So many scandals. Trump and his lap-dog Barr soiling the Justice Department. Senators declining to hear testimony from impeachment witnesses. The government cutting back aid in order to build a wall, while ignoring the infrastructure and climate concerns.
Plus, Major League Baseball going easy on clubs that probably stole pennants, while MLB juiced baseballs last year, and now is plotting to gut the hallowed minor-league system, and threatening to tart up the playoff system with a reality-show gimmick. Has everything gone haywire at once?
So why am I exorcised about Pete Rose? I had mostly forgotten him, skulking around Las Vegas, where the action is. Then I picked up the NYT this morning and found an op-ed article by two professors, with great credentials, I am sure, saying Rose has done his time and needs to be made eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame. I found myself sputtering.
In Rose’s time, there were cardboard placards posted on clubhouse walls, warning players that gambling on baseball was expressly forbidden, upon penalty of expulsion. The signs back then were in English and Spanish, now maybe in Japanese, also. But Pete was above all that.
Let me start by saying I was a boy reporter at the Charlie Hustle game in Tampa in March of 1963, when a chesty rookie with the Cincinnati Reds ran from home to first base upon receiving a base on balls. The fat-cat Yankees had won three straight pennants and would win two more, and Mantle-Maris-Berra-Howard-Ford guffawed at the expenditure of so much energy in a spring exhibition, and they bestowed that nickname on him.
Apprised of his new nickname, Rose informed reporters, early and often, that he was a different kind of guy. This was how he was taught to play by his dad, a Cincinnati sandlot legend. He was crude, he was self-centered, he was mentored by Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, and he was talented.
He was fun to be around. He loved to talk about the game, bantering with writers, trading baseball knowledge and strategy. He seemed to be a personification of the old game, the dirty, dusty, nasty, spikes-high game. The Big Red Machine accumulated smoother stars like Bench and Morgan and Perez, but Pete was the home-town boy.
He was a bundle of energy. A teammate, Bernie Carbo, was quoted as saying the funniest thing he ever saw in baseball was Pete Rose’s greenies kicking in during a rain delay in the clubhouse.
We knew Pete had a major gambling jones. On our annual spring sojourn to the dog track or jail-alai fronton near Tampa, we would see Pete, clearly a regular, moving fast, flashing $100 bills. When the Mets visited Cincinnati, he had tips on the daily action at River Downs racetrack.
Fast forward to the revelations that Pete, while managing the Reds, was betting on baseball games – but only on the Reds, to win, or so his story went. By that time, people knew more about gambling addiction – how ultimately there is no limit.
If Rose bet on the Reds one day (when his ace was pitching) but did not bet on them the next day (when a lesser pitcher was starting, or perhaps a star was limited by an injury, which only a manager or a trainer would know), his decision was a tipoff to bookies and others with access to Rose’s bets.
Baseball investigated, got the goods on Pete, and confronted him. He could have admitted reality – but we can surely think of other damaged individuals out there in the world, who cannot process details, who are lacking any trace of conscience, of morality, who think they are above the law.
In a time when people with alcohol and drug addictions were getting treatment, Rose stonewalled investigators, infuriating Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, who banished Rose from baseball. I was there that day. Giamatti was quivering with anger. A few days later, on a vacation Giamatti died of a heart attack. The legacy of that case is: Pete Killed Bart.
Also, baseball had more evidence on Rose’s transgressions than on any one of the stars who used steroids in another epidemic a decade and two later. Baseball has not banned steroid suspects but has left the Hall of Fame question up to the writers who vote.
NYT writers are not allowed to vote for any award, in any field, and in retirement I honor that rule. I feel sentimental about the swaggering home-boy who lit up my first decade in covering baseball. But he broke a rule and has never faced it.
Keeping Pete Rose ineligible sets a standard for the Hall, and now it is up to the voters to make their individual decisions about subsequent stars who were ingesting steroids that allowed them to muscle a ball over a fence.
I don’t think baseball has handled the steroid era well, and I’m not quite sure what more it can do about the bang-the-garbage-can-lid era. Declare the championships “vacated” as college basketball has done in one scandal or another? The personal disgrace to talented players and fired managers are not small steps.
I relish the memories of Pete Rose playing ball and talking baseball in the clubhouse, but I don’t see any reason to reinstate him for membership in the Hall of Fame. Now, more than ever, we need some minimal bottom-line standards of what is acceptable and what is not.
* * *
The case for reinstating Pete Rose:
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.