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A Rose By Any Other Name

Jan 9, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT

Pete Rose AP

There are many people in and around baseball who believe that Pete Rose should never be reinstated and should never be allowed in the Hall of Fame. They have a very strong case.

1. Pete Rose as manager of the Cincinnati Reds gambled on baseball games when he knew — fully and completely understood — that the penalty for such gambling was permanent banishment from the game.

2. Rose voluntarily accepted a permanent ban from baseball.

3. Rose, for many years afterward, denied betting on baseball and denied betting on his own team even though he did both. There are many who believe he still lies when saying he never bet on his Reds to lose.

Put together, those three things certainly make a powerful argument against Rose ever being allowed back in baseball. But, like everything in life, there are caveats and subtleties and counterarguments if a person is open to them. Quickly, some of these might be:

1. Is a permanent ban from baseball for gambling on the game a fair penalty? Some say yes. But others would say no. Remember, we are not talking about conspiring with gamblers to throw games, which is at the heart of the 1919 Black Sox and at the heart of the rule. We are talking about betting on baseball. It’s bad. It reflects poorly on the game. It brings the validity of the game into question. Yes. All of it. But we don’t give lifetime sentences for too many crimes. Rose has been banned for 25 years. Isn’t that enough?

2. Rose (and his lawyers) gave up various rights and tactics and accepted the ban passively — Rose clearly believed that in return baseball would view his readmission efforts mercifully. Well, Rose actually believes he was all but promised that reinstatement would follow quickly. He thought they had a deal. Then Commissioner Bart Giamatti died, and Rose believes that baseball reneged.

3. Rose’s dishonesty after the fact is not defensible, but he admitted more than a decade ago that he bet on the game and on his own team. More than a decade ago. At what point has he been flogged enough?

Now, let me repeat: You may not buy any of those counterarguments and you may believe Rose blew his chances at redemption and permanent ban MEANS permanent ban, and you have the absolute power of the rules behind you. I think that’s what it comes down to — the power of the rules vs. the power of mercy. Does Rose deserve mercy in this particular case? I think yes. Others think no. And the beat goes on.

This week, though, former commissioner of baseball Fay Vincent — the man who replaced Bart Giamatti as commissioner until he was essentially booted by the owners — came out of his retirement in Vero Beach with a grumpy, somewhat fact-challenged anti-Rose screed. Vincent’s purpose for doing so was to counter a New York Times editorial by Kostya Kennedy, who has an upcoming book on Rose. I should say here that Kostya is a friend of mine and a fine writer but I have not read his book yet.

Vincent’s main shot is at Kostya’s sentence: “Consider, after all, the players who might have appeared on Hall of Fame ballots cast by baseball writers but did not because baseball had named them permanently ineligible. The list is printed here in its entirety: Pete Rose.”

This was too much for Fay Vincent.

“He ignores the the old Black Sox “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, who might have been a better hitter than Rose,” Vincent writes and he goes on to say, “Kennedy makes other errors but his failure to remember Jackson is damning.”

I cannot tell if Vincent is being willfully ignorant here or if he’s had a nasty case of amnesia. There is not even the slightest possibility that Kostya Kennedy “forgot” Joe Jackson. To suggest that the author of a new book on Rose “forgot” Joe Jackson would be like saying that Walter Isaccson, having just written about Steve Jobs, “forgot” about Bill Gates.

Shoeless Joe Jackson, as Vincent knows, was absolutely eligible for the Hall of Fame and actually received two votes in the very first Hall of Fame balloting and two more in 1946. Voters CHOSE not to vote for Jackson, but he and all other permanently banned players were absolutely allowed to be on the ballot until 1991, which is exactly what Kostya was saying.

What happened in 1991? Right. Pete Rose was about to become eligible for the ballot. And in what felt like an emergency session, a special committee of Baseball’s Hall of Fame got together and recommended that all permanently ineligible baseball players be ineligible for the ballot. The Hall of Fame board quickly approved the recommendation.

On the Hall of Fame board? Right. The commissioner of baseball. Fay Vincent.

Vincent was part of the process to keep ineligible players off the Hall of Fame ballot. He wasn’t just part of the process, he was the person running baseball at that very moment in time. He KNOWS this, so why would he write otherwise? I think it’s part of the piling on that never seems to stop when it comes to Rose.

Consider this amazing paragraph from Vincent:

Why would Rose be reinstated? The answer is he will not be unless some commissioner takes the risk that such reinstatement will not reduce the deterrent effect of the no-gambling rule. Suppose that deterrent is reduced and a virulent spate of gambling breaks out in baseball. One thing we know is the gambling prohibition works perfectly. Everyone in baseball is wary of gambling because the punishment is so severe. Gambling is the one capital crime of baseball, and it is well absorbed into the baseball DNA. The issues with performance enhancing drugs should not be confused with the gambling policies.

Wow. With so many arguments against Pete Rose, THIS is the one he takes? Vincent is saying that reinstating a 73-year-old Rose — after TWENTY FIVE years of banishment — would reduce the deterrent effect of the no-gambling rule? Seriously, he’s saying that? He’s saying that people would look at Rose’s life the last 25 years and think, “Hmm, thats not too bad a punishment. I think I’ll gamble.” He’s saying, “Well, a lifetime ban — no, I’m not going to gamble. But if it’s a ban where I might someday in my 70s have a chance to be forgiven, sure, get my bookie on the line.”

And the bit about the gambling prohibition working “perfectly” — I’d be pretty wary of anybody saying that ANYTHING works perfectly.

Vincent also writes that Ted Williams did not want Rose in the Hall of Fame, which seems gratuitous. It’s not hard to quote numerous other Hall of Famers, like Joe Morgan, who thinks Rose deserves to be on the ballot.

Then he quotes Tom Seaver offering what he calls the killing question: “Look Commissioner, if Rose is allowed into the Hall of Fame, does that mean a pitcher like me with over 300 wins can bet on baseball?”

I don’t follow that the killing question at all — “No, Tom, if you bet on baseball you will be be banned from the game like Rose has for the last 25 years” — but then none of it makes too much sense. Pete Rose is not going to the Hall of Fame. He could be declared eligible tomorrow, and he would have exactly no chance of getting 75% of the vote no matter who is voting. I don’t see a scenario for Rose to get elected to the Hall of Fame even after he’s gone. Maybe that’s as it should be.

For me, the killing question is this: Should Rose be forgiven by baseball at some point here? You could argue yes, he’s served his time and he was a brilliant player who brought much joy to the game. You could argue no, permanent means permanent and Rose has not earned forgiveness. Both arguments have their merits and their drawbacks.

Or you could argue that reinstating Rose would encourage others to gamble on baseball.

I wish Fay Vincent would just enjoy retirement a little bit more in Vero Beach.

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