This article originally appeared in the Jan. 12, 2004 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
Pete Rose laid the first brick in a wall of deceit when he told then baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth that he had never bet on major league games. His masonry continued over 13 years, two more commissioners, a book and any situation in which he was asked if he had violated Rule 21(d), the game's most sacred covenant, which, under penalty of permanent ineligibility, prohibits baseball personnel from betting on games in which they have a duty to perform.
Now the wall has come crashing down. In his new book, written with Rick Hill, My Prison Without Bars, excerpts of which ran in the Jan. 12 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Rose admits for the first time publicly that he placed bets with bookies on Cincinnati Reds games as often as five times a week while managing the team in 1987. Rose also says that he previously made the same admission to commissioner Bud Selig in November 2002.
Why go public now? First you must understand how Rose carved out a spectacularly prolific career as baseball's alltime hits leader without benefit of exceptional size, speed or strength. What he did have was an unwavering streak of defiance and a thirst for competition, traits that made admitting guilt anathema to him, even when baseball had the goods on him.
It took 13 years for the Hit King to back down. It took this long for Rose, now 62, to accept that Selig would not consider removing him from the permanently ineligible list—baseball's gulag, with no precedent of return—unless he told the truth. It took this long for Rose to acknowledge that his Hall of Fame clock is ticking.
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Rose must be reinstated before December 2005 to be placed on the baseball writers' Hall of Fame ballot. Enshrinement thereafter would be more problematic. Writers may not consider players 20 years past their retirement; Rose played his last game in 1986. Rose's candidacy would then fall to the Veterans Committee, which is composed largely of Hall of Famers, some of whom have spoken publicly or privately against swinging open the door of their exclusive club to Rose. "Bud has a dilemma," one baseball executive says. "The popular move with the fans is to bring Pete back. But he knows there are Hall of Famers who have said they'll never return to Cooperstown if they put Pete in the Hall."
Rose's reinstatement appears inevitable, though the 13 months that have lapsed since he confessed to Selig underscore the complexity and sensitivity of that decision. (Editor's Note: Selig retired from baseball in 2015 without taking any action on Rose's reinstatement. His predecessor, Rob Manfred, announced in December 2015 that he rejected Rose's plea for reinstatement, keeping Rose's lifetime ban in place.) Rose isn't the only principal who has backed down in what is the most enduring sports melodrama of our time. Until 2002 Selig refused to even touch the idea of Rose's reinstatement. Selig's predecessor, Bart Giamatti, went to his early grave believing that Rose bet on baseball, including Reds games. Giamatti died of a heart attack on Sept. 1, 1989, only nine days after Rose signed a document agreeing to be thrown out of baseball. (Rose, though, admitted nothing about betting on baseball.)
Giamatti had asked Rose to "reconfigure" his life, which had spun out of control with chronic illegal gambling aided by a collection of unsavory associates. A recurring theme in Rose's book is how quickly he embraces these characters he meets incidentally. Rose claims that he has sworn off illegal betting and reduced the frequency of his legal wagers. Still, the path to reinstatement opened only when, in the spring of 2002, a representative for Rose floated the magic word to Selig's top deputy, Bob DuPuy: confession. Later that year, as part of a promotional event before Game 4 of the World Series, Rose received a 70-second standing ovation at Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco. The crowd chanted, "Hall of Fame!"
Selig was ready to listen. He was moved by Rose's popularity and the advancing years of Rose and himself, according to sources in the commissioner's office. (Selig has said that he intends to retire after his term expires in 2006.) Said one of those sources, "When a 61-year-old man comes to you and says he's sorry, don't you have to listen?"
Selig heard Rose's confession in his Milwaukee office. The commissioner, the source said, "read him the riot act" for disgracing the game. But he also put reinstatement on a track, albeit a slow, deliberate one. Selig wants to craft restrictions on Rose, such as a probationary period, rather than immediately reinstating him in full and risking that Rose would somehow tarnish the game again.
For instance, Selig could make Rose immediately eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot and employment with a major league club but restrict him from managing or coaching. Rose has spoken in the past about his desire to manage again.
Privately, Selig has been telling associates he remains undecided about what to do with Rose. He has spoken with members of Giamatti's family and Hall of Famers to gauge their opinions. Asked on Friday by SI about Rose's status, Selig said, "There's been no change. We don't know a thing about [what's in] the book."
Selig clearly is proceeding with caution. He knows how hard and long Rose worked to hide the truth, he understands that Rose's 1989 book, Pete Rose: My Story, now can be reclassified as fiction, and he grasps the live-wire danger of Rose's ego crossing his jones for taking rule-breaking risks.
Should Selig forget the hazards of such a mix, Rose provides an anecdotal reminder in his book. He writes that in 1990, while incarcerated under federal jurisdiction for tax evasion, he had his wife smuggle contraband to him three times. Twice she brought food, concealing it once in their daughter's diaper bag and another time beneath her overcoat. On the other occasion she brought Grecian Formula, hidden in their daughter's diaper. Prison officials thought something was afoul the next day when Rose suddenly had jet black hair. Rose told them it was the chemicals in the prison water.