In the 25 years since Pete Rose was banned from baseball, the national pastime has been rocked by plenty of scandals – steroids, collusion, the Chicago Cubs' pantsless "Pedobear" mascot – but nothing in the past quarter-century has divided fans, players and pundits quite so viciously as the question of what to do about the sport's all-time hits king.
On August 24, 1989, after being investigated and taken to court by the commissioner's office over allegations of illegal gambling (including reports that he'd bet on baseball), Rose – who was then managing the Cincinnati Reds – signed a deal accepting a permanent spot on major league baseball's ineligible list. Basically a "no contest" plea, the agreement signified Rose's admission that there was a factual reason for the ban, in exchange for Major League Baseball's agreement to halt its investigation into the gambling allegations.
A year and a half later, Rose, a sure-fire Hall of Famer, was shut out of Cooperstown when the Baseball Writers' Association of America formally (and pointedly) voted to exclude individuals on the ineligible list from appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot.
But Pete Rose would not go away (except for a five-month stretch at a medium-security prison camp in Marion, IL in 1990 after pleading guilty to two charges of filing false income tax returns.) Instead, he's remained an active thorn in the side – or elephant in the room – of Major League Baseball. In the 1976 World Series, the man known as "Charlie Hustle" positioned himself almost in line with the pitcher's mound so as to immediately pounce upon anything that Mickey Rivers might dribble down the third base line; for most of the past quarter-century, Rose has been similarly hunkered down, on the periphery of the game, hungrily scooping up any media attention or fan dollars that bounce his way.
And bounce they do, because a lot of people out there still love Pete Rose, and his continued exile from the game has only served to heighten his anti-establishment cachet.
Rose doesn't want to remain on the outside looking in, however. He wants to be allowed back into the game he loves, and he wants to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He has applied for reinstatement on several occasions to no avail, yet he continues to express optimism that retiring commissioner Bud Selig will grant him some sort of pardon on his way out the door – a hope further fueled by Selig's recent statement that Rose might be allowed to participate in next year's All-Star Game festivities at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
It's possible that Rose might have already been reinstated, provided he'd actually taken former commissioner Bart Giamatti's advice to "reconfigure your life," confessed his wrongs, asked the public's forgiveness and gone humbly and quietly into exile until the time was right to return. (America loves a good redemption story, after all!) But humility has never been Rose's strong suit, and neither has admitting fault – even when he's been caught dead to rights.
It took him 15 years to cop to betting on baseball, and even then, he did it in the most crass of ways, using the confession as the hook to sell his 2004 "tell-all" autobiography, My Prison Without Bars. The book's self-serving tone, the awkward timing of its release (just days after the BBWAA's announcement that Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley had been voted into the Hall of Fame) and the lack of remorse he displayed in the interviews he did to promote it turned off a lot of the same people who'd previously supported his bid for reinstatement. Likewise, Rose's habit of turning up in Cooperstown during induction weekends – he's not allowed to attend official Hall functions, but there's no law stopping him from making a bundle by selling his autograph to fans just a few blocks from the Hall of Fame – has done little to endear him to the baseball establishment.
Despite all that, it's still possible that Selig will pardon Rose; short of donning a thong and doing stripper gyrations on Pesky's Pole, there would certainly be no bolder way for the commish to cap his own controversial career. The return of baseball's prodigal son would be big news indeed, and maybe even renew the interest of some old-school fans who drifted away from the game during the steroids era. More likely, though, MLB will just continue to trot Rose out when it suits their PR needs (a la next summer's ASG, or his appearance with the All-Century team before Game 2 of the 1999 World Series), but otherwise keep him at arm's length.
And, frankly, I would have no problem with that. In an age when everyone pontificates about the "unwritten rules" of baseball, it's worth remembering that Rose broke the game's most sacred written rule – one which has been quite clearly posted in every MLB clubhouse for nearly a hundred years, along with the punishment for breaking it. To wit: "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."
These days, Pete Rose's main argument for reinstatement essentially boils down to, "Hey, I know I screwed up, but let me back in because I'm Pete Rose!" But to relax the terms of the deal that Rose willfully signed would send a message that, well, it isn't really that big of a deal if you gamble on baseball, at least if you're one of the game's more charismatic and popular figures. Rose did the crime, and he should continue to do the time, whether or not he actually is (as he is wont to claim) "baseball's greatest ambassador."
What I do have a problem with, however, is the way that the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame inserted themselves into the Pete Rose mess. There have only been two changes to the HOF voting process since 1985: the aforementioned 1991 rule change banning players on the ineligible list from being included on the Hall ballot, and this year's announcement that a player's maximum length of stay on the ballot will be reduced from 15 years to 10. In both cases, the changes were clearly intended to send a "message." Though it didn't explicitly mention him, the 1991 decision was obviously aimed at Rose (there wasn't anyone else on the ineligible list at the time), while the latest change will hurry the steroids-era players off the ballot with a "nothing to see here, folks" officiousness, thus ostensibly keeping the Hall from being tainted by all that nasty PED business.
Except, as anyone who has done the slightest bit of research into the lives and careers of Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Rube Waddell, etc. can tell you, it's not a Hall of Saints at Cooperstown. All manner of bigots, boozers, dopers, cheaters, womanizers and wife-beaters are enshrined therein, because they were the best players of their respective eras. And yet, Pete Rose – certainly one of the greatest players of his day, and holder of one of baseball's loftiest records – is banned from even being considered for enshrinement because of his infractions as a manager.
Sure, the "character clause" in the BBWAA election rules encourages the voters to consider the player's "integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played." But let's face it: Roberto Clemente's humanitarian credentials wouldn't have meant squat to the voters if he'd hit like Tito Fuentes. Ultimately, the Hall Of Fame is (and should be) a museum, not a monument to morality; if an art museum doesn't take Pablo Picasso's personal peccadillos into account when displaying his paintings, then the BBWAA shouldn't be factoring a player's "character" into the equation when they're voting on whose plaque to install in the HOF gallery. And since there's never been any proof that Pete Rose bet on baseball during his playing days, his transgressions as a manager shouldn't keep him from being enshrined in the Hall with the rest of baseball's greats.
Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame. Go ahead and put on his plaque that he was a compulsive gambler who was banned from the game, and that he admitted to betting on baseball. But be sure to also put on it that he had more hits (4,256) than any player in history, that he also played in more games (3,562), that he had ten 200-hit seasons (tied for first all-time with Ichiro Suzuki), that he won three batting titles and led the league in hits seven times. Be sure to mention that he's the only big leaguer to log more than 500 games at five different positions (first base, second, third, right field and left), and that he became an All-Star at all five of them. And don't forget to include that he played for six NL pennant winners, won three World Series rings…and that he hustled every step of the way.
Dan Epstein's latest book, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76, is now out via Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press. He's on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras