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Reconsidering Pete Rose

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There has been much discussion this week about a possible reinstatement of the exiled Hit King. But does he deserve it?

Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

This past Sunday, August 23, was the 25th anniversary of the day Pete Rose was banned from baseball for life for the crime of gambling on baseball and on his own team while he was the manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Between that milestone, the announcement of new Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred, and speculation about what role, if any, Rose will play in the 2015 All-Star Game scheduled to be held in Cincinnati next July, there’s been a bit of a perfect storm of Rose speculation lately. And interestingly, there’s been a rising chorus of voices calling for Rose to be reinstated, claiming that he’s been punished enough, and insisting that it’s time for baseball to forgive.

Scott Miller of Bleacher Report is among those voices. Miller believes that MLB has been hypocritical when it comes to Rose, since they allowed him to participate in the 1999 All-Century Team festivities on the field at the World Series that year. ESPN’s Keith Olbermann agrees, taking the argument even further and claiming that MLB will allow Rose to participate any time they can make money off of him, and will continue to ignore him at all other times.

Miller and Olbermann may be right. The way MLB treats Rose may be the height of hypocrisy. But the solution to hypocrisy should not and cannot be more hypocrisy. On August 23, 1989, Pete Rose agreed to a lifetime ban from baseball. From that day forward, he has not been allowed to go anywhere in any ballpark that a regular fan cannot go. Exceptions have been made, like the 1999 All-Century Team event, as well as last year’s Big Red Machine reunion that took place at Great American Ball Park. But if Miller and Olbermann are so concerned with MLB’s integrity in this matter, why call for Rose’s reinstatement? Why not call for MLB to stop making exceptions regarding the conditions of Rose’s banishment? Miller and Olbermann act as if the only possible way to cure MLB’s hypocrisy is to take it to its extreme and drop the ban entirely. That’s not the case.

Fox Sports’ Rob Neyer also feels as though it is time for baseball to forgive Rose, and illustrates his point with an absurd analogy. In his own words:

I will just remind you that for much of American history, it was illegal to marry someone deemed of a different "race" than yours. Now, I'll assume you believe those laws were unjust. Do you also believe that anyone convicted of such a crime should remain in prison after the laws were ruled unconstitutional? What if someone was sentenced to life for selling marijuana? In today's world, does he still belong in prison forever?

This only makes sense if sometime in the last 25 years, MLB had decided that the punishment for gambling should not be a lifetime ban, but instead should be, say, a ten year ban. If that happened, then Neyer’s analogy would hold up, and I would support Rose’s immediate reinstatement. But that didn’t happen, and as far as I can tell, it’s extremely unlikely to happen. As it stands, Neyer’s analogy is irrelevant.

The facts of the Rose case have not changed, and are not disputed by anyone. The fact is, Pete Rose gambled on baseball and on the Reds while he was the Reds’ manager. He was caught, and accepted a lifetime ban in exchange for the suspension of the investigation into his activities. The fact is that since 1920, the punishment for any player, coach or manager found to be gambling on baseball is a lifetime ban. Rose knew this when he began his activities, and he knew this when he accepted the deal. Nothing has changed in the last 25 years, except that Rose, like all of us, is 25 years older.

Allow me to offer an analogy that is far more relevant and makes far more sense than the one Neyer came up with. Let’s say that during next year’s spring training, Andrew McCutchen tests positive for something on MLB’s banned PED’s list. According to the rules in place right now, as a first time offender, McCutchen would face an 80 game suspension. If that were to happen, would people be calling for his reinstatement after 60 games on the grounds that he'd been punished enough? Would people claim that baseball is better with McCutchen in it, therefore his sentence should be lifted? Other than a few Pirates partisans, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would make those arguments. And there is no difference between that situation and the situation Rose is currently in. Both Rose and the hypothetical McCutchen knowingly broke a rule with full knowledge of what the punishment would be. Both were punished in accordance with that rule. Neither punishment has a "he’s suffered enough " exception. Many argue that Rose would be a great ambassador for baseball and his presence in it would benefit the game. The same is certainly true of McCutchen. So why call for Rose reinstatement now if you wouldn’t call for McCutchen’s in a similar situation?

Olbermann also brings up the PED question, arguing that PED users harmed baseball more than Rose ever did. Even granting that premise, it’s not relevant. If you think PED should be punished more harshly, it doesn’t then follow that gamblers should be punished less harshly. The issues are unrelated. Lobby MLB and the MLB Players Association to adopt still harsher PED penalties if that’s how you feel. But don’t conflate the two.

Rose’s former Philles teammate Mike Schmidt has weighed in on this question, as well. He wrote an editorial for the Associated Press in which he too pleads for leniency. With all due respect to my fellow Ohio University Bobcat, Schmidt offers no compelling reason for Rose’s reinstatement beyond the vague sentiment that 25 years is long enough. Schmidt adds "In light of other serious indiscretions today that receive a hand slap, you'd think one of its greatest of all-time would at least receive closure," implying that Rose’s fame and success are reason to lift his sentence, as if a lesser player should stay suspended. That is an unfair and dangerous precedent to set.

I take no joy in any of this. I was raised on Pete Rose stories from my father and grandfather. He was like us, a local boy, a working class kid of German heritage. He was Charlie Hustle, a not-so-gifted athlete who made himself into one of the best baseball players of all time through sheer hard work and determination. He was an example of what any of us could do if we wanted it badly enough. I was a seven-year-old Reds fanatic on September 11, 1985, when Rose singled for his 4,192nd hit. I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was an eleven-year-old Reds fanatic when he was banned from baseball in 1989. I remember that like it was yesterday, too. At the time, I was sure he’d been falsely accused, and that sooner or later the truth would come out. I was right about the last part, at least. In 2004, after lying constantly and enthusiastically for fifteen years, Rose finally admitted to betting on baseball, although he made sure to do so in a way that guaranteed his honestly would benefit him financially, as part of a tell-all autobiography.

Pete Rose knowingly broke a rule, got caught, and was punished appropriately. Rose and his supporters consistently ask for a second chance. I wonder what he has done to deserve one?