Few baseball players, former or present, polarize people more than Pete Rose. At Game 4 of the 2002 World Series, he received the longest standing ovation of any ballplayer honored for lifetime achievements; fans showered him with cheers of “Hall of Fame.” But after reports surfaced in December, and others more recently, that Rose had met secretly with Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to discuss his reinstatement, sententious columnists contended that Rose should never again be allowed on a playing field. Conservative commentator and baseball devotee George Will, former Commissioner Fay Vincent and old-timer Bob Feller all said that if Rose was reinstated, his Hall of Fame plaque should read, “Banned for gambling.”
There is no shortage of hypocrisy in such protests. Codicils could be added to the plaques of Ty Cobb, Cap Anson and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis saying, “Set back integration of the game.” And wasn’t it Landis who overrode the banishment of Cobb and Tris Speaker for wagering on a game, on the ground that he could find no attempt on their part to fix the game?
This is not to say that Rose bet on baseball. Tests of handwriting and fingerprints on the betting slips have proved inconclusive, according to Roger Kahn, co-author of “Pete Rose: My Story.” Furthermore, witnesses who testified against Rose -- Tommy Gioiosa, Paul Janszen and Ron Peters -- were all convicted tax and drug felons seeking lenient prison sentences in exchange for their cooperation.
But even if Rose bet on baseball games, no one had ever accused him of trying to influence the outcome of a game. No one, until the New York Post broke a story in December that John Dowd, the former federal prosecutor who investigated Rose in 1989 for Major League Baseball, said he had evidence that Rose had bet against the Reds while he was the team’s manager. In a follow-up story, Dowd backed off his remarks, saying that his evidence was “unreliable.”
Rose is no saint. He served five months in jail for federal income-tax evasion. He gambled. He womanized. Yet Michael Jordan has bet and routinely lost five-figure sums -- not to mention his philandering -- and escaped the opprobrium that continues to plague Rose. Baseball gave Steve Howe and Darryl Strawberry multiple chances to correct their substance-abuse problems, but Rose has never been offered one for his gambling problem.
Hasn’t Rose been smeared enough?
Maybe it’s because Rose has never shown any humility, has never formally apologized for actions that, as the late Commissioner Bart Giamatti stated, he “stained” the game. Maybe it’s because Rose’s banishment is so closely linked to Giamatti’s death that baseball executives feel they need a pardon from Giamatti’s next of kin to absolve Rose. Giamatti died eight days after banning the man who broke Cobb’s career hits record. No doubt the Rose affair was tumultuous and highly stressful for the former Renaissance scholar. But Giamatti had heart problems. He chain-smoked. He famously aged during the clerical and technical workers’ strike in 1984 at Yale, where he was president. At the time of his death, he looked ashen, 20 years older than his 51 years.
Baseball has spiraled downward since Giamatti died and Rose was exiled in 1989. Steroids, tainted offensive statistics, juiced balls, corked bats, bloated salaries, the 1994-95 strike that forced the cancellation of the World Series -- all have damaged baseball’s reputation and alienated fans.
The aficionado will rightly claim that there were harbingers of these problems before 1989. But I believed the game was staging a comeback that year.
In Giamatti, baseball had its most renowned orator ever -- “a lifetime .400 talker,” to quote the New Yorker’s Roger Angell -- and a leader of great integrity and passion for the game. As commissioner, he often talked about improving the quality of the experience at the ballpark. “Without fans who enjoy being at the ballpark, live, the whole enterprise does not exist,” he once said.
As the summer of 1989 wore on, Giamatti vs. Rose moved from court to court, through permanent injunctions to temporary restraining orders. Ultimately, it was taken out of the courts. Rose agreed to a lifetime ban with possible reinstatement a year later. Significantly, Major League Baseball agreed to make no finding that Rose had bet on baseball. However, at the press conference, Giamatti, the baseball purist, indicated that short of a hearing, he must conclude that Rose had bet on baseball. Then, Giamatti was gone.
Now we have Selig, the commissioner who presided over the ignominious 7-7 tie in last year’s All-Star game. If Selig looks like an undertaker, it’s because the game, if not embalmed, lingers on life support, and yet even he must know that baseball needs Rose desperately, however embarrassing that could be. After the reports of a possible deal for Rose’s reinstatement emerged, it was revealed that Rose once again had financial problems and that the IRS had filed a lien on his Sherman Oaks home for back taxes owed.
Still, the dramatic welcomes that Rose received from fans at both the 1999 and 2002 World Series suggested that they miss him and view him not only as an underdog but as a reminder of a time when baseball players still hustled on the playing field, when they still worked jobs during the winter to support their families, when they remained with the same organization for 10, 15 years and when home run hitters often led the league with 32 or 36 nonsteroid-propelled round-trippers.
Baseball may have ceded its status as the national pastime to football long ago, but it is just possible that the greatest blue-collar player in the history of the sport could help return the game to its former glory.
Baseball’s exiled hero may be rounding third and on his way home.