Rose-Colored Glasses: Kostya Kennedy on ‘Pete Rose: An American Dilemma’

Twenty-five years have rolled by since Pete Rose was banned from baseball for gambling on the game while serving as manager of the Cincinnati Reds. It’s been only ten since Rose, after years of strong denials, finally admitted to it, though he made sure to make cash from his admission, putting it in the pages of his 2004 book, My Prison Without Bars. Rose doesn’t excel at contrition. That weakness has helped leave him on the outside looking in when Hall of Fame induction time comes around each year. If there were a soft touch among baseball commissioners who even mildly considered letting Rose back in, the seventy-two-year-old’s continued arrogance and obnoxiousness haven’t helped him convince anybody that his case should be reconsidered. Rose remains ineligible to be inducted at Cooperstown even as the names of known performance-enhancing drug users such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens appear on the ballot for consideration.

This is a conundrum author Kostya Kennedy touches on in his new book, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. Kennedy, an assistant managing editor at Sports Illustrated who scored a big hit with his first book, 2011’s New York Times bestseller 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, spends most of the captivating Dilemma, though, artfully deconstructing Rose’s car crash of a life and the effects its had on others, particularly his brother Dave, a Vietnam vet whose pro baseball hopes were cut short by a motorcycle accident, and his son, Petey, who spent eleven games with the Cincinnati Reds and more than twenty years banging around the minors.

Kennedy’s detail-rich book makes clear that Rose isn’t winning any Father or Husband of the Year awards and self-reflection for him is only done in a mirror. He’s still an unapologetic gambler and makes most of his money signing his name endlessly on pretty much whatever is put in front of him. What isn’t likely to be put in front of him is the thing that he most covets: a Hall of Fame plaque. Kennedy recently shared his thoughts via email about Rose’s chances of eventually getting into the Hall, the art of storytelling, and how men communicate. —Mark J. Miller

The Barnes & Noble Review: You wrote a chapter about Rose and his forty-four-game hitting streak in 56. What made you want to sink your teeth into this one right here and right now?

Kostya Kennedy: Spending a day with Rose a few years ago at one of his extended autograph sessions in Las Vegas made a real impression. There was something unresolved about him, and something unresolved as well in the way people (customers) interacted with him. This wasn’t clean or simple, the way an encounter often is when a fan meets an athlete. Seeing this made me realize that the Rose story, the layers of it, offered a real chance to explore. And that it is alive and charged. Rose himself is different now; his story has taken new turns and there is clearly new context, a changed landscape. Today’s ethics around sports, and baseball in particular, have been shaped in part by the Steroid Era. All in all Rose, here in his evensong, provided rich character and rich story with which to work. And in many ways the things that define him — the ideal of the way that he played and the seriousness of his sin as a gambler, are more trenchant now than ever.

BNR: So much of the book centers on the relationships of families, particularly fathers and sons as well as brothers, and the family of pro baseball. The players look out for one another, squabble with one another, and are stuck with one another – for good and for bad — just like siblings. While reporting this book, what stuck out to you most about the way men communicate with and about one another?

KK: Anything here is an absolute generalization of course, but a couple of things come to mind. Men, that is, these men, in this context, tend to joke with one another when they communicate, tend to poke fun at themselves or one another or a situation. The idea, conscious or not, seems to be to keep the interactions unencumbered — often because they are unencumbered but also when the relationship or interaction is in fact weighed down. There’s also a strong tendency for men to judge other men on their ability and talent. Men regard a man differently if they feel that he’s good at the thing he does. It doesn’t have to be a “big” thing or an “important” thing. Being good at a small or simple thing can win huge respect among other men. So, in the case of athletes it does not mean that respect is conferred only on the stars. Not at all. It means that if a man has a particular role or duty or specialized skill and does it well, other men treat him with a level of respect. In the case of this family being good at something — Dave Rose’s winning one of Pete’s golf tournaments, for example — assumes an outsized level of significance.

BNR: It’s nice to see that Petey Rose actually has a relationship with his dad now. I’ve forever been affected by Pat Jordan‘s “War of the Roses” article that showed just how absent Pete Rose was during Petey’s childhood. Watching Petey with his father and with his son, what struck you about what is being passed down through these generations and what isn’t?

KK: What’s being passed down is a belief in Pete Rose and a belief in baseball. Pete Jr. abides by a lot of his father’s tenets when it comes to baseball; he sees and approaches the game similarly. There is also an openness to both of them, a similarity of style in conversation and interaction. But Pete Jr. is softer than Pete, without the edge. He is more thoughtful and more vulnerable. Recent years (and the grandkids) have helped bring them together, but so much of that comes from Pete Jr., because of his love, his unflinchingly loyal and unconditional love, for his father. That drives this relationship.

BNR: It is fascinating how in the ’60s, Rose was, as you write, “a uniting figure in fractious times,” a guy both hippies and bankers could love in Cincinnati. Now he is just a completely fractious figure. He’s not an easy guy to love, though plenty of folks across the globe are devoted to the ideal of him. What do you make of that dichotomy?

KK: In the 1960s Rose was in his element, and the best parts of him were on display. It was almost impossible not to admire someone who tried as hard as he did, who gave everything to the game and performed with such ebullience and skill. The outside world could appropriate him however it wanted: On one hand he was a company man, loyal and devoted to his job and his team. On the other he was a rebel, racing down to first base after a walk, barreling into opponents, meeting fans on their own level. But that element — meaning, that is, baseball — no longer surrounds Rose. When he was a player, he was all about the game. Yes he wanted to make his money. Yes he sometimes did things for personal statistics, but the game came first and people of various leanings respected that. Now the thing that comes first for Pete, for better and worse, is Pete.

BNR: When reporting on a celeb, there is often a certain remove on the part of the person being profiled, a certain decorum that they (and their PR people) like to project in order to create whatever image they are seeking. Pete is clearly as unfiltered as they come. What was the moment for you when you realized just how unfiltered he was?

KK: [It was] at his signing table at a memorabilia shop in Las Vegas. It was a five-hour afternoon session, and Pete had had the guys at the shop set up a small television beside him so that he could keep an eye on the thoroughbred races at Hollywood Park while he signed. He made a call or two on his phone — he told me it was to a trainer at Hollywood Park — and then he reached into his front pocket and pulled out an enormous ball of cash. He peeled off a few hundred-dollar bills, called over a store employee and asked him to go to a nearby betting window and play a race for him. Despite Rose’s history as a gambler and the trouble it had gotten him into, he had no problem doing this in front of me, a working journalist with a notebook in by hand, nor in front of the other people around him in the shop. That and his unrepentant public use of certain, might we say, colorful language, made it clear that his filter is not like most.

BNR: In addition to capturing Rose’s saltiness, you also have a great eye for the details — the ads on the fence at Petey Rose’s minor-league ballpark, the perfect street names near Rose’s house on Indian Hill, all the great ways Rose signs baseballs: “I’m sorry I screwed up the economy.” “I’m sorry I broke up the Beatles.” When did that skill develop? What were a few of the most curious details you discovered during the course of writing this book?

KK: I’m honestly not sure. I suppose I think about the details that mean the most to me and those are the ones that come to the surface. There were so many memorable details and nuances that came out while reporting and writing this book — one of my favorites that I never quite got in was how Pete, now in his seventies and invariably beneath a fedora, wears these nice dress shirts with “Charlie Hustle” monogrammed into the collar.  

BNR: Something you share with Rose is the ability to tell a good anecdote. What do you think are the essential elements of a good story?

KK: Clarity, precision, and rhythm. And the things you leave out are as important as the things you put in.

BNR: How much of the book do you think will be news to Pete? Do you think he knows the things people have done for him? Do you think he knows who turned in what info on him? Does he have an understanding of how painful life could be for Petey Rose?

KK: I’m sure there are events and incidents in the book that would be new to him, though I can’t say specifically which ones. In the larger sense, is he aware of the impact of his life on the people close to him — such as his brother Dave and, significantly, his son Pete Jr.? Rose has some awareness; he knows, of course, that Petey has gone through a lot. But it is not something that he appears to be concerned with; it’s not a situation that he traces, beyond surface level, to his own behavior. It’s not something that would lead him to modify himself to try to change.

BNR: As you write, Rose chose his life of exile, but do you think he sees it that way? The piece of baseball history you bring up in the book that most folks don’t know or tend to not remember is that the Hall rules were changed specifically to keep him out. Has he become self-aware in the slightest? Do you think he actually has regrets, if not about the gambling then at least about how he handled himself once his gambling was discovered?

KK: Rose knows he has made mistakes; it’s a kind of inescapable conclusion as he looks around at his life now, and he shows that, in glimpses. Whether he sees how imprisoned he is (and has been) by himself, whether he is clear that he chose his exile, well, I doubt that. He’s still full of blame, still believes he is owed something. But well inside Pete — and this can emerge when he is engaged in the matter — he knows that his father, his idol, would not be proud of him, and that his father would have wanted there to be a punishment for the things that he did. Pete has lived his post-baseball life ensuring that that punishment would go on.

BNR: The conundrum with the Hall, as you point out, is that known steroid users are now appearing on the ballot yet Pete Rose, the man who has more hits than anyone else in the game, is sitting on the sidelines. Do you think it is safe to say that Rose will get into the Hall, perhaps after he dies or after former commissioner Fay Vincent or current commissioner Bud Selig dies? He seems ripe for a veteran’s committee pick down the road if and when his ban is lifted. Of course, as you also point out in the book, Rose is a lot more interesting (and marketable) as a guy who isn’t in the Hall.

KK: It’s surely possible, even likely, that a veteran’s committee would one day put Rose in the Hall of Fame posthumously. You’re right that he could be a ripe case. But it might not happen as well. The Rose case is unlike any in baseball history, unique, and it’s still unfolding. There’s so much cold principle attached to this, mixed right in with warmer emotional perspectives.

BNR: And, finally, because it has to be asked, do you personally think he actually deserves to be in the Hall of Fame?

KK: I’m agnostic on this one.