So, old friend Pete Rose is back in the news. The all-time hit leader, games played leader, at bats leader, player-manager, gambler, liar and all-around scoundrel is now in the eye of a dispute on whether a then-teen he had an ongoing sexual relationship with some 40 years ago was 15 or 16. She insists she was 15. He insists she was 16. Like the difference really matters.
For decades since his banishment in 1989, Rose has done everything short of acting admirably to regain his assorted footholds. He’s been re-embraced in Cincinnati, was set to be enshrined in the Philadelphia Phillies Wall of Fame and had his cushy job on Fox’s MLB broadcasts. He’s also been the subject of the most hotly-contested Hall of Fame debate this side of Barry Bonds: How much should voters take off-field incidents into account. Some are now—finally—saying this latest news is the straw that broke the camel’s back and Pete, great as he was on the field, should not be allowed enshrinement. I’m just having trouble understanding why they thought he was deserving in the first place.
When I was a kid, as my father indoctrinated me into the fraternity of baseball history enthusiasts, I learned of Pete’s hustle and Shoeless Joe Jackson’s similar banishment right around the same time, when I was six-some years old. Pete represented playing hard, playing right and making the most of limited talent; Jackson stood as the shining example of why engaging in any way in gambling on baseball is strictly verboten. Jackson’s 1919 White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series in a scandal that could have destroyed MLB (hat tip, Babe Ruth). For almost a century now, Jackson’s banishment has been hotly contested; he took the money and proceeded to smash during the series, but he never revealed knowing about what was happening to anyone that matters. MLB czar Kenesaw Mountain Landis (Himself not a sweetheart) ruled every conspiring member of that team banned. The ban still stands today and Jackson sits outside the Hall of Fame his numbers might otherwise have insured him, a shining example to future generations, screaming “DO NOT BET ON THE GAME”.
That’s the point really, isn’t it? Rose knew of Jackson’s example. No gambling is literally the first rule posted in every MLB clubhouse and everyone—everyone—knows that the punishment is banishment. Rose knew exactly the medicine he was being offered and took the illness anyways, and yes, gambling is an illness, but he took that first step. Then, he made no attempt to own up to his sins, only piling further marks on the wrong side of his ledger.
There are those who argue for Rose. They see the ethical question as irrelevant, ultimately bringing up the aforementioned Bonds or Gaylord Perry, a renown spitballer who was almost revered for cheating the game, but here’s the difference; those men were trying to succeed, with no questions to that effect. Those pro-Rose types will then say that when he gambled on games he managed, he only bet the Reds to win, but that’s the thing; trying to win one game is a lot different than trying to succeed in MLB, a 162-game regular season gauntlet that requires a manager always preserve a degree of his resources for tomorrow. There were no standards and practices in place stopping Rose from managing solely for today once his placard was on the managerial office door and his marker in the bookie’s book. That means that he–unlike Bonds, Perry and dozens of others who are inevitably invoked in such discussions–was tearing at the fabric of baseball’s single greatest foundation piece; the assurance to paying customers that everyone is trying to succeed.
I’ve worked in the soccer world and have seen the damage match-fixing can do. MLB is mostly immune to that in large part because of the standard that was set by the Black Sox ruling and that prevention is inevitably a part of the culture the game’s been built on. Exonerating Rose, when the single greatest argument in favour of that action seems to be…
…pays no respect to the institutions of MLB and/or the Hall of Fame.
Rose sleeping with that girl was a despicable act from a despicable person, but that shouldn’t change the Hall of Fame debate one iota. He never belonged in the first place. There’s a rule, there’s a punishment; he broke the rule, he serves the punishment. Good riddance.
PS: If you never got to see Pete play, here’s a video from the 1970 all-star game that sums him up. Keep in mind this is the all-star game, an exhibition game with very little at stake. #hardnosed.