Video: ESPN finds evidence Pete Rose bet on baseball while a player

Pete Rose has gone through four baseball commissioners attempting to get his lifetime ban reversed for betting on major-league baseball games as a manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Long past his playing or managing potential, Rose wants to get theHall of Fame recognition he and his fans insist he deserves for his playing days, arguing that the allegations for which Rose got suspended didn’t relate to the on-field career that made him MLB’s all-time hits leader. Today, though, ESPN reports that a notebook seized more than 25 years ago by postal inspectors proves that Rose bet on games in which he played — with people who had connections to organized crime:

But new documents obtained by Outside the Lines indicate Rose bet extensively on baseball — and on the Cincinnati Reds — as he racked up the last hits of a record-smashing career in 1986. The documents go beyond the evidence presented in the 1989 Dowd report that led to Rose’s banishment and provide the first written record that Rose bet while he was still on the field.

“This does it. This closes the door,” said John Dowd, the former federal prosecutor who led MLB’s investigation.

The documents are copies of pages from a notebook seized from the home of former Rose associate Michael Bertolini during a raid by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in October 1989, nearly two months after Rose was declared permanently ineligible by Major League Baseball. Their authenticity has been verified by two people who took part in the raid, which was part of a mail fraud investigation and unrelated to gambling. For 26 years, the notebook has remained under court-ordered seal and is currently stored in the National Archives’ New York office, where officials have declined requests to release it publicly. …

“Bertolini nails down the connection to organized crime on Long Island and New York. And that is a very powerful problem,” Dowd said. “[Ohio bookie] Ron Peters is a golf pro, so he’s got other occupations. But the boys in New York are about breaking arms and knees.

“The implications for baseball are terrible. [The mob] had a mortgage on Pete while he was a player and manager.”

Interestingly, ESPN has been trying to get its hands on the notebook for more than 20 years. It ended up in the National Archives in 2000 after being transferred there by the Department of Justice, but the NA wouldn’t allow access to it at that time, nor when ESPN tried again in April 2015. The US government had designated it as part of a file of “sufficient historical or other value to warrant” its closed status in 2000, and nothing had changed 15 years later. One has to wonder exactly how ESPN managed to get copies of its pages, and whether the National Archives will be looking into that very question.  (ESPN validated the copies with the postal investigators who first seized them at Bertolini’s house.)

Rose and his legal time declined to give ESPN any substantial comment. As the report notes, it’s bad timing, especially since it refutes a defense Rose himself has offered publicly:

The timing for Rose, who played in 72 games in 1986, isn’t great. In March of this year, he applied to Manfred for reinstatement. Dowd recently met with MLB CIO and executive vice president of administration John McHale Jr., who is leading Manfred’s review of Rose’s reinstatement request, to walk McHale through his investigation. On Monday morning, MLB officials declined to comment about the notebook.

In April, Rose repeated his denial, this time on Michael Kay’s ESPN New York 98.7 FM radio show, that he bet on baseball while he was a player. “Never bet as a player: That’s a fact,” he said.

On one level, the distinction shouldn’t make a difference. In terms of distortion to the game, having a manager bet on games is worse than having an infielder in debt to gamblers. Managers can do a lot more to manipulate outcomes — batting orders, pitching changes, strategy calls on the field, and so on. That would also make them better extortion subjects for organized crime, a point that led MLB to issue its categorical ban on any gambling or connections to it after the exposure of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. It’s also why Rose got the lifetime ban in the first place.

This matters, though, for a couple of reasons, if the book turns out to be as genuine as Dowd attests. First, it shows that despite having 25 years to come clean about his transgressions, Rose has lied about the depth and breadth of his gambling activities. Even his public defenders will have a tough time arguing away that track record in order to get Rose enough of a reinstatement to qualify for the Hall of Fame. Second, new evidence of links to organized crime will no doubt force MLB to deal with Rose harshly, if for no other reason than pour encourager les autres. That is, in fact, why MLB has the career death penalty for gambling on baseball in any form, let alone on your own team, regardless of whether it involved organized crime. Those connections in 1919 helped push the Chicago White Sox into throwing the World Series, and it took MLB years to clean up its image — and that was in an era before social media and Internet permanence.

Even if MLB had wanted to allow Rose to get a partial removal of the ban, that would appear impossible now. At the very least, it’s going to take a much more honest public allocution than Rose has been willing to give for the last quarter-century. Absent that, Rose will likely spend the rest of his life on the outside looking in.