The strange love of Pete Rose

It's tough to understand the willingness of fans to blindly forget what Pete Rose has done.

Originally Published: December 9, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Columnists are, for the most part, an arrogant lot.

We tend to think that we know what's right, and that if only every good citizen would read our brilliant words with the necessary care and open-mindedness, then by gosh they would know what's right, too.

I'm not any different. When I write an impassioned plea, there's always a part of me that's a bit surprised when each of you doesn't agree with me. But if you don't agree with me, part of me figures it must be due to my failures as a writer or your failures as a reader. Both of which might someday be remedied.

And then there are times when it all seems hopeless. Like Tuesday, when I saw the results of ESPN.com's SportsNation poll: "Pete Rose: What do you think?"

The poll consisted of seven Rosey questions, beginning with "Do you believe Pete Rose bet on baseball games?"

Now, if you don't believe that he did ... well, I don't happen to agree with you, but there are smarter men than I who think a compelling case hasn't been made for the affirmative, so I think we can agree to disagree on this question.

But most of you do agree with me. Approximately 91 percent of the respondents think that yes, Rose did bet on baseball games.

Which makes all of the popular responses that came afterward seem somewhat nonsensical.

Because every man who wears the uniform knows Rule 21(d) by heart:

BETTING ON BALL GAMES. Any player, umpire, or club official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has no duty to perform shall be declared ineligible for one year.

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.

In 1987, when he supposedly bet on at least three games, Rose had been in the major leagues for nearly a quarter of a century. So if he did bet on baseball, he knew exactly the risk he was taking. This isn't a case where somebody did something they weren't supposed to do, and then a judge exercised his own discretion while imposing a sentence. The sentence was already spelled out, in black and white in every clubhouse in the major leagues. Pete Rose must have walked past that sign something like 10,000 times between 1963 and 1988.

And yet he still -- if 91 percent of you are right -- bet on baseball games, even though he knew that if he got caught, the penalty would be expulsion from the game he supposedly loved so much.

OK, so maybe you find that rule less than fair -- in fact, as we'll see later, most of you do think it's not fair -- but the point is that whether you think the punishment fits the crime or not, the punishment was no surprise. It's often said that if Rose simply admits that he did wrong, he should be pardoned ... but it seems to me that if Rose admits he did wrong, then he should definitely be suspended permanently. Because he certainly knew what he was doing, and he certainly knew what could happen to him.

The third question in the poll asks for a general opinion of Rose's future, and the landslide winner, with more than half the vote, is ... "Rose should be reinstated and elected to the Hall of Fame because, even though he bet on baseball games, he's paid the price."

Well, no he hasn't. Not yet. If he bet on baseball, the price is supposed to be permanent suspension. If you don't like it, change the rule.

Skipping to Question No. 5, "What is the worst transgression in baseball?" presents four choices. And this is where I lost some hope, because here are the results:

Betting on baseball games  19.5%
Failing to hustle          21.0%
Using steroids             28.7%
Using cocaine              30.8%

Our time on this earthly sphere is finite, so I won't bother arguing that anybody who voted for "Failing to hustle" over "Betting on baseball games" is a stark raving lunatic. If you actually believe this, I've already lost you.

As for using steroids, here's how my colleague Jim Caple puts it: "You know some baseball players use steroids, but you still love watching the game. If you knew some players were betting on the game and might be inclined to throw the outcome, would you still love it so much?"

As for addictive illegal drugs, Charlie Hustle himself has used this argument to bolster his own pathetic cause. Known drug users have received multiple chances, yet he got just one?

The poll results suggest that a lot of you agree with ol' Charlie, leaving me to believe that you just haven't thought this issue through. Illegal drugs certainly plays havoc with the game's image, but gambling can seriously damage the game's integrity. The popularity of professional sports hinges, not on the public's belief that athletes are model citizens -- every day they prove they're not, and yet pro sports endure -- but rather on the notion that anything can happen because both teams are trying to win the game.

Then again, perhaps fans do think that gambling is a serious matter. Question No. 6 asks, "If a current player is found to have bet on baseball games, how should he be punished?"

Unfortunately, "He shouldn't be punished" wasn't an option, so we don't know how many people don't think gambling's a problem at all. We do know that approximately 32 percent of respondents think a one-year suspension is enough, that 45 percent think a five-year suspension is more appropriate, and that 24 percent think a permanent suspension is in order.

The way you answer this question depends on how you interpret the question. As we've already seen, Major League Baseball mandates a permanent suspension for betting on a baseball game involving your own team, but just a one-year suspension for betting on another game. So all three answers are essentially "right," especially if you believe -- as I do -- that a five-year suspension might be enough for any transgression save actual game-throwing.

However, the results from this question lead to an obvious question ... If you think that a player who bets on baseball games should be suspended for five years or more -- and nearly 70 percent of voters said they do -- then what punishment would you mete out for steroid use, or failure to hustle? Suspension and public flogging?

But wait, this gets more ludicrous. The last question in the poll concerned Joe Jackson, and so I learned -- and gosh, how I wish I hadn't -- that 80 percent of the respondents think that if Pete Rose is reinstated, then Shoeless Joe Jackson should be, too.

Why someone would choose to connect betting on your own team to win and taking money to ensure that your team loses, I haven't the foggiest idea. But then, I've given up trying to understand the continuing sympathy of poor old (and long-dead) Shoeless Joe Jackson, who continues to be locked out of the Hall of Fame just because he committed the tiny sin of throwing a World Series.

No, what's truly puzzling to me is the public love for a man who's firmly established himself as one of the more despicable people to wear a major-league uniform. Peter Edward Rose Sr. is a convicted tax cheat and a crummy husband and father who has, for many years, surrounded himself with drug dealers and various other unsavory types. Granted, none of us are perfect, but it seems to me that Pete Rose is significantly farther from perfection than just about anybody you would want to know.

Forgiveness is divine and compassion is wonderful, but very few of us are blessed with an infinite capacity for compassion, and I don't understand why so many of us would spend part of our precious ration on Pete Rose when there are so many others far more deserving. Just in baseball, there's Ron Santo and Bert Blyleven -- left out of the Hall of Fame because baseball writers don't understand how good they were -- plus all of those hundreds (thousands?) of brilliantly talented young pitchers whose careers foundered on the rocks of Major League Baseball's collective apathy and ignorance.

But the fans have spoken loudly and clearly, and Commissioner Bud has finally heard.

How's all of this going to play out? I suspect that Selig, who cares far more about his own reputation (and his own wallet) than the integrity of the game, will finally give Charlie Hustle a break. Selig will take Rose off the suspended list, but with the stipulation that Rose can't actually work as a manager or coach in the major leagues. And then, after a couple of years penance, Rose will finally get his plaque in Cooperstown ... and a couple of years after that, the Hit King will start crying that he's "paid his dues" and should be allowed to again wear a baseball uniform in battle. The good fans of America, thus roused by their hustling hero, will raise such a hue and cry that Commissioner Bud -- yes, he'll still be Commissioner Bud -- will relent.

And so, sometime in 2008, Pete Rose will be introduced as the new manager of ... the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Finally, justice will have been served.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

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