Hopefully definitive and last Rose story post

In a recent interview with Baseball Prospectus Radio, Pete Rose said that in April of 2003, he and his people expected to he’d be reinstated that year and return to baseball.

So here’s a post I’ve been working at, on and off, since I once got mentioned a lot for a day’s news cycle, for writing the August 8th, 2003 article “The Return of Pete Rose – Exclusive – He’s Back in Baseball in 2004” bylined “Derek Zumsteg and Will Carroll” which turned out to be wrong.

Here’s the quick story of how the Rose story broke:
Will Carroll came to the Prospectus author’s group with several sources who had told him that Rose had signed a deal to be re-instated. One’s in MLB offices, one’s with the Reds (where he would make his re-entry into baseball).

The group decided that, as the author of a some really long and detailed Rose work (like “Evaluating the Dowd Report“), I’m the obvious choice to write the text of the any article. I called Will, took a ton of notes, and started writing frantically. I end up going through many drafts that night.

The other authors went to sources they knew, searching for verification of the deal. Another author turned up a source outside baseball who said we had it right.

We couldn’t get a comment from MLB, as no one’s at their phones. Management decided that we should run the story without MLB comment. I submitted the final text, which went up immediately.

At that point, we’d made one serious error: we didn’t get a copy of the deal. We’re essentially relying on one person who said they’d seen it, one person with direct knowledge of it, and another person with indirect knowledge of it.

Getting a copy of the deal would, I think, have saved us a lot of pain. We also could have done a better job getting information out of sources, in particular tracing the who-knows-what and weighing. Also, publishing with copies of the documents makes denial difficult, and certainly wouldn’t have resulted in the kind of denials by MLB (and later, accusations by others). So we totally blew that.

The lead to the story ran:

Pete Rose and Major League Baseball have reached an agreement that would allow him to return to baseball in 2004, and includes no admission of wrongdoing by Rose, Baseball Prospectus has learned. According to several sources, Rose signed the agreement after a series of pre-season meetings between Rose, Hall of Fame member Mike Schmidt, d at different times, high-level representatives of Major League Baseball, including Bob DuPuy, Major League Baseball’s Chief Operating Officer, and Allan H. “Bud” Selig, Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Here’s the part that I don’t believe was true: “Rose signed the agreement“. Didn’t happen. We got burned. Unfortunately, that’s an important part of the story. It’s the story.

So it ran. I didn’t sleep well, and called MLB the next day when their New York office opened. I had one of the weirder experiences of my life, as for once I got through to someone important there almost instantly, through a series of conversations that went:
“Hi, I’m Derek Zumsteg with Baseball Prospectus, I’d like to get a comment from Commissioner–”
“Just a second…” (click)
“Is this.. Commissioner Selig?”
“This is Rich Levin (MLB Senior Vice President for Public Relations).”
“Uh, hi, I’m Derek Zumsteg –”
(Rich Levin says some angry things)
(slight pause, with my singed hair crackling faintly in the background) “Uh, so I’ll write that up as a strong denial. Thanks for your time.”

We changed the story to add the denial. Later, Levin talked to Will for much longer and was, I understand, a lot calmer.

MLB denied the story in a way that unsettled me (The Commissioner has not reached any decision… there’s no signed agreement in place). I started to wonder about how specific they were being (and that turned out to be the first thing I talked about on MSNBC). I was a little angry, too, that they said the whole article was false, when there was a lot of historical background information in there that’s entirely true, even if you deny the new specific allegation. But that’s public relations work these days.

I worked the phones trying to get someone who’d read the book to talk about it, as I suspected from other conversations that the book contained information about Rose’s deal (it does not) and an admission of gambling (it does). Will got another source in baseball who confirmed the deal. Rose and his camp made some equally odd statements about what’s going on.

I went on MSNBC and said “We will be vindicated!”

That didn’t happen.

Later, Rose published his book and in it revealed he did bet on baseball (in a limited admission that denies many of the substantial allegations, such as his documented clubhouse betting). The firestorm overshadowed Hall of Fame inductions, and things started to go really badly for Rose’s bid for reinstatement. The Commissioner was angry, and by all reports still refuses to even consider Rose’s case. Rose and his camp made some even more interesting statements implying there’d been an agreement of some kind in place that baseball wasn’t upholding, but nothing that vindicates us.

Throughout this time, I generally reacted defensively to trolling: we got the story right, this is proved by subsequent events, blah blah blah. I often got testy about it, particularly when I was accused of making the whole thing up.

But the story was wrong. Rose was not taken off the ineligible list, and didn’t return to baseball in 2004. If, as we’d reported, Rose and MLB had signed an agreement that contained a guarantee, he could have produced it and threatened to sue, or even just revealed it in an attempt to regain lost public support in the book screw up. There’s a counter-argument to be made here, that Rose can only go to MLB for reinstatement, so he must tread lightly where he might alienate those in power, and yet it seems like it would have been a powerful negotiating tool.

And even if we did, hyptothetically, nail it exactly, the headline and story still predicted an event that had not occurred. If an agreement had been reached, it didn’t mean he’d returned to managing, for instance. Reporting as news something yet to occur as a fact is always a mistake. It’s a fine distinction, and one I wish we’d made at the time.

In retrospect, there was a point where we should have handed it off to someone who could have done a better job reporting on the story. I wasn’t a reporter, I was some guy who spent business days in a cubicle at AT&T Wireless who wrote a lot about baseball when he wasn’t at work (which is part of why Will did ESPN and every sports talk radio program in the country that day: first, he’s far, far better connected, so everyone knew how to get a hold of him, but also I was working my 9-5 and not the phones). I’d have like to have seen someone with much better connections and still willing to run the story against MLB’s wishes taken the story and run it.

There’s another argument to be made here, that as the story turned out, I should burn the sources. I have two counters to this.

First, I don’t know who they are. Will didn’t name his names, and I didn’t ask. Will knows, and the executive leadership at BP at the time knows. I don’t know who the outside baseball source is (same deal). I couldn’t burn them if I wanted.

Second, this goes to a heart of a basic argument: when do you burn sources? I think in general that reporters are too quick to offer anonymity: one of the weirder problems with the Bush administration, for instance, is officials offering off-the-record briefings that contain valuable information but while asking anonymity (the gaggle asked for this kind of thing to please stop, but as a group were unwilling to just name the briefers, which would have solved the problem).

But here’s a case where someone, who possibly disagrees with the action of a large and powerful corporate entity, decides to tell the world about something that’s happening. If they call Will and tell him about it, but get it wrong, should they be named and outed? If they know there’s a signed agreement, have only a blank copy to read off to a their chosen outsider, and represent that it’s Pete Rose’s John Hancock on the official copy in a locked filing cabinet, do you burn them for representing their guess as fact? And the guy who confirms the signed deal and makes the same error, having heard it as part of their work with the Reds that’s exposed them to the Rose-working-for-the-Reds part — do you burn them?

If I thought that we’d been intentionally manipulated, I’d argue we should reveal sources. But I don’t think that happened.

I believe (and this is wholly opinion, unsupported by any evidence) that there was an agreement between a representative of Rose (probably his lawyer) and a representative of baseball (probably Bob DuPuy), and it said, in essence “Baseball agrees to take Rose off the list and allow him to return in a limited way in 2004… Rose agrees to keep his nose clean and not do anything that reflects badly on baseball for the next year…”

This allowed baseball to issue denials about the Commissioner not having made any determination or signed any agreement, though he clearly was involved in the negotiations, and it also allowed the same kind of denial about Rose signing. It’s an obvious way to handle it, using cutouts (much in the way Rose did in placing bets), and it makes sense.

It would also account for the sourcing: that’s a fine distinction, and someone in the Reds who’s aware of Rose’s looming return to that organization would only likely know there’s a signed deal between Rose and baseball, for instance. It would, however, also mean that at least one source represented as fact something they did not know directly, or lied about who had signed.

And if we had a copy of the deal, I’d know if I’m right. Either way, I know we were wrong.

I don’t feel bad about the experience. I wish we’d gotten it right, and sometimes I wish we’d handed it to Buzz Bissinger or someone who could have nailed it perfectly. I wish Rose hadn’t put out his book earlier (or at all) so the deal could have been completed, which would have proved us substantially right as well (though it would also have meant Rose was welcomed back to baseball, which I’m divided about). I’m disappointed personally that we turned out to be wrong. There was a period in my life where I wanted nothing more than to be a good journalist, and I think some of my best work has been in writing deep, minimal-commentary pieces that examine an issue or an event and the way they unfolded. But what is likely my best-known piece of writing is my first piece of news reporting (not counting my brief turn with the UW Daily), and it turns out to be wrong. That sucks.

Yet I feel that we all did the best we could taking on a story far larger than we would ever normally attempt. It’s easy, a couple years later, to look back on the night I wrote it and want to scream advice at 2003 Derek, but when we ran it, I was proud of the article and trusted the BP execs’ decision to run the story.