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Pete Rose: Justice Delivered, But Only Temporarily And Only In Theory

September 12, 2010

Twenty five years ago today one of the most hallowed records in baseball history was broken when Pete Rose singled to left field against San Diego Padres pitcher Eric Show (who’s tumultuous life and death were chronicled by ESPN’s Outside the Lines) for career hit number 4,192, passing the legendary Ty Cobb. Fireworks instantly went off in the Cincinnati sky. Streamers fell from the upper decks of Cinergy Field. There was a speech, a raucous standing ovation, and a 15+ minute delay.

The Reds have since moved into a new home, Great American Ballpark which opened in 2003. There is a rose garden outside the stadium at the spot where the historic hit landed. Saturday Rose returned to the field in Cincinnati to participate in a celebration in his honor. Wearing his old #14 jersey he was driven onto the field and then he walked down to first base. He stomped on the bag, took off his hat, and looked around the stadium as a near-capacity crowd gave him a standing ovation.

 Pete Rose. September 11, 2010. AP Photo courtesy of ESPN. It was the first time Rose has stood on the field in Cincinnati since 1989. In fact, aside from participating in the All Century Team festivities prior to a World Series game in Atlanta in 1999 this was the first time Rose has stood on any field since 1989.

Rose was banned for life from the game of baseball in 1989 by newly-appointed Commissioner Bart Giamatti at the conclusion of an investigation conducted by him, lawyer John Dowd, and outgoing Commissioner Peter Ueberroth for betting on the game during the mid-1980’s when he was player/manager of the Reds. In what would become known as The Dowd Report, it was documented that he had bet on 52 games in 1987. Reports were mixed regarding the amount of these bets but it was believed they were each between $2,000 and $10,000. The Dowd Report would go on to state that “no evidence was discovered that Rose bet on the Reds”

Rose had agreed to the ban despite arguing that he had never done anything wrong. It wasn’t until a 2004 autobiography that he finally admitted to betting on the Reds. The ban prohibits Rose from being anything more than a fan. He can’t work in baseball. He can’t participate in anything baseball related in an official capacity. He can’t be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Tonight’s celebration was a rare exception to the rule. Current Commissioner Bud Selig allowed for the one-night-only lifting of the ban. To some the decision is one that is being applauded. To many others, the reaction is quite the opposite. Courtesy of ESPN’s Rick Reilly, this is what former Commissioner Fay Vincent had to say on the matter in an email written to the New York Post:

When the keeper of the Rules does not enforce the Rules, there are no Rules. I totally disagree with the Selig position. Either enforce the Rules or reinstate him. I do not believe Selig wants to bring Rose back. But he wants to be loved in Cincinnati.

While his point is clear – the Rules are there for a reason and should, or need, to be followed consistently – the fact remains that the Rules are cruel and most importantly, out of date. I will admit, my gut first went to unprecedented when thinking about the Rules. But bottom line, this lifetime ban was because he gambled on the game. Rose was not the first to receive a lifetime ban because of gambling. Shoeless Joe Jackson and the 1919 Black Sox. Vincent did have a precedent to follow with the punishment handed down to Rose. The problem is, with all that has gone on in the game since 1989 the punishment now seems cruel and out of date.

Over the past 21 years we’ve seen a great deal transpire in the game. Dwight Gooden (against whom Rose went 9 for 28, .346/.393/.346) and Darryl Strawberry endured years of drug abuse and off-field legal battles. Steve Howe (2 for 6, .500/.600/.500) would deal with alcohol and substance abuse, being the recipient of 7 suspensions throughout his 14 year career. In 1992 he was the second player in history – the other being Ferguson Jenkins (36 for 126, .315/.381/.518) to be banned for life due to substance abuse. Both were reinstated shortly after their bans, however. Howe would eventually be killed in a methamphetamine-induced car accident in 2006.

We’ve seen numerous incidents in Latin American with current or former players running into trouble with the law. Ambiorix Burgos was recently arrested of kidnapping and attempted murder in the Dominican Republic. Angel Villalona currently is awaiting trial in the Dominican Republic on charges of murder stemming from a 2009 arrest. Ugueth Urbina is serving a 14 year sentence handed down in 2005 for attempted murder. He reportedly attacked five of his farm workers in Venezuela with a machete and tried to pour gasoline on them.

Then, of course, there are steroids – which unfortunately we cannot simply ignore for this argument. We all know the story behind Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens so I won’t get into too many of the specifics. I will admit that we haven’t seen conclusive evidence of any of their wrongdoings – just like Dowd didn’t have hard evidence against Rose – but they’re all guilty in the eyes of most, in particular those Hall of Fame voters.

Not one of the aforementioned incidents has resulted in a lifetime ban from the game of baseball. Not one of these players has even received a formal suspension for any extended period of time. Yet each indirectly inherits a similar fate to Rose: denied entry to the Hall of Fame. Jenkins – who’s substance induced suspension only would last two weeks due to the ruling of an independent arbitrator – is the only one enshrined in Cooperstown. Of the others mentioned there aren’t any with careers deserving enshrinement, but that’s besides the point.

Those with steroid-impacted legacies fall into a different category. Numbers alone dictate that each should be in Cooperstown amongst their peers. Bonds holds MLB Records for HRs (762), walks (2,558), and intentional walks (668). He is the only player in history with over 500 HRs and 500 stolen bases. He won 7 MVP Awards. Sosa is one of just six players with over 600 career HRs. No other player has as many 60+ HR seasons (3) as he does. Palmeiro is one of four players with over 3,000 hits and over 500 HRs. McGwire broke the single season HR mark in 1998 (only to later see Bonds break it in 2003) and finished his career as one of the most beloved Cardinals in history. Clemens won 354 games, struck out 4672 batters, and won 7 Cy Young Awards and an MVP Award.

But the cloud of steroid use will keep each and every one of them out of the Hall of Fame. McGwire admitted to using a banned substance and lived in exile for years before finally returning this season as the Cardinals’ hitting coach. Bonds and Clemens each await Congress-induced trials that could seal their respective fates. None have been suspended for any length of time from participating in baseball activities – with McGwire now working in St. Louis and Clemens recently pitching to batters in the AA Home Run Derby festivities. None have received a ban from the game.

Rose was banned for life for gambling on the game of baseball. His ban was not the result of anything he was proved to have done on the actual field of play. He played hard and played hurt. He sprinted to first after being walked. He wasn’t formally educated but understood the statistical side of the game. He didn’t involve himself in drug abuse. He never took a substance to improve his ability to hit the ball. Rose bet on the game, but he didn’t cheat it.

More importantly, what Rose did on the field he did better than most before him. Cobb and Rose are the only two players in history to amass more than 4,000 career hits. In addition to holding the record for hits (4,256) he also has the record for games played (3,562), plate appearances (15,861), and at bats (14,053). He won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1963 and an MVP Award in 1973.

The hit record will likely stand for many years to come. Only two active players have shown the propensity to even challenge the record but both face a multitude of obstacles. Derek Jeter has been talked about for years as the most likely to catch Rose. Jeter is nearing the end of his age 36 season and has 2,899 career hits. He will likely surpass 3,000 sometime next June. For him to match Rose (who played until he was 45) he would have to average 170 hits for each of the next 8 seasons. In 2010 we’ve seen some signs of Jeter slowing down and the likelihood of him playing long enough to catch Rose remains undefined. Then there is Ichiro Suzuki, who has 2,214 career hits and 1,278 more from his career in Japan. That’s a grand total of 3,492. If he were to average the same 170 hits per season Jeter would need, it would take him just four and a half seasons to reach Rose’s mark. The caveat here, however, is that his statistics from Japan don’t count in this discussion. The only numbers that will be compared will be those while playing in the Major Leagues and reaching Rose would then become out of the question. Like Jeter, he is also nearing the end of his age 36 season. Rose had 2,966 career hits at the end of his age 36 season.

Ultimately Rose’s accomplishments are meaningless because of his lifetime ban. Voters for the Hall of Fame couldn’t vote for him if they had wanted to and his window of eligibility has since closed. One of the greatest hitters of all time can’t be invited to help instruct at Spring Training. He can’t coach minor leaguers on the right way to play the game. It took a night specifically dedicated to him on the 25 year anniversary of a historic accomplishment, some begging by current Reds ownership, and an unusually compromising Commissioner for him to have a chance at one day back in the game he loves.

Rose may not deserve to be fully reinstated to the game. He lives his life now in Sherman Oaks, California. He spends five hours a day autographing baseballs at the Caesar’s Palace Casino in Las Vegas. For $357 he’ll even write “I’m sorry I bet on baseball.” with his signature. He’s clearly come to accept his ban. Yet his on field accomplishments speak for themselves. Rose deserves his place in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Sadly, that justice may never come.

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