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COMMENTARY : An Eminent Entry in the Face-Is-Red Book

Special to The Washington Post

This is not to say Pete Rose is guilty, or otherwise. This is to say Major League Baseball, in the person of rookie commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, shot itself in the foot and both shins in its pursuit to hang a guilty verdict on Peter Edward Rose.

This clumsy act by the baseball commissioner took the form of a letter written April 18 to the presiding judge before whom Ron Peters would be up for sentencing. Said Peters was a convicted felon afoul of the law for such major mischiefs as trafficking in drugs and cheating on his taxes. He also mingled this activity with his sideline as a bookmaker, and recently had borne witness before the baseball commissioner Pete Rose was a client who had bet on ballgames.

In a letter best fitting an aphorism that the best letters are those not written, Giamatti advised the judge in behalf of a lighter sentence for Peters: “It is my purpose to bring to your attention the significant and truthful cooperation Mr. Peters has provided my special counsel. ... I am satisfied Mr. Peters has been candid, forthright and truthful. ... “

It was a pitch Giamatti now wishes he had back. Not only did Pete Rose and his counsel smack it out of the lot, but out of it also has spurted, with Roman candle effect, a series of explosions, all of them wounding organized baseball and its sacred fellowship with the nation’s courts.

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Rose and his lawyers pounced on Giamatti’s act to hale him into another court, citing “prejudice,” and not only got a 14-day stay from Giamatti’s royal command to appear before him for a hearing, but from a gutsy county judge they got ringing denunciation of the commissioner as a knave who had “prejudged” Rose’s case.

And well paddled was his eminence, the commissioner, by Judge Norbert A. Nadel: “We further find that a hearing set for tomorrow in New York would be futile and illusory, and the outcome a foregone conclusion.” It was plain talk.

Later there ensued some cheap shots by those baseball lovers in favor of lynching Rose. Nadel was denigrated as a mere county judge politicking for re-election in Rose’s district. No sign he loved baseball. And weren’t courts supposed to be friendly to baseball? However, an intrusion by the courts was always there for baseball to fear, despite the five times the game has won affirmation of the 1922 Supreme Court ruling it is exempt from antitrust laws. And three days after Nadel’s ruling, baseball found itself back in court, this time by its own forced initiative. It was seeking from the Ohio Court of Appeals an overturn of Nadel’s ruling for Rose.

Nothing doing. Their plea had no legal standing, Giamatti and his counsel were told, because the appeals court would not intervene against a judgment that was not yet final.

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So the whole business is back in Nadel’s court, with organized baseball forced to ponder whether, on July 6, Judge Nadel will decide he was wrong on June 25, and that what he used to believe was “prejudgment” of rules has evaporated into three huzzahs for Giamatti.

Friends of the commissioner and his counsel have quickly prepared an “out.” Such letters, they are saying, are often written by prosecutors to a judge before the sentencing of a friendly witness. So, no big deal.

Ha, but the person who signed the letter to this sentencing judge was not any prosecutor seeking to reward a friendly witness. The signature it bore was that of the man who, as commissioner, would ultimately judge the Pete Rose case. Giamatti was being told that even baseball commissioners are not supposed to prejudge serious matters.

For organized baseball the worst-case scenario is that Rose will be delivered from the jurisdiction of the commissioner and given the right to battle it out in the courts. This would be a big plus for Rose’s attorneys, who would gain the right to cross-examine all the witnesses, an unsavory lot anyway. It would be different from a hearing.

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So, at a point when Rose was in a sweat about all the prospects of being banned from baseball and banished as a Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting, from whom did he get a break? From his accusers. From the commissioner who wrote the letter that goes into baseball’s Red Book as the biggest boo-boo in commissioner history. And even if, as explained, the letter was written by Giamatti’s lawyer and merely signed by the commissioner, it can still claim a record: Biggest blunder on advice of counsel.


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