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Pete Rose has paid his debt. Let him back into the game

Nov 13, 2013, 3:07 PM EDT

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Let’s start with something completely different. Pete Rose played almost his entire career in a terrible hitting environment. People rarely talk about this because, well, with Pete Rose, there are always more interesting things to talk about. But it’s true. Rose played for 24 years when pitchers dominated the game. The average run-scoring environment in baseball history is about 716-runs per team. In Rose’s career, teams in his league averaged 655 runs per game. Runs were hard to come by in the 1960s and 1970s.

Well, you know the story of the time. The strike zone was huge. The mounds were high. The ballparks were vast. The baseballs were probably a bit deader.

Here are Pete Rose’s splits for his career:

303/.375/.409

OK, that’s pretty good — a .300 career average, a pretty high on-base percentage, a pretty low slugging percentage but Rose was a singles hitter. This rate numbers dropped significantly after Rose turned 40 too — he chased Cobb’s hit record and cost himself a few points in all three categories.

But the point here is Rose’s hitting environment. Baseball Reference has this great tool where you can neutralize a player’s numbers so that you can see what they would look like iin an average hitting environment. Rose’s neutralized numbers:

.312/.385/.420

Yeah, well, that’s a lot better isn’t it. Derek Jeter’s career numbers: .312/.381/.446. Hmm.

Of course, Jeter did not play in an average hitting environment. He played most of his career when offense was completely out of control. If Rose had played in JETER’S time, his splits calculate like so:

.324/.398/.436

Let’s go back to those Pete Rose neutralized stats for a minute. Rose,of course, had an amazing 4,256 hits (most ever), 746 doubles (2nd), he scored 2,165 runs (6th) and totaled 5,752 bases (7th).

Neutralized — all those numbers go WAY up. He suddenly has 4,525 hits. His 789 neutralized doubles would be just three behind Tris Speaker (meaning, no doubt, Rose would have stuck around long enough to break THAT record too). His 2,362 runs would be No. 1 all time. His 6,088 total bases would be third behind Hank Aaron and Stan Musial.

Rose reached base 5,929 — already 330 more times than any player in baseball history. Neutralized, you could predict him to have reached base more than 6,300 times in his career.

The point is simply this: Pete Rose was probably a better player than you think.

We are coming on 25 years of Pete Rose’s banishment, which seems unreal to me. It was 1994, I was working for an afternoon paper called The Cincinnati Post and was given the seemingly lousy task of trying to sum up the five-year anniversary of Rose’s suspension. At the time, Rose was refusing all interviews so there weren’t many options. We decided it would be worth it for me to go down to his restaurant in Florida and watch the man in action. He was doing a sports radio talk show from his restaurant. We figured it would make a good story just to stand back and observe.

When I got there — I’ve written about this before — the waitress asked me where I wanted to sit (I got there early; the place was empty). I told her what I was doing, and she said, ‘Well, Pete’s sitting right there so just go talk to him.” I told her that Pete wasn’t doing interviews and I really didn’t want to bother him and then be asked to leave the restaurant. She didn’t seem to follow what I was saying.

She said: “Yeah, but he’s sitting right there, why don’t you go talk to him?”

So I went to talk him fully expecting the brush off or the chase out. Instead, he kicked out a chair and told me, “Have a seat.” Rose spent the next three hours or so regaling me with stories and lies, memories and exaggerations, charts (yes there were charts) and observations, bitter feelings and hopeful cliches. At the end, there was no story to write.There was only a story to type. For the first time — but not the last — he had gift wrapped a fully-formed tornado of baseball fascination.

At that time, Rose was still insisting that he never bet on baseball at all. Later, he would admit to betting on baseball, later still to betting on the Reds, later he conceded that, yeah, actually he had a large standing bet on the Reds to win every night.*

*Rose has never admitted to betting on the Reds to lose. This is a pretty significant point of contention. Many people think Rose’s competitive personality and (admittedly confusing) love of the game would never ALLOW him to bet on the Reds to lose — that is to say that somewhere in that spaghetti maze of principles and ideals Rose believes in (or doesn’t) is a do-not-cross line that simply would not let him bet on his own team to lose.

Others say that’s ridiculous, he was a compulsive gambler who was often over his head and betting on the Reds to lose would have been too tempting.

Either way, Rose has given out more admissions than The Ohio State University but he continually insists he never bet on the Reds to lose — it’s the one constant. And after 25 years nobody has been able to prove otherwise.

The admissions and apologies through the years have been utterly Pete Rose, which is to say that the admissions always sounded incomplete and the apologies disingenuous. That’s Rose. He was a hustler, always. In the end, the hustling led him to a metal chair in a memorabilia store in Las Vegas where he signs autographs and smiles for photographs while barkers outside shout, “Come on in and see the Hit King!”

On the field, though, that hustling made him a singular player, a whirlwind who was always looking to take a little bit more than you were willing to give.

Rose as player: He is somewhat hard to explain to a younger generation. He ran full speed to first base on walks. He wasn’t the first to do it, nor the last (Steve Sax idolized Rose and would run to first on walks too), but it was tied up in his psyche. People thought that running to first base on walks thing was just shtick. They were right. It was just shtick. But when you repeat the shtick enough times, it becomes a part of who you are. Rose always ran to first. He did it because it helped make him famous and because it ticked off the other team and because every now and again — maybe once a season, maybe less — he might make it to second base because the pitcher and catcher weren’t paying attention. Most of all he ran to first on walks because Harry Rose wanted him to. Rose’s father is a big part of the story.

Rose hit those 746 doubles because he was always thinking about the extra base — not just in April when the weather was cool and his body still felt springy but in the irrepressible heat of late August when he felt like one giant bruise. He took the extra base when the score was close and the base mattered, but he also took it when the game was out of hand and the only person who cared about that base was Rose himself. He went five-for-five eight times — more than anyone ever — because he CARED about getting that fifth hit, no matter the score. Selfish? Yes. But Joe Morgan said that he only became a great player when he became more selfish like that, when he started to care about EVERY at-bat the way Pete did.

In short, Rose was a man obsessed by the game in the truest definition of that word — obsessed, adj., to be preoccupied continually, intrusively and to a troubling extent. He always knew his batting average; every day he figured it along with his other stats. He always knew the stats of the people he considered his adversaries. Garvey. Schmidt. Stargell. He could make a comparison at any moment. He did not sleep much.

He would show up at the park early every day. Early for others was late for Rose. He would take batting practice and fielding practice with a crackling energy, as if it was the first time. He would play every game, no matter how he felt, no matter how far ahead his team might be in the standings. “Pete, I’m sitting you today,” Sparky Anderson would tell him repeatedly toward the end of the 1975 season with the Reds up 20 games. “Like hell you are,” Rose would shout back.

He would run to first on walks, run out every fly ball, attack the ball on defense. He broke up the double play, and he dived head first even when there was no play, and he crashed into catchers who dared block the plate. People have always made a big deal about him running over Ray Fosse in the All-Star Game but what they never seemed to understand was that Rose did not have a choice in the matter. Fosse was blocking the plate (illegally, Rose still insists, since Fosse did not have the ball) and Rose HAD TO run him over. That’s where the story began and ended for Rose. You say it was just an All-Star Game? You say it was just an exhibition? You say it needlessly endangered the career of an exciting young player (who Rose had to his house for dinner the night before)?

See, you’re missing the point.

Fosse was blocking the plate. Rose HAD TO run him over.

Obsessed. He would sit in the dugout when his team was at bat and chatter incessantly and calculate stats in his mind and and think about lines he could use with reporters after the game. He closely watched teammates and looked for ways to help them — every teammate, seemingly, has a story about advice Rose offered. To this day, Rose is still ticked off that Ken Griffey took the advice of Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench and decided t sit on the last day of the 1976 to protect his batting title (Bill Madlock got four hits and took it away from Griffey, who entered the game late but could not salvage the title).

“No offense to Joe and Johnny, they were two of the greatest players this game has ever known,” Rose grumbles. “But what the (bleep) do they know about winning a batting title? I know about winning batting titles. I would have told Griffey to start the game and WIN his batting title. He should have asked me.”

When the games ended, Rose would recap the game with reporters (who generally loved him), with teammates, with friends, with anyone who would listen. Then he would go park his car in his driveway and find the West Coast game and listen to Vin Scully or whoever else until past midnight. Then he would go inside and replay the game in his mind.

All the bad things — the gambling, the womanizing, the shady company he kept — were (it always seemed to me) ways to keep from going crazy when he wasn’t playing baseball. The game was the thing that challenged his every fiber, the thing that made him whole, and if he’s in the right mood Rose will admit that he wasn’t much of a man away from the field. He was an inattentive father, a lousy husband, an addicted gambler, a public liar. On the baseball field, he was his best self.

His father, Harry, made him that way. They called Harry Rose, “Big Pete” He was the toughest man on the West Side of Cincinnati. Everybody said so. Big Pete made sure his son learned how to switch-hit, made sure he took every advantage, made sure he ALWAYS fought back. Big Pete made sure his son played ball all summer — they never once went on a summer vacation and Big Pete had his son repeat a grade rather than miss baseball for summer school. Yes, Big Pete raised his son to be a damn ballplayer. And Pete Rose became a damn ballplayer.

Rose has often wondered out loud how much different his life might have been had Harry Rose lived. The is Rose at his most poignant and self-conscious. Harry died of a massive heart attack when Rose was 29 years old and, already, a big league star. “He would have straightened me out,” Rose insists. “He would never have let me get out of control.”

Rose, of course, did go out of control. Divorce. Parent issues. Bad friends. Gambling debts. And along he way he broke baseball’s strictest 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.

Out of context, this seems kind of a draconian rule. At its extreme, that should mean a dollar bet with your childhood friend should get you permanently banned. At its extreme, that should mean that being in a fantasy baseball league should get you permanently banned. At its extreme, that should mean that saying to your manager, “Bet you a quarter I get a hit here,” should get you permanently banned.

But the rule is there because in 1919 several Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers and mobsters to throw the World Series. There was a no-tolerance policy after that black mark on the game, and the resulting rule offers no appeal, no parole and no forgiveness. Let’s make it clear: Rose’s gambling was not as benign as the examples in the last paragraph. He has admitted that as manager of the Reds he had a sizable and constant bet on his team to win.*

*It is important, by the way, the Rose bet on the Reds games. Betting on baseball games you are NOT involved with carries only a one-year ban.

Did his betting cause Rose to manage differently than he might have otherwise? The question doesn’t really matter — the rule is unambiguous — but I have never thought so. I am not downplaying what Rose did. He knew the rule intimately and broke it. I’m just saying that I don’t think he managed any differently. I’ve heard the possibilities about pitcher usage and lineup changes and bad moves meant to win a single game (or lose one). I just don’t believe them. I think Rose bet on baseball because he had a gambling sickness. I don’t think it affected him as a player or manager.

Others, of course disagree.

And — now what? Of course, the rule states very clearly what happens when you bet on a game you’re involved with: You “shall be declared permanently ineligible.” By the way, you will notice the rule does not say anything at all about a “lifetime ban.” The word “lifetime” does not appear at all in the entirety of Rule 21. I’ve heard people say that Rose should only be eligible for the Hall of Fame after he dies (thus serving a lifetime ban) but that’s not what the rule says.

Permanently ineligible. End of statement. No runs. No hits. No errors.

But, let’s talk about fairness. We all know what the rule says. But does it feel like this punishment for Rose fits the crime? Should the punishment for THROWING THE WORLD SERIES be the same as the punishment for betting on a team you manage to win?

Rose bet on baseball games. That’s bad. And the punishment has been severe. For almost 25 years he has been banished from his game, his name thrown off the Hall of Fame ballot, his presence unwelcome even in the ballpark that was on a street named for him. This is a particularly harsh punishment for Rose, who breathes baseball. It would not be so severe for someone who cheated baseball and didn’t care about the game.

Every so often in the last quarter century, Rose was told by any number of people that there was a way to get back in the game. He needed to apologize, no, he needed to apologize more intently, no, he needed to come clean, no he needed to come cleaner, no he needed to keep apologizing and keep coming clean. It did not seem to matter much to people that coming clean and apologizing are two things Pete Rose does poorly. His efforts, predictably, fell short and it all got him nowhere.*

*Let me add something here: I think it would have gotten him nowhere no matter what he said. This is the larger point. I don’t think Pete Rose could have apologized sincerely enough or come clean thoroughly enough to change his fate. I think the “all he needs to do is apologize” crowd were never willing to meet him in the middle.

Rose supporters often point out that murderers and drug dealers and violent criminals tend to get shorter sentences than Rose. I don’t think that’s a particularly valid comparison — taking Rose off the Hall of Fame ballot and refusing him work in baseball is not the same as putting him in jail.

But it does get at a general point. 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.

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