It was the summer of 1989, I was 13 years old and riding in the passenger seat of my dad’s white Chevy pickup truck when my world came crashing down. There was no warning. My dad who sat just a few inches away driving couldn’t have prepared me for the news that was about to come through the radio speakers. Major League Baseball Commissioner Faye Vincent was banning Pete Rose from baseball. How could this happen? Pete Rose was my idol.
Sure I grew up an Orioles fan but just as my buddies in high school wanted to emulate Ken Griffey Jr. my hero was Pete Rose. I knew his birthday, April 14th one day after mine. He wore number 14 so I wore number 14. Pete played first base, I played first base. He had his head first slide; I was too chicken to try. Maybe it was that head first slide that attracted me as a young kid to idolize Pete. He was fearless. Charlie Hustle didn’t take a shortcut. He went right after the other team. As a kid who grew up watching baseball in the early 1980’s Pete Rose gave you a reason to watch. Pete was my hero.
When the news broke that my hero was going to be banned from the game he gave so much to I couldn’t believe it. Surely my hero, my favorite baseball player wouldn’t bet on baseball. This has to be a lie. The guy I put on a pedestal would never do anything wrong. He was too honest, too hard-nosed a player to ever go after a cheap buck by breaking the rules. In interview after interview when asked if he bet on baseball Pete responded “I never bet on baseball.” There, he said it. He didn’t do it. Why are you still punishing him? Just wait, when they investigate this, my idol will be cleared of all charges and the commissioner will have to apologize and say just how wrong they were to destroy Pete’s reputation. I can’t wait to find out when he’ll be inducted and bug my parents to make the trip to Cooperstown!
Turns out that investigation did happen and my hero was guilty as sin. Sadly I had to accept the fact that the guy I worshipped because of the way he played wasn’t really a guy to look up to. The guy I saw playing baseball on television who I thought I knew, I didn’t know at all. The image is what I knew not the reality, not the man. In August of 1989 at the age of 13 my hero died.
In July of 2012 the worshippers of Joe Paterno lost their hero for the second time in less than a year. The first was the human form of Joe. On that Sunday morning in late January they awoke to the news that the man that led their football program for 61 years had passed away. Amid rumors and speculations involving the Jerry Sandusky scandal they came out in droves to memorialize their fallen hero. A memorial of flowers, cards and signs surrounded his statue outside of Beaver Stadium. Tens of thousands made the trek to State College for the public viewing of his body. For many this would be the closest they ever got to the storied coach. Their view of him from the seats of the stadium or from the television screen on Saturday afternoons were the nearest they had gotten to him up to this point.
The image of Joe Paterno died Thursday morning July 12th. Paragraph after paragraph of the Freeh report gave the details of the lies and cover up that Paterno and the other leaders at Penn State were involved in. The investigation that Penn State fans had convinced themselves would clear their coveted hero and idol JoePa would turn out to be the most damning piece of information to date. The old man who they looked up to as the epitome of honesty and righteousness had indeed lied and covered up for a serial pedophile. Spanier, Curely and Schultz were also held responsible in the report but Nittany Lion fans didn’t cheer for them on game day. There is no statue, shirts or bumper stickers that bare their names. JoePa is the only name that matters. Former players, writers and fans aren’t coming out to show their support for the former president, vice president and athletic director. Yet all shared in the cover up according to the report. Where are their sympathizers?
As the days have passed since the release of the Freeh report so have the numerous conspiracy theories stacked up offered by the Paterno hero worshippers. Those that simply can’t accept the facts laid out in the 267 page report that spanned more than 430 interviews and 3.5 million emails and other documents. Whether it come from the Paterno family that swears to conduct their own investigation calling the Freeh report simply a biased opinion, to the many who blame the media for trumping up the story so they can jump on the bash Paterno bandwagon. There was even one claim that ESPN formulated the whole thing to improve ratings the day after the MLB All-Star game.
I enjoy a good conspiracy story but when that story does nothing but continue to disrespect the victims of the horrific crimes that were committed in the face of stacks of facts and common sense, you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t buy in. In fact I find it rather disgusting but in a way I understand it. It’s tough to accept that your hero is dead. They are still in love with the image and not ready to accept reality. Just know that for every excuse and theory offered is another victim whose life was ruined, like a stack of losing betting slips left to waste on a casino floor.
The image of Penn State and the idolization of Joe Paterno is what aided in this scandal. For that reason the statue needs to be removed. Put it up for auction. Take the money and give it to the victims of abuse. To continue the idol worshipping of this man would be a mistake. When you idolize another human being eventually you will be disappointed. That’s something I learned when I was 13.