Review

My Prison Without Bars

Pete Rose, with Rick Hill

The title of this book, MY PRISON WITHOUT BARS, appears on a background of solid red, perhaps as a nod to the team on which Pete Rose earned his fame and infamy. On the back is a photo taken when he broke Ty Cobb's all-time hit record, showing him in an uncharacteristic display of emotion ("I'm not a warm-and-fuzzy kind of guy" is his mantra). It could also be a metaphor for the shame one might expect him to feel over his banishment from baseball for almost fifteen years.

The significance of design decisions aside, Rose's latest autobiography (his third) has been the focus of major attention in recent weeks, not just from the sports world, but from the general media as well. Such is the place of baseball in American culture. Rose collaborated with Rick Hill, described as a "working actor, writer, and director in Hollywood" --- perhaps it is this background that gives the book a somewhat melodramatic mien --- to make MY PRISON WITHOUT BARS a truly fascinating study of denial.

Rose was a sports icon for almost a quarter-century. A tough and tireless ballplayer, he still holds several all-time records including playing more than 500 games at five different positions. When his career was winding down, he was named player/manager of the Reds (an excellent marketing ploy as he approached Cobb's mark). Rose was successful as a team leader, securing second place finishes in each of his four full seasons.

But such glory and popularity weren't enough. He craved more excitement, which apparently only big-time gambling could supply.

After 130 pages of background and personal history, Rose finally gets to the heart of the matter. After years of steadfast assertions to the contrary, he states, "the temptation got too strong and I began betting regularly on the sport I knew best --- baseball."

An investigation, which actually stemmed from a case of steroid and drug sales by one of his gambling cronies, implicated Rose in making wagers while serving as the Reds' manager, a violation of "Rule 21," which states: "Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, 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." This edict, which came as a result of the Black Sox Scandal in which several members of the Chicago White Sox were banned for throwing the 1919 World Series, is posted in every professional locker room in the country. But as a member of the game's elite, Rose seems almost surprised that such limitations should apply to him.

After lengthy inquiries and multiple chances to repent his transgressions in the face of overwhelming evidence (which he still refutes), Rose signed an agreement in which he would accept expulsion banishment without the stain of actually admitting to the crime in return for consideration of eventual restoration.

In 2002, as Rose continued his quest for reinstatement, he met with Bud Selig, commissioner of baseball. "Mr. Selig looked me in the eye and said, 'I want to know one thing. Did you bet on baseball?' I looked him in the eye. "Sir, my daddy taught me two things in life --- how to play baseball and how to take responsibility for my actions. . . Yes, sir, I did bet on baseball . . . But I never bet against my own team and I never made any bets from the clubhouse'"; (that contention would also seem to be disputed by the facts).

Why would he do such a thing, the commissioner (and the reader) wonder? Rose responds as a child might: "I didn't think I'd get caught."

As evidence of noblese oblige, he later notes "[I]f the fans believed I was innocent, then by God, I had to be innocent," a view obviously not shared by the game's decision-makers.

Rose is a man of many explanations, rationalizations and justifications. "I just kept telling myself that 'permanently' is a long goddam time. Right or wrong, the punishment didn't fit the crime --- so I denied the crime." He spends major ink blaming others for his woes. If it weren't for a relentless media; or if his poorly chosen circle of "friends" --- consisting of fellow gamblers, bookies, steroid-pushers and the like --- hadn't betrayed him (at one point calling a formerly trusted confidant a "stool pigeon --- the worst kind of scum"); or if he didn't avail himself of the "convenience" of suffering from his heretofore undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and "oppositional-defiant" personality, he might not have found himself in these circumstances. (As evidence of this latest excuse, Rose offers a jargon-filled explanation of these conditions from a Dr. David E. Comings, M.D.)

Rose also displays a habit of pointing towards the failings of others to mitigate his own. While denying a "gambling disorder," he rails against a perceived double standard that offers help to substance abusers, but with no such similar help or forgiveness for gamblers. He compares himself with celebrities in other fields who came back from various addictions. They "were allowed to resume their individual professions. But I was not allowed to set foot on a baseball field. Banned for life without the possibility of parole." Rose continues to display his intractability when he says his attempts at counseling and Gamblers Anonymous didn't help because he couldn't allow himself to believe he had a problem in the first place.

Ironically, Rose appears most credible and sympathetic when he recalls his five-month prison stint for tax evasion (for which he also claims he was too harshly punished). Even under such dire straits and knowing the consequences for improper behavior, he felt the need to try to circumvent the rules, ridiculous as they might have been, as illustrated by an episode in which his wife snuck in contraband food.

One would think he might have learned his lesson following fulfillment of his sentence, which included time in a halfway house and community service, yet he continued to "occasionally" gamble and sought to make a living as a race horse trainer.

Aside from the perceived purpose of admission and contrition, there is another purpose to Rose's attempted mea culpa and, although not publicized, it is nevertheless of major import: the question of the Hall of Fame.

The ineligibility has kept Rose out of the Hall and he uses MY PRISON WITHOUT BARS as a soapbox on which to make his case for inclusion. He offers examples of popular opinion and testimonials from sports, business and political personalities as the basis for reinstatement. Based purely on his statistics (which many assert should be the only criteria for judgment), few would argue that he deserves to be there. As he writes, "I never raised a hand to either of my wives or any of my children. Yet there are wife beaters in the Hall of Fame. I never drank, smoked, or used drugs. Yet there are addicts in the Hall of Fame."

The timing of the book's release has also served as a sore spot, coming as it did just as Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley were elected to the Hall, thereby detracting from their moment in the sun. Perhaps as a result, both ex-athletes came out that they, too, had to deal with addiction issues: Molitor had a short-lived bout with substance abuse before turning himself around and Eckersley is a recovering alcoholic. No doubt their biographies will share all the grisly details. This unfortunate literary trend seems to confirm that a life without character flaws to overcome just isn't worth reading about.

The window of opportunity for election to the Hall is also a factor. Players have twenty years from the time of their retirement in which they can be elected by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, who would be most likely to vote him in. After that, his fate would fall into the hands of the Veterans Committee, which consists of the living members of the Hall, who are not as inclined to greet his application with enthusiasm.

Ultimately, as Rose has maintained, he is the only one who really knows the whole story. He has been lying so long, why should the public believe him now? What can he really say to persuade a public anxious to welcome the return of baseball's prodigal son?

He concludes MY PRISON WITHOUT BARS with a left-handed regret: "I know I [messed] up. . . . I'm sorry it happened and I'm sorry for all the people, fans, and family that it hurt. Let's move on."

Readers will undoubtedly interpret his story in different ways, depending on point of view. Some will agree that his vice is his own business and that he should be reinstated. Others might believe there is no excuse for his transgressions and demand his exile remain in place. Then there are those who might be more forgiving, believing that he did wrong, paid the price and should be forgiven.

Is this the final say on the matter? If he is ever allowed back into baseball's good graces, and into baseball's Valhalla, don't bet against another volume on the life of Pete Rose.

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (RonKaplanNJ@comcast.net) on January 8, 2004

My Prison Without Bars
Pete Rose, with Rick Hill

  • Publication Date: January 8, 2004
  • Genres: Autobiography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Rodale Books
  • ISBN-10: 1579549276
  • ISBN-13: 9781579549275