who wish to include him in certain event must ask permission from the commissioner’s office. It’s probably a stretch to presume Rob Manfred will dismiss future such requests after Rose’s Sunday grotesquery, since this is a commissioner to whom the common good of the game usually involves making money for it first and Rose remains perversely good box office.
But if Rose hadn’t been so bluntly dismissive of Ms. Coffey’s very legitimate question, maybe the worst that would have come forth from Sunday’s doings and undoings would have been Rose’s 1980 Phillies teammate Bob Boone.
Bad enough that Boone had “no idea” whether Rose’s ancient dalliance with a teenager was considered when other 1980 Phillies insisted he be part of the celebration. Almost as bad: Boone saying, “This is the best hitter we’ve ever had. And he did some things wrong. If you want to, put something on the board that says he did these things wrong, but I always felt he has to be in there. He’s not in there, but I’m telling you, he’s the greatest hitter to ever play.”
This is the best hitter we’ve ever had?
Well, now. The best hitter on the 1980 Phillies posted a 1.004 OPS. He played his entire career with the Phillies, has a franchise-high 106.8 wins above a replacement-level player (WAR), and has the highest Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), .626, of any Hall of Fame third baseman who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era.
If Rose hadn’t written the script that got him banished not just from baseball but from standing for Hall of Fame election, he would be one of twelve postwar/post-integration/night-ball era Hall of Famers with a sub-.490 RBA. (Rose’s is .483.)
The best hitter the Phillies have ever had—who just so happens to have been named both the 1980 National League’s Most Valuable Player (one of his three such awards) and the Most Valuable Player of the 1980 World Series—was unable to attend Sunday’s doings because he tested positive for COVID-19. “I’m sorry that I can’t be with my championship brothers,” said Mike Schmidt in a video statement to be shared for the occasion.
“To have his body,” Rose once said of Schmidt, “I’d trade him mine and my wife’s and I’d throw in some cash.” To have Rose’s self-inflicted (and permanent, not “lifetime”) banishment from baseball and the Hall of Fame, self-soiled reputation, and self-imposed image as a statutory rapist who eluded account for it simply because of the statute of limitations and, we assume, his one-time teen paramour’s longtime reluctance to speak up and out, Schmidt probably wouldn’t trade even one brain cell.