The Pete Rose Lesson: Separating The Player From The Person

Reading about Pete Rose’s jersey being retired by the Cincinnati Reds over the weekend had my Good-Bad Dad senses firing.  I was pleased for the baseball legend to be recognized for a great career.  At the same time, though, I was uncomfortable fully applauding his accomplishments.

I was a baseball-loving 11 year-old when Pete Rose was banned from the sport on August 24, 1989.  This was the first time I remember being disappointed with a player I admired.  I recall being confronted with the other side of sports star fandom – a peek behind the curtain that I didn’t understand or like.  One of my early heroes had fallen.

Rose’s banishment from baseball did not stop me from continuing to adore other ball players.  I was raised a Chicago Cubs fan so my earliest memories of loving sports figures were pointed directly at Wrigley Field.

I loved watching Ryne Sandberg play second base and slug home-runs.  My adoration later grew for Sammy Sosa and his herculean blasts of the late 90’s.  I was fully sucked into Sosa’s chase to break Roger Maris’ home-run record in 1998.

As a kid, I looked up to these players – probably too much.  That is, until each gave me a reason not to.

As a teenager, Sandberg stiffed me for an autograph after a Spring Training game in Arizona.  He breezed past my raised ball, Sharpie and extended 14 year-old arm on the way to his Land Rover in the parking lot.  Back then, I was crushed at Ryno’s cold shoulder.

Sosa’s fall from grace is well documented.  In 2003, I first was signaled of something askew when Sosa was caught corking a bat during batting practice.  It was only for show, he claimed.  I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

After the steroid scandal later implicated Slammin’ Sammy as a user, I held out hope that he was clean.  When his ability to speak English failed him in front of Congress, so did my faith in the Cub great.

Sure, I was older, but the disappointment was similar my Pete Rose experience as an 11 year-old.

These moments of being let-down by athletes have me thinking about how to prevent the same disappoints for my kids.

This is particular germane as athletes and fans are more connected than ever.

Cristiano Reynaldo has over 45 million followers on Twitter.

There is a camera with these players at all times.

Athletes are a brand – their on-field performances are only a small piece of their overall appeal.  This fact makes it necessary for me to work harder to focus my kids on admiring sports stars for what they do between the lines – and nothing more.

Pete Rose might be the perfect example of separating the great athlete from the iffy person.

Rose’s numbers are historic and certainly Hall of Fame worthy.  No one can deny that he was a terrific player.  My kids could learn from the way I remember Rose playing.  He always played hard.  Rose was willing to do whatever it took to win.

My kids should look up to Pete Rose for the warrior he was on the baseball field with no regard for the life he led outside of the stadium.

My kids need not look for lessons in living life from sports icons.

The same logic applies to admiring Reynaldo’s fancy cars or disliking J.J. Watt for his perceived over-use of social media.

Admiring these gifted athletes for their on-field superiority is where the adoration should end.

The reality is that far too many stadium heroes fail at being role model worthy outside of the cheering crowds.  As a result, if kids believe in anything more than what they see on the field of play, they are peeking behind a curtain that will likely let them down.

This does not mean I have come to resent star athletes or my favorite teams.

I still cheer for my Cubs, but at a healthier distance than I did.

This new distance allows me care enough about the players to pull for them on the field while tuning them out off of it.

It’s the distance that players like Pete Rose, Ryne Sandberg and Sammy Sosa have taught me.

It’s the distance that I teach my kids.

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