For Pete's Sake

Thursday, December 19 2002 @ 08:44 AM EST

Contributed by: Coach

In BB #96, I mentioned I had a couple of thousand words to say about Charlie Hustle. Nobody here seemed to care; that thread got hijacked immediately. I know the subject is controversial; I'm aware that it polarizes people to extreme and inflexible positions. I understand if you're all tired of it and wish it would just go away.

For me, it's personal. I am a compulsive gambler, peacefully and gratefully in recovery for several years after nearly ruining my life by betting on horses. I don't judge Pete Rose; I empathize with him. I think it's as ridiculous to consider letting him back into the dugout as it is to exclude him from the Hall of Fame.

(August 12, 2003) Note: this piece was originally posted on a now-defunct site, but it has been added to the BB archives.

ďIím Pete R., and Iím a compulsive gambler.Ē

Thatís how the most prolific hitter in baseball history would introduce himself before 'giving therapy' at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. Not that the Hit Leader is likely to attend GA; his notoriety makes a low profile impossible. Forget about anonymity. Thereís another reason Pete Rose is unlikely to seek help; like many gamblers still 'in action', he vehemently denies he has a problem, and the essential First Step in any 12-step self-help group is admitting one is 'powerless' over a substance or activity. Donít expect him to be sincere or contrite in any apology baseball forces him to make; if his addiction is still active, heís capable of doing or saying almost anything that serves his purposes.

How do I know? Iím Kent W., and Iím a compulsive gambler.

If you donít believe Rose is pathological, or if you think addicts are 'weak' rather than 'sick' and deserved to be punished, not rehabilitated, what I have to say might upset you. There are positions as extreme as ďmake him CommissionerĒ and ďshoot him,Ē and I am squarely in the middle left. Let him in the Hall of Fame, but keep him out of the dugout, for the gameís sake, and for Peteís. Managers are second-guessed enough already, and the perception of complete integrity is essential.

Baseballís gambling issue isnít limited to Joe Jackson and Pete Rose. There is no precise definition of compulsive gambler, so studies produce different results. Perhaps as many as five percent of the general public, and certainly more than one percent, are pathological. So you can assume that at least seven and possibly dozens of current MLB players are 'problem' gamblers. Thatís not to imply that theyíre fixing games, or even betting on baseball. It includes other sports, casinos, cards, lotteries, horses, dogs, jai-alai and the stock market.

The same ratio of people who experience extreme difficulty in their lives because of their inability to stop gambling extends to coaches and managers, so in the annals of baseball, there have been quite a few with problems that never became public knowledge. I would speculate that men of a certain age, with time on their hands and cash in their pockets while on the road half the year, would sample many of lifeís pleasures, including the racetrack. For the vast majority, these diversions donít turn into obsessions, but itís inevitable for some. I leave it to the experts to conclude whether the idle rich would be more, or less prone to developing habits they could not control.

Although I donít attend any more, GA meetings and members were a tremendous help during my repeated attempts to quit, after more than 20 years of gambling. Not on baseball, or any team sport, not at casinos or bingo halls, not in card games or on lotteries. My obsession was horse racing: thoroughbreds, standardbreds, even quarter horses. I admitted the problem and got professional help, continuing to see a therapist at the Problem Gambling Service of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, affiliated with the University of Toronto, though Iíve been 'clean' for five years. (We call our sessions ďrelapse prevention,Ē and since itís working, why mess with success?) I know that 'abstinent' never means 'cured.' I have a painful, personal understanding of the forces that control Rose and other gamblers. Like Pete, I took foolish risks with my career, but I didnít get caught, I ended up in a rehab hospital.

In harness racing, the Breeders Crown is the equivalent of baseballís World Series. I was the official in charge of arranging the best possible fields for many of these championships, supervising the draw for post positions, and staging the best possible card of supporting events. Hundreds of other race nights throughout the year compared to the 162-game baseball season, and my responsibilities included writing the eligibility conditions, filling the races with competitive horses, even predicting the winners. Itís difficult to compare to any one baseball job; like a GM, I assembled the best available talent, but like an umpire, I had to enforce the rules. Put it this way: after each nine-horse race, the winning owner and trainer might concede I did a decent job -- for once -- while the other eight blamed me.

Throughout my successful career as a horse racing official, I was 'in action' almost constantly, betting on the races I put together and supervised. Did I break the Racing Commission rules? Absolutely. Did I cross ethical lines? Probably. Did I ever betray my own integrity and affect the outcome of a race? No way. My need to gamble was obsessive, but I wasnít interested in a scam. On the contrary, ensuring 'my game' was on the level was of vital importance.

Once you are hooked on the action, winning and losing hardly matter, but each gamblerís moral compass is different, and so is their 'bottom.' Just because you are on the express bus to hell that is gambling addiction, you donít have to ride it all the way to the end of the line, which GA literature advises can be ďprison, insanity or death.Ē The habit didnít lead me, or Pete Rose, into the realm of 'fixing' an outcome, but only because interventions got us off the bus in time. The compulsion was powerful enough to make us break the rules of our sport, and take ridiculous professional and personal risks to continue our self-destructive habits.

The ban against betting in baseball stems from common sense: if enough players did it, dishonesty would be almost inevitable. That Pete Rose could have, eventually, been subjected to pressure to lose from a bookie or organized crime, is beyond question, but there is no evidence, even anecdotal, to suggest he ever played, or managed, not to win. If we accept that he bet on his own team, thatís a serious transgression, but equating that broken rule with the felony of game-rigging is a colossal mistake. Locking up poor people because they might someday steal something isnít right, either.

I would never have forgiven myself if I allowed my betting habit to affect my duties as a racing secretary. I gave 100% in the office, then took my chances with the other punters at predicting the outcome of my own efforts. On the topic of 'inside information,' letís just say itís overrated. One day, a horseman entering a cheap claimer mentioned that the horse was vastly improved because of some corrective shoeing. A few minutes later, a rival trainer whispered that he and his vet had corrected a mysterious lameness, and the horse he declared in the very same race was going to win, easily. I scheduled the race so there would be Trifecta wagering, and used my knowledge to best advantage, taking every possible combination with the two 'mortal locks' reversed on top. Since both drivers were extremely confident, each refused to concede the lead to the other, and a ridiculous battle ensued for three-quarters of a mile, with the others far behind. A 30-1 shot staggered by both exhausted 'sure things'Ē in the final yards. I was disappointed, but it didnít make me want to get my money back by tampering with the next race.

In all my years in the sport, I was never aware of a 'fix', but Iíve refused to grant stable space to, or take entries from, a few disreputable individuals. I would guess there are about the same percentage of 'bad apples' in most other walks of life, including baseball, or banking, for that matter. There are many circumstances, well within the rules, when a horse is entered with no intentions of winning. Returning from a layoff due to injury is a common reason to be conservative on the track, and 'green' horses often need several races to learn how to keep up, navigate the turns, or pass rivals. Again, baseball is similar. You donít conclude young pitchers are betting against themselves when they canít find the strike zone, or blame guys nursing rib cage injuries when they stop swinging for the fences.

For ten years, Iíve worked as a computer and network technician. I have no interest in returning to racing, but it would be foolish for a track to hire me in the position of trust I once held. With no possibility of affecting the outcome of any race, or the integrity of the sport, theoretically I could write about it, provide radio/TV commentary, or (you might think) return to the track announcerís booth. Probably not. Daryl Wells, the legendary race caller at Woodbine, was sacked because of a civil suit that implicated him as a partner in a bet that was completely legal for anyone outside the industry. Atop the grandstand, armed only with a microphone, Canadaís Voice of Racing was in no position to influence a race, but his employer and the Racing Commission reacted to the resulting press coverage with a zero-tolerance stance, and Wells paid the price. Iím not sure if heís in Thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame, but he most certainly belongs, despite his mistake.

What have I learned from my struggle? Iím lucky to be alive, sorry for ruining my marriage, and greatly prefer my new life without 'action' to the lies and deception of my gambling days. For me, other forms of gambling are non-toxic if I stay away from the track. This contradicts the GA gospel, but I enjoy a card game with friends, and fantasy baseball exercises many of the same brain functions as playing the horses once did, with less wasted time and money, and less emotional fallout. Thereís a theory, gaining in popularity, that many compulsive gamblers have Attention Deficit Disorder, and many studies indicate a dangerously high rate of depression, alcoholism and suicide among problem gamblers. This is not the place to discern chickens from eggs, but in my case, since being diagnosed and treated for depression, and getting professional help from an addiction therapist, I havenít returned to the self-medication of betting on horses.

I know that billions of 1ís and 0ís are devoted to this topic on the Internet, plus countless acres of newsprint, and most people who want to uphold Roseís lifetime ban will not be swayed by my observations. From the perspective of a guy whoís been there, itís not a line between betting on your own team and fixing a game -- itís a chasm. The great L.A. Times sportswriter Jim Murray wrote in 1996, "betting on games is hardly fixing games." To elaborate on the distinction, he called the 1919 Black Sox crooks, and Rose an addict.

John Dowd, for whom Rose is the Great White Whale, recently spilled his guts to the New York Post, with more innuendo that Pete bet against his team. Dowd concludes, by the absence of evidence, that Rose didnít bet on Cincinnati in games started by their worst pitchers, but still offers no proof that he ever bet the Reds to lose. Dowdís self-serving agenda, and his reliance on witnesses whose credibility is questionable, are tiresome.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wrote seven years ago, "It's Time to Forgive Pete Rose." The Nobel Peace Prize winner, more compassionate and smarter than Dowd, explained: "I find the testimony (mostly from convicted felons) about Pete Rose's betting on sports events to be convincing and disheartening, but evidence about specifically betting on baseball is less than compelling." Carter supported giving Rose an "opportunity for redemption," citing extenuating circumstances: "The most important are the marvelous (not just superior) achievements of Pete Rose as a player during his long career."

If youíre old enough to remember when Monday Night Football was cool, youíll recall Chet Forte, one of TVís most innovative directors, an 11-time Emmy winner. If youíre older than me, you might know Chet was an All-American basketball player at Columbia. This talented, successful man blew millions of dollars, including his home, because he couldnít control his gambling. He worked hard to repay his debts, ending up on sports talk radio in San Diego, and reportedly went to GA meetings until a fatal heart attack in 1996. If Forte was still around, I would have no problem with him being in the TV truck for the Super Bowl, but I wouldnít be too pleased if he was the referee, no matter how 'successful' his recovery. Pete Rose deserves the same consideration.

Even if his public stance is one of genuine atonement, which I doubt, Rose should never again be in a position where he can influence the outcome of a ball game. That includes the dugout and the field, but I fail to see why he is a danger to the Pastime as a talking head, in marketing or public relations, or in player development. (The disease isnít contagious.) I doubt that he wants, or would be considered for, a front-office position. Some kind of conditional, limited reinstatement is necessary for all parties; removing Pete from the possibility of temptation, protecting the game from further embarrassment, and ending the debate about his transgressions, which didnít exactly destroy baseball. Some suggest the current Commissioner has done more damage.

My personal Web site is called ďBaseball Therapy,Ē because the Pastime is one of the few pleasant memories to survive a childhood Iíd rather not remember. My dad was what you might call a hands-on guy, with a short fuse. He lost a lifelong battle with alcohol; two years later, I was lifted from my own misery by one of the greatest World Series in history. During seven magnificent baseball games, I went from despair to hope. It was 1975, so I feel connected, by more than our common affliction, to the MVP, Peter Edward Rose. I do hope Iím a more likeable person than Pete; heís a liar, heís a jerk, and heís unremorseful. People hate him. Faults and all, Charlie Hustle is also baseball, and the Hall of Fame is incomplete without him.