David Host: Why Baseball’s Pete Rose Question Matters Beyond Sports

David HostI was ten years old when I first became an avid Cincinnati Reds fan. Growing up just over one hour’s drive from Cincinnati, I could not help but notice when the legendary “Big Red Machine” won their second consecutive World Series the year before – but the 1977 season marked the first time that I personally followed almost every game. Staying awake in bed listening to Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall call games from the West Coast remains one of my fondest childhood memories – as do the many trips my dad and I made up I-75 to watch the Reds in person.

Like many kids my age, I mimicked the batting stances of all-time greats like Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, and Joe Morgan. I also tried to teach myself the knee-in-the-dirt pitching motion of Tom Seaver, who joined the Reds at mid-season that year (I tore the cover off several of the baseballs I hurled at the “strike zone” I envisioned on the brick side of our garage). As the years rolled by, it became clear that my athletic skills did not match the profile of a budding big-league ballplayer. Yet, the Reds and their up-and-down fortunes throughout the 1980s remained a central feature of every summer.

I had just started my freshman year in college when Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record on September 11, 1985. “Charlie Hustle” had never been one of my favorite players when I was younger. As I matured, I grew to appreciate Rose – his head-first slides; his blue-collar grit; and, most of all, the message he conveyed – that excellence is not always captive to natural ability. Rose looked and played like any of us might if we had the chance to play pro ball, which is why this native son of Cincinnati captured hearts in that city like no one else ever has, or likely will again.

After Rose retired as a player, he managed the Reds to a succession of second-place finishes during the late 1980s. He was an average manager at best, in retrospect; though his prodigious knowledge of the game suggested that Rose possessed tremendous potential in that capacity. Led by stars like like Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, and future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, the Reds were once again a team on the rise – and Rose seemed like the natural link between this brightening future and the dominant teams of the 1970s.

The Reds won the World Series in 1990, the season after Rose received a “lifetime ban” for betting on games involving his own team. There is no evidence that Rose ever bet against the Reds (his ultra-competitive nature strongly suggests that he never entertained the thought). Yet, Rose clearly presided over a series of underachieving teams. Sadly, we will never know what he could have accomplished as a manager without the distraction of his gambling habit.

The scandal which sundered Rose’s connection with the game he personified seemed to erupt out of nowhere. From all accounts, Rose thought that Major League Baseball officials had already convicted and sentenced him, so he opted for a very public fight. This battle consumed the Reds’ 1989 season – and for the first time I could remember, I lost interest as the team limped toward a fifth-place finish. As saddened as I was by Rose’s abrupt fall from grace, I cannot deny that I was relieved to see him go.

Like most Reds fans, I wanted to believe Rose’s denials. Yet, it was hard to ignore Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti’s grim conclusion: “One of the game’s greatest players has engaged in a variety of acts which have stained the game.” Giamatti’s sterling reputation further made it difficult to question the justice and fairness of the outcome.

Major League Baseball never officially concluded that Rose had bet on his own team in exchange for Rose’s acquiescence to the “lifetime ban.” For every other individual in the modern era to whom it has applied, baseball’s “lifetime ban” has, in reality, meant a suspension for a few years. Yet, Giamatti’s death from a heart attack eight days after announcing baseball’s settlement with Rose seems to have fueled a lasting personal vendetta at the game’s highest echelons.

First, the National Baseball Hall of Fame officially decided to exclude banned players from its annual baseball writer’s ballot in 1991, just before Rose became eligible to appear on that ballot. Next came Major League Baseball’s inexplicable and inexcusable refusal to act on Rose’s application for reinstatement, which persists to this day.

To me, the exclusion of baseball’s all-time hits leader transformed the “Hall of Fame” into a farce. Then, when the 1994 players’ strike canceled the World Series and eviscerated a promising Reds season, my attachment to baseball began to fray; particularly when neither the owners nor the players association even bothered to apologize – to the fans who pay their bills, or to the concessionaires, ushers, and other hard-working individuals who truly suffered the effects of the strike.

Baseball gradually recovered after 1994; in large part due to the record-breaking exploits of a bevy of new “superstars,” including Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds. We subsequently learned that these performances may have been the product of steroid use. Meanwhile, no one has ever accused Pete Rose of cheating, and his all-time hits record remains unassailable and, perhaps, unreachable. Yet, McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds remain eligible for the Hall of Fame, while Rose remains the game’s lone outcast.

On its face, this scenario seems outrageous and absurd; particularly when Pete Rose the player remains the exemplar of everything that once mattered about baseball. Yet, I remain initially persuaded by the argument that Rose flagrantly violated a “prime directive,” of sorts – a rule that is prominently displayed in every team’s clubhouse, for which the penalty has always been clear and certain. By contrast, while Major League Baseball appears to have banned steroid use for more than two decades, its enforcement of this policy has not always been consistent.

Gambling is a clinically recognized addiction, just like alcoholism and drug abuse. The late Steve Howe notoriously received suspension after suspension for cocaine use during his 17-year pitching career. Does anyone seriously believe that Howe would have stopped had drug abuse held the same “prime directive” status as the rule against betting on one’s own team? Still, amidst all the judgments pronounced against Pete Rose in the media and elsewhere, I have never heard anyone suggest that an illness might have deprived Rose of complete control over his actions.

Admittedly, Rose has often been his own worst enemy. I cannot help but believe that had he quietly come clean with Bart Giamatti when the gambling allegations first arose early in 1989, Rose might still have enjoyed a long association with baseball after a few years away from the game. Instead, he lied about his actions until 2004, when it became apparent that he might never be reinstated without a full confession. Rose also apparently continues to gamble; though his once-defiant attitude about his circumstances seems to have mellowed somewhat into genuine humility and remorse.

Perhaps Rose’s lack of genuine rehabilitation justifies Major League Baseball’s refusal to consider his reinstatement. After all, no less than Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays spent two years on the “banned list” merely for working for casinos in public relations capacities. But why not make this fact clear? Even at this late date, why not give Rose a very public choice between the game he loves and the habit he seemingly refuses to conquer? Wouldn’t this approach communicate the most productive message to anyone battling addiction: mercy for those who seek help and consequences for those who do not?

Otherwise, it is naïve to suggest that by potentially making Rose the only modern player against whom it has literally enforced a “lifetime ban,” Major League Baseball has protected itself one iota from the influences of gambling. Indeed, the exact opposite may have occurred. Instead of encouraging players, coaches, and managers who suffer from a gambling addiction to obtain the treatment they need, Major League Baseball has sent an unmistakable message of “no quarter;” one which seems destined to drive these individuals further underground. Unbending rules often produce inflexible results – which means that one had better guess correctly regarding the outcome.

During his recent appearance in Cincinnati, outgoing Commissioner Bud Selig addressed baseball’s “Pete Rose question” by reiterating his obligation “to do what I think is in the best interest of this sport” and then reminding his audience that he “was particularly close to Bart Giamatti.” As understandable as these personal sentiments might be, confusing them with an appropriate resolution does no favors for Selig’s legacy or baseball’s future.

Selig’s comments strongly suggest that Rose’s continued punishment has little to do with the rule he broke. Instead, personal animus seems to be driving Selig’s approach to this matter – and that fact says a lot more about our culture than we would like to think it does. Particularly in politics, everything seems to revolve around individual personalities. We cannot have mere disagreements without judging one another’s motives and character – then we wonder why our legislative bodies have become utterly dysfunctional. Instead of debating the practical merits of specific programs and proposals, we back our opponents into a corner and force them to defend their personal honor. Under such conditions, how can they ever give an inch toward compromise?

In short, the debate about Pete Rose’s fate continues to be about Pete Rose, when it ought to focus on what promotes the long-term health of baseball and the general welfare of our society. Whether a “lifetime ban” remains an appropriate penalty given what we know today about gambling and addiction is a much more relevant question than whether Rose has earned “forgiveness.”

My first visit to Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park with my teenage son two years ago lifted my spirits and took me back to a time before player strikes, steroids, and “lifetime bans.” I still follow baseball – but for far too long, baseball’s off-the-field errors have interfered with my genuine enjoyment of the game. By making peace with Pete Rose, Major League Baseball might offer the rest of our society with a desperately needed and realistic model of justice, compassion, and practicality. And it might finally win back fans like me.

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