The Cincinnati Reds honored one of baseball’s greatest players yesterday, inducting Pete Rose into their team Hall of Fame. It was a day for him to reminisce and get an ovation from the Cincinnati crowd. Let’s just hope the crowd in Cooperstown never gets the same chance.
As much as we might praise Ichiro for his 4000+ professional hits, Pete Rose is the rightful MLB hit king, with an unthinkable 4256. He played so hard that he famously slammed into catcher Ray Fosse in an All Star game, yet he lasted 24 seasons. He came up to bat almost 2000 more times than anyone else in baseball history yet still hit over .300 for his career.
Rose was a great player, and even if he were not, the Reds are entitled to induct whomever they like into their Hall of Fame. A team Hall of Fame, after all, is just not that important. That being said, there are now sure to be more questions about the MLB Hall of Fame, where Rose has been conspicuously absent for 25 years. Many fans, probably even a majority, just can’t accept that an admittedly Hall of Fame caliber player is not in Cooperstown. However, Pete Rose committed baseball’s worst sin and has been utterly unremorseful about it ever since.
Rose bet on baseball. He is still likely lying about the specifics of his gambling habit, so it’s hard to know just how many games may have been affected by his betting. We know, however, that he bet as a player and as a manager in the 1980s. That alone should make him permanently banned.
And indeed it does. On the subject of gambling, baseball’s rules could not possibly be clearer. Just take a look at Rule 21(d):
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.
It’s a rule, by the way, that no player could possibly fail to know. It’s posted in every clubhouse. And for good reason.
Rule breaking in baseball, or any sport, should be punished. If a rule exists, it should be enforced. Baseball should do its best to punish steroid users, bat corkers, spitball throwers etc. No matter how loudly cheating apologists say that everyone is doing it, there are always some people who aren’t, and essentially punishing them for playing clean is just not fair. But no other type of type of offense comes close to the severity of betting on games.
That’s because all types of cheating have a basic premise in common: players or teams trying to get an edge on their opponents. They are trying to play better. But betting is entirely different. Virtually any kind of betting compromises the fundamental integrity of the game, of sports even. We watch games because the athletes are trying their best; that’s what makes sports compelling. Players betting on their team to lose, of course, would completely upend that assumption. But even players betting on their team to win, as Rose claims he did, is almost as serious an issue.
Betting on your team to win only some of the time, as Rose says he did, means that you’re essentially betting against it the rest of the time. Any player betting on some games and acting rationally would try to save their best performance for the games they bet on, deliberately not giving it their all the rest of the time. After all, losing when they’re not betting on the team is likely to improve the gambling odds they get when they do bet. Rose, as a manager, was able to go further, compromising the yearlong performance of his team by playing his best players when he had money on the line and potentially hurting the team’s future by trying for immediate wins over long term gains. The only (wildly implausible) player gambling that could possibly not harm the basic integrity of the game would be betting the same amount on a win every single game. Let’s just say that it makes a lot more sense to get rid of the practice entirely, and to maintain as strong a punishment as possible: the lifetime ban.
And that punishment only serves its purpose if it’s actually enforced. As disheartening as it may be for people to see Rose the 75-year-old outcast, sympathy should not factor into the equation. A lifetime ban means a lifetime ban. The future of the game depends on the ban as a deterrent, because as a deterrent, it has worked almost perfectly. There will always be cheaters in sports, whether it’s a few petty uniform adjusters or an entire country prescribing steroids to its Olympic team. But how often have we heard about gambling? How many Pete Roses have there been? It’s not an accident.
Really, to bet on games with such a good deterrent in place, you would have to either be truly addicted to gambling or a self absorbed liar with no belief you could actually get caught. Pete Rose may be both. He is certainly the second. Even after all this time, Rose doesn’t seem to get it. In fact, from his own selfish perspective, that might be his biggest mistake.
It’s conceivable that a sympathetic commissioner would have reinstated him at some point had he just showed a little remorse. Instead, for years Rose never admitted to gambling, even as he made a deal with commissioner Bart Giamatti to accept his lifetime ban in return for baseball closing its investigation against him. Rose only changed his tune when he had a chance to make some money, publishing a book, My Prison Without Bars, in which he admitted to betting on Reds games, but only as a manager. Even that was lie. Just last year, documents revealed that he bet as a player, too.
Meanwhile, Rose hasn’t exactly drawn sympathy by distracting from Hall of Fame ceremonies by holding lucrative autograph sessions nearby or by complaining that instead of gambling, “I should have picked alcohol. I should have picked drugs or I should have picked up beating my wife or girlfriend because if you do those three, you get a second chance.” He has even continued to place legal bets on baseball, which is, of course, his right, but which doesn’t exactly convince anyone that he understands the magnitude of what he did.
On the field, he was one of the greatest ever. And for many, that closes the case on his Hall of Fame worthiness. How could you leave out baseball’s hit king? It’s called the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Good Behavior. Isn’t it really just a museum of baseball history, and shouldn’t any honest museum cover the bad with the good? Aren’t there already scoundrels and cheaters in the Hall?
One at a time. You leave out baseball’s hit king when he acted in a way that threatened the basic integrity of the game he played and he has never seemed remorseful about it. Yes, it’s called the Hall of Fame, and yes maybe there could be a better name, but the Hall has never really functioned as a simple catalog of baseball’s most famous. A part of it is a museum, and there is nothing wrong with exhibits describing Rose. However, an actual plaque in the Hall has never been a simple acknowledgment of importance but rather baseball’s highest honor. And baseball should not honor someone who bet on games. Again, this was not cheating – trying to get an unfair edge. It was betting, and for sports to function, they simply cannot have players betting on the games they play. Pete Rose either doesn’t get that or he doesn’t care. And finally, yes, the Hall already includes racists and cheaters, probably even some steroid users. But that’s no reason not to exclude other people who deserve to be excluded. For the preservation of baseball, betters should not be in the Hall.
People also easily forget that Rose is not the first famous player to be banned for betting on games. When eight players on the 1919 White Sox, including the great Shoeless Joe Jackson, conspired to fix the World Series, baseball rightfully saw what they did as an existential threat to the legitimacy of the game. To make sure that it never happened again, the office of the commissioner was created, and the eight players were banned for life (Shoeless Joe even though he may have tried to resist cooperating with the fix). And it almost didn’t happen again. To turn around now and make Pete Rose a Hall of Famer would be both unfair and unwise.
Photos courtesy of Fox Sports, Kareem Elgazzar/Cincinnati.com, Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images, NBC Sports and The Denver Post