January 15, 2004
This will be my fifth year of writing a regular column on baseball. One of my greatest concerns every time I sit down at my keyboard is avoiding repetition. I've written more than 600 articles now, and the more work I have behind me, the greater my fear that I'm going to unwittingly rewrite a piece from the spring of 2001 and think I'm being original.
Today, I don't have that fear. I know that because today I'm writing about something I've never covered before.
I may be the last sportswriter to pen the requisite Pete Rose column. I'm young enough to not have an emotional investment in Rose the player, having only seen the tail end of his career. I was pretty convinced by the available evidence that Rose bet on baseball while he was the Reds' manager, and only slightly less convinced that he bet on Reds games during that time. I agreed with his placement on the ineligible list, and with the idea that anyone banned from the game could not possibly receive its highest honor.
Mostly, I found the entire situation, and the relentless discussion of it, distasteful. Rather than try and put that into words, it was easier for me to simply never write about the topic.
In his new book, My Prison Without Bars, Rose confesses to breaking Major League Baseball rule 21(d). He admits that he placed bets on baseball, and on Reds games, while managing the team from 1984 through 1989. He claims that he wagered on baseball beginning in 1987, and did so four or five times a week.
Here is the text of major league rule 21(d):
Important to Rose, and to many of his supporters, is his insistence that he never bet against the Reds. As you can see by the wording of the rule, there is no distinction in the rule between the side you favor with a wager. If you have any duty to perform in the game, placing a bet on any outcome is grounds for permanent ineligibility.
I actually had to articulate the rationale for this to, of all people, my mother. I was back east over the holidays, and the story broke just before I came home. My mother is a smart woman and a sports fan, and like thousands of others, didn't see the harm in Rose betting on his own team. After all, he wouldn't be throwing the game; he would want to win just as much as anyone, and how could that be bad?
The most obvious problem with this is that Rose didn't bet on the Reds every single night (per both the Dowd report and his own statement that he bet "four or five times a week"). What did Rose know about his team on a particular day that caused him to pocket his money, and what changed before he placed his next bet? Moreover, how did having money on a game influence Rose's decisions, even slightly, knowing that he could hold back his $10,000 the next day?
Even had Rose been betting on the Reds for the same amount every night, he's still in violation of the rule, and subject to its penalty. His actions were wrong because baseball is selling a product in which the perception of fair play is paramount to its success. We can know that one team is trying to rebuild, or has three starters on the bench because of the 13-inning night game that ended at 1:15 a.m., or even that their starting pitcher makes more than the entire opposing lineup. But all of that is visible; once there are hidden motivations that neither the participants nor the paying customers are privy to, the product becomes tainted.
Rose insists that his wagering had no impact on his decisions as Reds manager. Without even getting into the issue of his veracity--the man just lied, often and loudly, for 14 years--the problem is that the popularity of professional sports hinges entirely on the integrity of the participants. If there is even the perception that something like this can occur, that the game you attend or watch on television is being influenced by the money someone in uniform has on it, then the entire business becomes untenable.
That's the reason for Rule 21(d); not just to keep players from throwing games, but to keep all the people in the game from even thinking about putting money on one, as a means of protecting the integrity of the game. Rose, for no reason other than his desire for a rush, violated a rule he'd seen in print some 5,000 times on his way into and out of clubhouses.
I see Rose's confession as another manifestation of his core trait: He has no concern for anyone but himself. He was a self-promoting player, full of false hustle and a considerable concern for his personal statistics and his place in the game. As a manager, Rose's naked pursuit of a personal goal--the all-time hits record--caused him to play a fading, inadequate version of himself over younger players for a team that needed to develop its crop of young hitters.
After his ban, Rose lied for 14 years about his violation of rule 21(d), painting himself as a victim and leveraging that dishonesty, and his continued popularity, to embarrass baseball and the men whom, as it turns out, had pegged him perfectly. Rose set up shop 100 yards from the Hall of Fame every August for years, ensuring a steady stream of sycophants and media happy to wail on his behalf while the game held its signature celebration within hearing distance. At the 2001 World Series, Rose was announced with the rest of the All-Century team. He basked in the glory of the moment, stood on the field, enjoyed the cheers, tipped his cap.
And all the while, he was lying.
I do not believe that Rose is admitting his violation of 21(d) because he's sorry for what he did. I believe he's admitting it for personal gain that he could not and cannot get without the admission. The book deal with Rodale was a considerable carrot; an understanding between him and some of the game's top officials that his admission would be a necessary step towards any potential reinstatement was another. His actions for the past 14 years indicate that despite his protestations, he holds the game in contempt. He dragged it through the mud for so long, and cast doubt on three commissioners, all in the interest of self-promotion.
At this point, as he becomes old enough to sense his mortality, I think Rose will say anything to get what he wants. To read the book and see his interview, it seems clear that Rose still doesn't understand what he did. He admitted to Commissioner Bud Selig that he gambled because he didn't think he would get caught, and that he lied about it because he didn't believe the punishment for his misdeeds fit the crime. He repeats an argument he's used before, that had he been a drug addict or an alcoholic, he would have already been in the Hall of Fame.
Rose violated rule 21(d) countless times and is serving the appropriate penalty for doing so. Reinstating him would be an embarrassment to the game, and a kick in the teeth to every player who obeyed the rule. There's a rationale in play that Rose's admission is a step in the direction to reinstatement. I actually see it as the validation of all the work Bart Giamatti, John Dowd, and Fay Vincent did in researching Rose's activities and their evaluation of them. It was only the small possibility that he actually was innocent that had been the one bullet in Rose's gun.
That's gone now. Rose violated 21(d). The punishment for that is permanent ineligibility. There isn't any gray area left.
I was surprised--and more than a little encouraged--by the reaction to Rose's admission. Many sportswriters have taken the tack that Rose's apparent lack of shame and the removal of any doubt as to his guilt make him a poor candidate for reinstatement and Hall of Fame enshrinement. I'm skeptical as to whether that attitude will persist. Rose "in" makes a better story than Rose "out," and is a more enjoyable role for the writer, especially one with a ballot, to play. "Honor the fan favorite" is a much easier stance than "protect the integrity of the game."
Moreover, now that he has cleared the big hurdle, Rose will have time to refine his message and take as apologetic a tack as is necessary to get what he wants, which is a plaque in the game's sacred space. As I said, he'll say anything to get the result he's looking for: reinstatement and induction. The sincerity of all future claims should be called into question, however; Rose's true feelings are right there in his book.
If reinstatement was simply about what is right for baseball, than the debate could end now. The case for Rose isn't just about the game, though; it's as much about Bud Selig and his need to pander. If there's one thing we've learned in Selig's reign, it's that he will always choose the quick, cosmetic fix that can be sold over more a difficult approach that addresses deeper issues.
Expanded playoffs, Wild Cards, interleague play, All-Star game gimmicks...reinstating Pete Rose. All are of a type, and the last would be entirely in keeping with the Selig administration.
It would also be wrong. Baseball should acknowledge Rose's admission, commend him for coming clean and ending his 14 years of deceit, and encourage him to take steps to repair his life. It should take a moment to thank the men who worked to root out Rose's actions and remove him from the game before he had a chance to do severe damage to it.
And then it should send Rose on his way. No reinstatement, just a pointer to rule 21(d) and the fervent hope that Rose's position outside baseball will serve as a deterrent to those who would forget, even for a second, that the game is bigger than anyone.
To those who would argue that Rose's career as a player outweighs his actions as a gambler, I point out that many of his on-field accomplishments are a part of the Hall of Fame, as they should be. Achievements should be celebrated, and the many great moments of Rose's career have a place in the museum along with the many great moments of players who didn't violate 21(d).
But a man who broke the game's biggest rule, and showed a complete disregard for that game through three years of betting and another 14 of lying, has earned exactly what he's getting. Rose should have no place in the game, and he certainly should not be eligible for the its highest honor.
Pete Rose doesn't want forgiveness. He wants a plaque.
Please, please, please don't give it to him.