I’m a couple weeks late with this, but there was a piece by Allen Barra in the Village Voice last month that may have been the most wrong-headed thing I’ve ever seen written about the Pete Rose situation. At first I thought the normally level-headed Barra, the only writer I can think of who writes regularly for the Voice, the Times, Salon, and the Wall Street Journal, was composing a parody of the pro-reinstatement side’s arguments, but apparently he was serious. Ergo, a fisking:
Forty years ago Vince Lombardi, head coach of the NFL champion Green Bay Packers, informed his defensive coordinator, Phil Bengtson, that Commissioner Pete Rozelle was suspending Paul Hornung, the game’s biggest star, for betting on football games (including betting on his own team, the Packers, to win). “A full year’s suspension?” Bengtson gasped, as recorded in his book, “Packer Dynasty.” He was stunned. “Isn’t that pretty severe?” No, as it turned out, a year was just enough. It straightened Hornung out and served as a warning to other NFL players who were known to have bet on or were suspected of betting on pro football games.
There are, however, two big differences between the Hornung and Rose cases: One, Hornung quickly admitted guilt after he was caught, and didn’t spend more than a decade lying about it as Rose has. And two, baseball has a particular event in its past, the 1919 Black Sox scandal, that makes it specifically sensitive to gambling-related malfeasance in a way that football is not.
If Pete Rozelle had been baseball commissioner at the time the Pete Rose betting scandal broke, how much better off everyone associated with baseball, from the commissioner’s office to the fans, would be.
What, just ’cause they had similar names, you think Rozelle would’ve let Rose off? Don’t bet on it- baseball’s rules clearly state that if you place a bet on your own team, you’re banned for life- and there was even more evidence of Rose’s guilt than there was of OJ’s.
Instead, the Rose versus Major League Baseball horror show has now lasted through three commissioners and dragged on for nearly a decade and a half. Like a Balkans border dispute, it continues to flare up into ugliness just when everything seems to be settled.
This is one of three geopolitical metaphors used in the piece, none of which make much sense- let’s not make the Rose case sound too important, it’s not like it’s caused any deaths. Except for, some would say, Bart Giamatti’s.
On August 12, hundreds of thousands of baseball fans, thanks in large part to the Internet, started buzzing with the news that BaseballProspectus.com had posted an article by Derek Zumsteg and Will Carroll reporting that Pete Rose and MLB “have reached an agreement that would allow him to return to baseball in 2004.”
That story has by now been totally debunked and discredited, and it’s a wonder anyone believed it in the first place.
Once again, baseball fans had underestimated MLB’s talent for fouling a fat pitch off its own foot. Many fans had yet to hear the details of the alleged agreement when MLB Chief Operating Officer Bob DuPuy released a statement on MLB.com that read in part, “The story that appeared on the Baseball Prospectus web site today regarding the return of Pete Rose to baseball in 2004 and the alleged written agreement that had been reached by Rose and Commissioner Selig is unsubstantiated and totally unfounded.”
The Prospectus reported that baseball had agreed to reinstate Rose, and opened the door for allowing him to be a manager again in the future, without requiring him to admit that he bet on baseball. Which would be like some obscure website reporting that Israel had agreed to give up the entire West Bank, without the Palestinians agreeing to renounce terror, and CNN picking up the story- but oops, there we go again with the geopolitical metaphors.
For many fans, the aftershock came in two stages: first, disappointment that Rose wasn’t back in the game, and, second, anger that MLB hadn’t simply used the occasion to, as one of the first callers discussing the matter on WFAN put it, “say it was true—even if it wasn’t.”
But why would baseball do that, after maintaining all year long that the matter would be dealt with after the season? Why admit that they were “scooped” by a website, especially if they weren’t really? And since when were the callers on WFAN the paragon of fairness, virtue, and baseball savvy?
It also isn’t the kind of story that BaseballProspectus.com usually deals in. The site is regarded as a very reliable source for news on trades, injuries, and financial information. “This was just too good a story to pass up,” says Carroll. “It fell right into our laps, and after thoroughly checking it out, we saw no way we could ignore it.”
Another reason to not believe the Prospectus- how could such a major story fall into their laps, when they’re not even really reporters, and be missed by Gammons, Stark, Neyer, Verducci, and everyone else?
Carroll adamantly tells the Voice that “we have four very good sources who have confirmed the existence of a written agreement, including two from inside MLB and one from within the Reds’ organization.” Carroll says a “memo had been found with a copy of the agreement signed by someone in the MLB office who has been publicly denying the existence of the agreement.”
So someone left it lying around the MLB offices and a rogue staffer leaked it? I guess it’s only a matter of time before we get Selig’s version of The Plumbers.
According to Baseball Prospectus, the agreement as read to them specified that Rose will be removed from the permanently ineligible list; he’ll be eligible to have a job with a baseball team during the 2004 season; and there will be no public admission of wrongdoing. A fourth term left blank the date the agreement will take place.
Once again, there’s no reason on Earth why MLB would accept this deal. They get nothing they want, and Rose gets everything he wants.
“I think,” says Zumsteg, “that the key is in the precise wording of DuPuy’s statement: ‘When a decision is made.’ In other words, when MLB chooses to finalize the agreement by putting a date on it, ‘it will be reported through the appropriate channels.’ They want to make the announcement at a time and place of their choosing.”
Since it’s baseball’s decision, whether or not to reinstate Rose, why shouldn’t they make the announcement at the “time and place of their choosing”?
The question remains, whether the agreement was written or not, why MLB continues to torture Rose, the public, and itself by not simply calling a halt to the fiasco.
Oh, I don’t know, maybe because he committed baseball’s cardinal sin (betting on games in which he participated) and has lied about it continuously ever since. Barra doesn’t even address Rose’s guilt or innocence, or the fact that he agreed to a deal which amounted to a ban from baseball.
To most Rose supporters, the question of whether or not Rose bet on the Reds is irrelevant- because it’s time to “move on,” and “forgive” him- even though Rose has of course never asked for forgiveness and continues to maintain that he did nothing wrong. If Rose admitted his guilt publicly, he could put a stop to the so-called “torture,” most likely immediately.
“It’s all a matter of control,” says Chuck Korr, a professor of history at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and author of The End of Baseball As We Knew It. “In virtually any system of law you find outside of a totalitarian regime, it’s enough for the state to simply make its case and, if the accused is found guilty, announce the punishment. In totalitarian societies, that’s not enough: The accused has to admit his guilt. Major League Baseball, as a self-governing body, is pretty much in the position of a totalitarian regime, and as such is demanding that the accused admit his guilt before sentence will be declared.”
Now I realize that academics tend to think everything in America is a “totalitarian regime,” from the government all the way down to the country’s national pastime, but much as I blast Bud Selig is an “evil dictator,” I don’t think I’d go so far as to call his administration of baseball a “totalitarian regime.” Then again, I suppose it’s long been established that Village Voice readers only respond when they’re threatened with the spectre of homegrown fascism that’s right around the corner.
Even worse, Kors makes it sound as though Rose went through some type of Kafkaesque show trial, and gets the entire chronology of the Rose ban wrong to boot: In 1989, baseball investigated the reports, found mountains of evidence that the all-time hits leader had bet on his own team’s games, and threatened him with permanent, irrevocable banishment, at which point Rose agreed to a “plea bargain”- he would accept a “lifetime” ban from the game under the condition that he be allowed to apply for reinstatement (which he has) and wouldn’t have to admit that he bet on baseball (which he hasn’t)- so his sentence was declared, back in 1989. The current negotiations are akin to a parole hearing- and indeed, convicted criminals are regularly required to admit their guilt prior to being paroled.
At any rate, funny that in order to find an academic who would give the necessary Marxist analysis of the Rose situation, Barra had to reach all the way down to the University of Missouri at St. Louis. He couldn’t find a Harvard guy to say the same thing?
Hasn’t MLB already announced its sentence with a lifetime ban on Rose? “In that case,” replies Korr, “why have both sides continued to meet? What is there further to say? The truth is we all know that the commissioner’s lifetime ban can end anytime the commissioner says so.”
Just as a convicted criminal’s sentence can end whenever a parole board says so. Rose broke a rule and is therefore serving the proscribed punishment- I don’t see what’s so “totalitarian” about that.
Bill James, who defended Rose last month on ESPN’s Pete Rose on Trial, summed up the feelings of millions of disgusted fans (or at least the 80 percent of the almost 400,000 who voted in the ESPN poll during the show) when he said, “This issue has been sitting in baseball’s ass like an undigested late-night snack for 10 years—it is well past time to pass it out and get off the pot.”
Holy mixed metaphor, Batman! I love Bill James’ writing, but the Rose case was and is his one major blind spot as a commentator on baseball. And if the snack is undigested, how exactly did it get “in baseball’s ass”? (On second thought, I don’t wanna know).
To which Spaceman Bill Lee adds, “The Pete Rose issue is baseball’s Vietnam, except the Vietnam War didn’t last as long. Baseball should do now what we should have done in Vietnam: Declare victory and pull out.”
It’s absurd enough when people compare Iraq to Vietnam, after six months and a couple hundred (admittedly tragic) American casualties. But comparing Pete Rose’s inability to get his plaque in Cooperstown or his number retired in Cincinnati with ‘Nam? There’s a reason they called Lee the “Spaceman.”
As I’ve said numerous times in this space (and this space), I would support Rose’s reinstatement (and eventual enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame) if and only if he admits that he both bet on baseball and lied about it, and as long as he is not allowed to ever manage again. But I refuse to look at Rose as any type of sympathetic figure, or believe that he has been “persecuted”: he is, as Rob Neyer called him, “one of the more despicable people to wear a major-league uniform, a convicted tax cheat and a crummy husband and father,” and a man who knowingly broke one of the game’s most sacrosanct rules.
Rose made his bed and now must lie on it- his hit record notwithstanding baseball, at the present time, owes nothing to Pete Rose.