Rose debate shows no signs of dying
Twenty years later, all-time hits king still seeking reinstatement
In the category of baseball controversies that not only don't die but don't even taper off a little bit, we have now had two decades of the argument regarding Pete Rose.
We have come to the 20th anniversary of Rose accepting a lifetime ban from baseball for gambling on baseball. In every single moment during these 20 years, you could start a heated debate among baseball fans anywhere, by uttering these four simple words: "What about Pete Rose ..."
It is a classic debate. Against Rose is the fact that he violated the game's first commandment: Don't bet on baseball. For Rose is the argument that his stature as a player was such that he must be reinstated and made eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Over the years, Rose's own conduct damaged his cause. For 14 years he denied that he bet on baseball. He then produced an autobiography in which he admitted that he had gambled on baseball and then lied about gambling on baseball. Not only had he bet on baseball, he had bet on Cincinnati Reds games when he was managing that club.
Rose insisted that he had always bet on the Reds to win, but baseball's prohibition on gambling is clear and inclusive. It is posted on the wall of every Major League clubhouse, and in more than one language.
Circumstances did conspire against Rose after he accepted the ban, which followed an exhaustive investigation by John M. Dowd, formerly a prominent Justice Department attorney. In the ban agreement, Rose did not have to admit guilt and could apply for reinstatement after one year. But as part of the agreement, Rose also voluntarily accepted a lifetime ban.
After the agreement, then Commissioner of Baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti stated publicly that he believed Rose had bet on baseball. Of course he believed it; otherwise, he wouldn't have gone to the trouble of banning baseball's all-time leader in hits. Giamatti, a former president of Yale University, was a brilliant man, whose commitment to the game was truly profound, and was expressed in language that was eloquent, at times poetic. Giamatti was appalled that a leading figure in the game could be involved in baseball betting.
Just eight days after the ban, Giamatti died of a massive heart attack. Some of his friends believed that the extreme stress of the Rose investigation and the subsequent banishment was a contributing factor in his death.
The next two Commissioners -- Fay Vincent and Bud Selig -- were very close friends of Giamatti. Had Giamatti lived, he might have reinstated Rose. But the two subsequent Commissioners were not positioned for a lavish show of mercy in this case.
Rose had some momentum behind an application for reinstatement in 2003. However, the furor over his admission of gambling, and the fact that he couldn't produce anything resembling a penitent public face, derailed his chances.
Reinstatement in and of itself is only a portion of the issue with Rose. If he is reinstated, then he would presumably be eligible for election to the Hall of Fame.
On one hand, it is difficult to rationalize the National Baseball Hall of Fame not opening its doors to the all-time hits leader. This is, after all, "Charlie Hustle," the epitome of effort, a gamer for the ages.
On the other hand, there is the seriousness of Rose's offense. You have heard people say, "They let all those steroids guys play; why can't Rose be reinstated?"
These are apples and oranges. The users of performance-enhancing drugs cheated, but they cheated with the intention of gaining a competitive edge. They suffered from an impulse that was simultaneously wrong and human.
There is no "but" with gambling on baseball. It is all wrong. So Rose said he only bet on his team to win? If Rose bet on the Reds four times a week, what did he tell the rest of the gambling community about the other three games?
The fact is that baseball's worst time in history, its least credible moment, its lowest position morally, spiritually, emotionally, came in 1919, when members of the White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series. For historical purposes, they became the Black Sox.
Much of the history of baseball can be seen as a reaction to that event. Its leadership became centralized. The first Commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, began his tenure by banning eight White Sox players from the 1919 team for life. There was no appeal from his ruling, even though there was considerable evidence that Buck Weaver was innocent.
But from that time forward, the worst baseball-related sin anybody in the game could commit was gambling on the game. So in the scheme of baseball crimes, what Rose did was first-degree murder. For that, he received what amounted to a life sentence.
Can a two-decade banishment be considered enough of a price to pay? Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, a former teammate of Rose with the Phillies, took this position in a statement quoted by The Associated Press on Saturday, saying, "Twenty years have passed; isn't that enough?"
And Rose is 68 now. Perhaps advancing age will make him a more sympathetic figure.
There is a middle road, a compromise solution available. That would be a limited reinstatement.
For those who demand that Rose must be in the Hall of Fame, make him eligible for election to the Hall. For those who demand that his punishment for betting on baseball must be a lifetime punishment, prohibit Rose from taking any position with any club in organized baseball. In this way, both Rose's greatness and his sins could both be clearly recognized.
In the absence of that sort of compromise, what will happen? Shortly after taking over as Commissioner, Selig said that it was very unlikely that he would reinstate Rose during his tenure. Nobody knew at that time that Selig's tenure would be 19 years, if one assumes that he will retire at the end of his current contract, which runs through 2012.
In recent years, Selig's responses to Rose-related queries have been much more non-committal. His most recent answer to a question about Rose's status was, "It is under review." So there is, once again, renewed speculation about a possible reinstatement.
Even now, 20 years into Rose's forced retirement, the controversy over his status refuses to go quietly away. Such is his stature in the game and in banishment from the game.
He was always notable for the way he played. Eventually, he was even more notable for what he accomplished and the records he set. Now, he is notable by his absence.
The argument about his reinstatement will go on as long as the banishment goes on and Rose is still alive. In fact, if he is not reinstated during his lifetime, the argument will probably take on the quality of something very much like eternal life.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.