It's time to forgive Pete Rose for his sins against baseball
Rose, who was banned for life for gambling on baseball, should be reinstated
What Rose did was wrong, that we can agree on -- but it wasn't a cardinal sin
Rose did not take a single game off and played harder than anyone
Pete Rose -- like Bob Knight, Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton and various other vexed characters from recent days -- tends to draw extremes out of people. It has always been that way with Rose. He gets under your skin. As a player, he famously couldn't run, couldn't throw, had little power and lacked grace at each of the six positions he played. (That's four of the five tools, you know.) And he still became one of the most famous players in baseball history.
He did this with hustle and line drives and a sense of the moment and by shoving himself into the spotlight. Headfirst dives. Aqua Velva commercials. World Series heroics. Funny thing is, it was never hard to find people back in the 1970s who would call Rose the very best player in the game in those days ... which was silly. Rose, in retrospect, was probably the third-best player on his own team, behind Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench.
Then again, it was never hard to find people who thought Rose wasn't worth a damn. And ... that was even more ridiculous. For 15 years (1965 through '79) Pete Rose averaged more than 200 hits, more than 100 runs and more than 50 extra-base hits per season. Among the 50 players who had 6,000 or more plate appearances, only Hall of Famers Rod Carew and Morgan bettered his .388 on-base percentage. Pete Rose was definitely worth a damn.
But there's just something in Rose's character that makes people see through prisms of black and white, good and bad, love and loathing, right and wrong, liberal and conservative. Here it is, 20 years after he agreed to a lifetime suspension for gambling on baseball (and, he would finally admit, his own team), and the debate about him is as raw as it ever was. Screaming. Insults. Good journalists such as ESPN's Buster Olney will call Rose "nothing less than a lowlife," and excellent writers such as Fox's Mark Kriegel will call him a "skell" -- which seems awfully harsh. It isn't like Rose mugged people. As far as I know, he hasn't killed anybody or kidnapped anybody or betrayed his nation or bilked senior citizens out of their social security. He bet on his team. He lied about it.
On the other side, though, there are people (and I've been guilty of this myself) who will come to Rose's defense by either (a) downplaying what Pete Rose did or (b) degrading the feats of other great baseball characters with the "It ain't like there are any angels in the Hall of Fame now" argument. It's impossible to estimate just how many times Ty Cobb and Leo Durocher and Cap Anson and various other imperfect Hall of Famers have been pulled from their peaceful place and used as a talking point for the Pete Rose Belongs lobbying group.
There's just something about Rose. His faults, like his good qualities, have always been outsized. While writing my book The Machine about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds,excerpted in this week's Sports Illustrated, I was astonished that virtually every player on that team shared a story about the time that Rose said a few kind words when they were in a slump, or the time Rose picked up their check when they weren't making any money, or the time Rose invited them to his house for dinner. Will McEnaney remembers Rose giving him shoes. Gary Nolan remembers Rose believing in him when he was hurting. Joe Morgan remembers Rose pushing him and inspiring him into becoming the Hall of Fame player he became. Ken Griffey remembers Rose being a guy who treated him with respect from the start.
Pete Rose played baseball ferociously -- in 1975, the year that the Reds won the National League West by 20 games, Rose did not take a single game off. He was famous for signing autographs for long stretches of time, especially for kids. He was invariably giving to the sportswriters who covered the team -- sure, in part because he wanted to maintain an image, but also in part because he just loved talking about baseball. He loved connecting. Nobody thought he was a saint. But fathers in cities all over the country would point at him and tell their sons: "That is how you play the game."
And yes, this is the same man who loved hanging around at race tracks with shady characters, who was not exactly discreet on the road, who gambled on his own team when he was manager of the Reds and then, for years, thought that if he lied voraciously enough that he would get away with it. He went to jail for cheating on his taxes. Now your best bet to find him is in Vegas, where he sits in a memorabilia store in the Caesar's Palace shops while barkers out front shout, "Come and see the Hit King!"
So, yes, everything about Pete Rose is oversized. You could certainly make the case that no one in recent American sports -- not even O.J. Simpson -- went from so high to so low. He represented, to so many, everything that was good about baseball. And he then represented, to so many, everything that was awful about the same game. That's one helluva a big character. If they ever remade Citizen Kane, you could have Pete Rose whispering "Rosebud."
So how do we get beyond all that and discuss one of the most talked about baseball questions of the last two decades: Should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame? I think the question needs the word "should," not "will," in it, because honestly I don't think he will get in. For Rose to get inducted into the Hall of Fame, two basic things would have to happen:
One, he would need to be reinstated somehow. Yes, there are people who want Rose to remain banned from the game but somehow put on the Hall of Fame ballot ... but that's just not likely. He would have to be reinstated, and even though lately Hank Aaron has been lobbying on behalf of Rose, I don't think reinstatement is likely. It would take an act of will, and I don't see that sort of will coming out of the Commissioner's office.
Two -- even if he WAS reinstated, he would need 75 percent approval from either the Baseball Writers Association of America or the Veteran's Committee (made up of living Hall of Famers). I honestly don't think he's even close to getting that. The BBWAA can be a pious bunch -- just ask Mark McGwire. And the current Hall of Famers have very mixed views about Rose. I don't think he could get 75 percent either way, not in the near future.
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