Now that non-baseball fans, having read the title of this post, have left the ballpark, the rest of us can talk turkey about Pete Rose and the Hall of Fame. What do you think -- should he get in?
I’ll say up front that I was never a Pete Rose fan. Far from it, actually. His sins, in ascending order of gravity, were that he played in the National League; that he captained the Cincinnati Reds team that beat my Red Sox in 1975 World Series; and, worst of all to me as a sports-obsessed kid, that he epitomized the opposite of cool. All that running down to first base after ball four – how dorky, how strivey, how utterly uncool could you be? Charlie Hustle, aka Mr. Square.
As an adult, having at long last grasped that there’s more to success than being cool, I have to admire any batter with the dedication to squeeze every last drip out of the probabilistic grapefruit by always running to first after ball four, on the slim chance of a passed ball. Still, and probably in keeping with my childhood affections, I’ve been a staunch supporter of the “Keep Rose Out” school of Cooperstown theology, ever since the league banned him in 1989 for gambling on games.
But now I’m wavering.
Two weeks ago my newspaper’s sports columnist, Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant, who was one of the 440 voters who recently cast Hall-of-Fame votes, laid out the case for remaining staunch about not admitting Rose. He begins his column by noting the ongoing problem of whether to admit great players who also used performance-enhancing drugs – especially the Big Three of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mark McGuire. Referring to Bonds and Clemens (both of whom fell well below the 75% threshold in this year’s voting), Jeff vows that “if either is voted into Cooperstown by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, without a blaring official designation by the Hall of their use of performance enhancing drugs, I will resign as a Hall of Fame voter.” And then he continues: “if the Hall put him on the ballot, I also wouldn't check Rose's name … just as I won't vote for Clemens or Bonds unless the Hall makes a special designation for PED users.”
Is this equivalence reasonable? Is it fair? It’s true that Rose bet on games, and in the process touched nerves abraded by the many fixing and point-shaving scandals in various sports, going all the way back to the 1919 Chicago Black Sox. Those scandals, and the rules that arose from them, reflected the realities of sport eighty to a hundred years ago, when the major threat to its integrity was that mobsters might buy off players in order to reap gambling rewards. By the time of Rose’s ban, that threat had subsided, yet his offenses were still judged by it. He didn’t cheat, but he did stuff that hit that old nerve.
Clemens, Bonds and the rest, on the other hand -- they cheated. Massively. Rampantly. And for years. And their cheating resulted in a serious distortion of the game. It altered outcomes of individual contests, and likely seasons and World Series. Worse, the widespread use of performance enhancers endangered one of the great treasures of baseball fandom: the ability to reckon players’ accomplishments statistically across the ages.
Unlike basketball and football, where changes to the game’s rules and schedules -- and to the size and speed of athletes -- have rendered statistical comparison across generations all but meaningless, baseball relies on skills and on performance benchmarks that have remained more or less the same, so that a Walter Johnson or Babe Ruth or Bob Feller can be meaningfully compared with today's stars, and can, in fact, even be envisioned actually playing today. This act of comparison -- the lifeblood of baseball geeks -- created a kind of historical/statistical continuity that doesn't, and can't, exist in those other sports. This continuity is part of what makes baseball sui generis among American sports, and makes it more vibrantly traditional than the others.
The Juicer Generation of players wantonly wrecked that continuity. Theirs were no minor misdemeanors, but assaults on the fundamental categories of the game. I recall exactly when I realized something was rotten in baseball-land, and the rottenness can be summed up in two words: Brady Anderson. In the first decade of his career as an Orioles outfielder, Anderson hit an average of seven home runs per year. Then, in 1996, he hit fifty. Fifty! When a mediocrity like Anderson suddenly hits 50 home runs -- more home runs than Carl Yastrzemski ever hit in a year, or Frank Robinson, or Henry Aaron! -- you are looking at sins against the game of a wholly different order of magnitude than the petty offenses Rose committed.
Regarding the alleged gravity of those offenses, even an astute writer like Jeff Jacobs has to resort to some pretty twisty moves to make his case. After admitting that evidence of Rose ever betting against his own team is scant-to-nil, Jeff insists that it is nonetheless “easy to see how a manager's moves with pitchers in an attempt to ensure a victory to win a bet could adversely affect the next day's performance. And that, in turn, plays with the integrity of the game.”
Well, yes, as a matter of logic I guess that’s technically true. But has anyone cited any such suspicious personnel moves? Has anyone come up with the smoking-gun case in which Rose, as manager, tried too hard to win? Even if it were true – even if Rose did push his team extra hard to win because he had something riding on the game – such an extra push to get the W hardly ranks, in terms of messing with the integrity of the game, anywhere near what Bonds and the other Juicers did.
Jeff makes a convincing case that Rose remains a problem gambler, probably a jerk as well. His column cites baseball commissioner Rob Manfred’s recent decision upholding Rose’s ban from baseball, which charges that “Mr. Rose has not presented credible evidence of a reconfigured life either by an honest acceptance by him of his wrongdoing … or by a rigorous, self-aware and sustained program of avoidance by him of all the circumstances that led to his permanent ineligibility in 1989.”
I don’t doubt that this may well be true. But is “failure to become self-aware” a proper basis for having your career performance as one of the greatest baseball players of all time disqualified from recognition? Unlike the Juicers, Rose has a career whose accomplishments speak for themselves. Honestly, I have no idea what the final record of a Bonds or McGuire or Clemens would look like without the drugs they took. But I do know what Rose’s would look like if he hadn’t bet on his team to win. It would be exactly the same.
Rose was not corrupt. He did not change outcomes. He did nothing to damage the way the game was played, viewed, analyzed or appreciated. He did nothing to artificially improve his own results. Thus his record is whole. It has, in other words, integrity.
For better and for worse, many of our judgments in life are relative. Perhaps it is true that 25 years ago, when Bart Giamatti threw him out, Rose’s actions defined what cheating was. But the steroid-inflated ersatz giants who lumbered in his wake redefined it – and redefined it so drastically that our judgments cannot be the same. In the ranks of baseball crimes, Rose copped a candy bar at the checkout. These guys committed mass murder. He scribbled some annoying graffiti, and they burned the house down.
Keep them out, and let Charlie Hustle in.