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Should Baseball Reinstate Pete Rose?

One of baseball's most respected sportswriters says yes. Me? I'm not so sure.

Andy Lyons

It's a slow news day, so let me stir up some trouble.

Joe Posnanski, one of my favorite sportswriters and someone whose work I greatly respect, has posted a 3,000-word opus at Hardball Talk making the case for Pete Rose to be let back into baseball. That's a lot to get through -- and you should read it -- but his argument essentially boils down to this:

We tend to believe as a country that, most of the time, even for dreadful wrongs, there’s a way back. There are second chances. And those second chances are not just given to people who apologize in a fulfilling way or have a gift for seeming contrite.

Pete Rose played baseball with an intensity and love that might be unmatched in the game’s history. He cracked more hits and reached base more times than anyone ever. He represented a way to play baseball that inspired millions of people. Then, he gambled on games, breaking one of baseball’s most cherished rules. Rose is 72 years old now, and I think it’s time to let him back into the game. I don’t think anyone should ask him to apologize again or come any cleaner than he has. I don’t think anyone should expect Pete Rose to be something that he is not. It has been almost 25 years. He has paid his debt.

"Paid his debt"? Well, that's subject to interpretation. Posnanski's article goes into great detail about how Rose lived and breathed baseball, every moment of every day, and that in some way led to his gambling on the game he loved. Posnanski makes the point, correctly, that this really isn't about apologizing, because Rose seems incapable of doing so unless it's for his own profit (the book he wrote admitting he had gambled, after years of denial).

I think Posnanski misses the point. He cites baseball's anti-gambling rule:

Rule 21-d (second paragraph): Any player, umpire or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.

As you certainly know, this rule was put into place after the Black Sox scandal, the scandal that nearly brought baseball down. That wasn't the only gambling going on, either; other players were accused and almost certainly were doing so. This rule was put into place so that the paying customer could be assured that his or her money was going to witness an honest exhibition of sport, rather than something where the outcome was (somewhat) assured in advance due to betting.

Now we live in a world where sports gambling is an everyday occurrence. It happens in Las Vegas, legally, and many other places illegally. But one thing that rule has assured us is that the people who play baseball and work in baseball aren't taking money under the table to throw games. You'd argue, and you are likely correct, that the money that most baseball people earn today means they don't have to risk associating with shady types just to make ends meet. It was widely reported at the time of the Black Sox scandal that one of the reasons Eddie Cicotte, in particular, as well as others, did what they did, was because they considered White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey cheap.

Obviously, players don't need that kind of extra money today, and they didn't when Pete Rose played or managed, either. He surely didn't need the money; according to his baseball-reference page Rose made at least $7 million playing baseball (equivalent of $21 million today, and he was in his prime one of the highest-paid players in the game). The world of baseball, of sports, and our society itself, is far different than it was when the Black Sox scandal broke 93 years ago.

But Rose broke the rule. The rule is pretty unforgiving, as Posnanski points out, and doesn't leave room for apologies. Maybe that's what needs to be changed, although you certainly don't want to have players betting on their performance or that of others. Rose, as the baseball guy that Posnanski says he always was, surely knew the letter of this rule, which is posted on every clubhouse wall, better than anyone, and the consequences for violating it.

Commissioner Bart Giamatti died just eight days after pronouncing the ban on Rose. I suspect that if Giamatti, who had a keen sense of baseball history, had lived longer, he might have been willing to make some kind of deal with Rose that would have reflected well on Rose and baseball. But that didn't happen, and Bud Selig hasn't made any attempt to make any such deal, and if he had, it likely would have been clumsily handled.

The thing is, if you let Pete Rose back in, don't you have to let the Black Sox back in? They've all been dead for more than 50 years, and surely they, too, have "paid their debt." You might argue that the Black Sox threw games and Rose only bet on his own team, but the rule doesn't discriminate. Bet on games, be ineligble. Period.

Pete Rose was a great player. Of that, no one can or should argue. He holds records that likely will never be broken. These feats should be (and are) commemorated at the Hall of Fame, and as you can see by the photo at the top of this post, MLB allowed Rose to participate in the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of his breaking the all-time hits record in Cincinnati three years ago.

That's all well and good, but letting Rose back in after his actions of the last 25 years would, in my view, create a bigger circus than already has existed surrounding his actions. He'd almost certainly be elected to the Hall of Fame if declared re-eligible. Do we really want him standing in Cooperstown on a sunny Sunday in July giving a speech? How much embarrassed throat-clearing would have to go on before and during such a ceremony? Do you really want to see a Rose plaque among the others who played and managed without gambling on their games, even if it mentions that fact?

As Posnanski correctly states, the rule says "permanently ineligible", not "lifetime ban", which is how some have interpreted it. "Permanent" is longer than "lifetime", the way I see it, but I don't see any use in letting Rose become "eligible" again -- not unless you also tell the families of the Black Sox, many of whom petitioned repeatedly for reinstatement during their lifetimes, that those men can come back, too.

For now, I still say no to reinstating Rose. Debt paid? Maybe, but that isn't really the point.

All right, I've gone on for about 1,100 words. You'll have something to say about this, I'm sure. Vote in the poll and leave your thoughts in the comments.