Friday, January 9, 2015

Review: Pete Rose - An American Dilemma (2014)

By Kostya Kennedy

Baseball analyst Bill James once wrote that Pete Rose wasn't one of the top 10 natural hitters in history by any stretch of the imagination.

Yet, there he is, on top of the all-time list of career hits by a major league baseball player. Once upon a time, everyone loved him for that, for the way he attacked the game with complete focus and intensity, day in and day out.

Rose played in the majors for more than a couple of decades, moved smoothly into managing, and then the wheels fell off. Who says American lives don't have second acts?

Rose's story certainly has been well chronicled over the years, but this seems like a good time to go back and review it in depth. Author Kostya Kennedy does exactly that in excellent fashion in "Pete Rose - An American Dilemma."

Kennedy goes over the early years smoothly enough. Rose grew up in Cincinnati, the son of a top local athlete who played organized sports including football into his 40s. Determination was ground into young Pete, who lived for sports and didn't worry about time in the classroom. Rose signed with the hometown Reds, and it didn't take long for him to get noticed - if only because of behavior that led to a famous nickname, "Charlie Hustle."

Once Rose arrived in Cincinnati, he became the heart of some great Reds teams. He played four different positions there (Rose added a fifth after leaving), piling up batting titles and All-Star Game appearances (hello, Ray Fosse) along the way. Rose knocked down barriers in the clubhouse, mixing with all nationalities and races easily. No wonder everybody loved him. After a few stops as a free agent, Rose finally came home to Cincinnati as a player/manager.

And here's where the story turns into a Shakespeare-like epic, and where Kennedy's book becomes fascinating.

Rose was discovered to be a chronic better, often on baseball and always on his own Reds team. After a thorough investigation, Rose was banned from baseball in any capacity and eventually ruled ineligible for the Hall of Fame. He spent some time in prison, and has floated in the mist for more than 25 years since then - associated with baseball but not part of it.

Rose famously denied betting on baseball for years and years, and then came clean in a book of his own. It didn't help his case to be reinstated. Rose currently is Pete Rose for a living, signing autographs and making personal appearances. 

Kennedy covers many bases here, talking to Rose, his family, his friends, baseball associates and others. Rose was giving off hints about his problems in the gambling field, but maybe we didn't want to listen. His mother once told a reporter almost without thinking that her son had lost a bundle on the 1984 World Series. Some of his players noticed how nervous Rose got when watching an out-of-town game on the clubhouse television. As one media person said in the 1980s, "Pete is a helluva guy, but he'd bet on what time it is."

The dilemma in the title might be partly a reaction to revelations about steroid use by players in the 1990s. Those players haven't been banned for harming the game's integrity, while Rose was banned because his gambling might have hurt the game's integrity. On the other hand, rule number one in baseball is team members absolutely can not gamble on the sport. That's why it's on the wall of every locker room in professional baseball. What to do with Rose, then, who broke that rule?

Kennedy, who wrote a fine book about Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak, is in even better form here with this fair and slightly sympathetic portrait. It's easy to write off Rose at this point in his life, but the story still draws can draw us in. "Pete Rose - An American Dilemma" has been ranked with the best baseball books of 2014, and it's easy to see why.

Five stars

Learn more about this book.

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