Commentary

Rose Induction Day will never happen

Hit King long ago had a chance to get into the Hall, but he whiffed on the opportunity

Originally Published: August 24, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The Hit King's Hall of Fame Induction Day should have been 17 years ago this month.

Aug. 2, 1992. We would never have forgotten it.

Tom Seaver would have been there. Rollie Fingers would have been there. Hal Newhouser would have been there. It was their Induction Day, too. But everyone knows that, had the act of gambling never been invented, it would have been the Hit King's day.

Pete Rose had that way. Always had that way. He owned every room he ever entered. He was the magnetic force who stole every spotlight.

You couldn't convince your eyes to stop watching him play baseball. Your ears never got tired of listening to him speak the language of baseball.

[+] EnlargePete Rose
Joey Foley/FilmMagicAt the age of 68, Pete Rose continues to be on the outside looking in at the Hall of Fame.

So why are we still talking about him all these years later? That's why. Because Pete Rose was the most mesmerizing baseball figure of our lifetimes.

Twenty years ago Monday, I sat in that ballroom in Manhattan, listening to Bart Giamatti explain why he was banning "Mr. Rose" from baseball for life. I still remember the power of those words, the way they thundered through the room that day. And I still remember thinking how wrong it felt that the Hit King's career was coming to an end in a ballroom, not a ballpark.

Two decades later, it still feels wrong. Not because Bart Giamatti made the wrong decision. Because Pete Rose made so many wrong choices to force the commissioner to make it.

It's the saddest baseball story I ever covered. And it keeps getting sadder -- because we know now, 20 years later, that the Hit King's Induction Day is never going to arrive.

What's the scenario now that could ever make that day a reality? I can't find one. I can't see one.

Bud Selig will never make it happen. I know that. I'd say you could bet the beach-house mortgage on it, except I'm pretty sure all gambling analogies were also banned from Pete Rose stories for life by Bart Giamatti.

But even if Selig somehow changes his mind, even if some future commissioner reopens this case, the living Hall of Famers who make up the Veterans Committee aren't ever electing Pete Rose. Ever.

These people haven't elected Ron Santo. Haven't elected Gil Hodges. Haven't elected anybody -- anybody -- who has ever shown up on their ballot. So you think three-quarters of them are going to forgive -- and vote for -- the Hit King some day? Sorry. Never happening. Ever.

Me, personally? I would vote for Pete Rose -- Pete Rose the baseball player -- for the Hall of Fame. I try to remind people all the time that the Hall's a museum. It's not the Vatican. So I wouldn't nominate the Hit King for sainthood. But it seems absurd to me that the man who got the most hits in the history of baseball doesn't have a plaque with his name on it in the ultimate baseball museum.

I've grown to recognize that there's a distinction between the crimes and the career. I'd want his plaque to tell us about both. But that plaque should be hanging in that gallery nonetheless.

That's the thinking that would drive my vote. But it's a vote I'll never get to cast. Pete's time to appear on the writers' ballot is up. And I don't see any scenarios ahead that could change that, either.

So how is this story ever going to have a happy ending? It can't. And it won't. But it could have. And that's the saddest part of Pete Rose's story, 20 years later.

He's had so many chances to save himself. He just never knew how. He could never say the words he needed to say. He could never make the changes in his life he needed to make.

He could never bring himself to do what seemed so obvious, even six years ago, when his buddies Mike Schmidt and Joe Morgan practically drew a dotted line for him to follow.

My friend Willie Weinbaum produced a brilliant piece on Rose for "Outside the Lines" this weekend. In the course of working on that piece, he had long, fascinating, startlingly candid conversations with both Schmidt and Morgan about how hard they worked to get Rose a face-to-face meeting with Selig in 2003.

Mike Schmidt If it were me and I had lived a lie for 14 years, and I went up to tell the commissioner that I was sincerely sorry for what I've done to my family, to the sport, etc., I probably would be back in baseball now and in the Hall of Fame. … My lifestyle would have changed. … I would have been that guy. And I don't think Pete has been.

-- Mike Schmidt

It was a meeting designed to capitalize on the national wave of sympathy for the Hit King that seemed to be building at the time, a meeting that was supposed to pave the way for Rose's reinstatement.

The meeting happened. The reinstatement never did. The aftermath still torments Rose's most loyal friends in the game.

Morgan actually shed a tear as he talked about his longtime teammate and what had become of his life. And Schmidt visibly agonized in frustration over Rose's inability to do and say what seemed so obvious to those of us not living inside the Hit King's skin.

"If it were me," Schmidt said, "and I had lived a lie for 14 years, and I went up to tell the commissioner that I was sincerely sorry for what I've done to my family, to the sport, etc., I probably would be back in baseball now and in the Hall of Fame -- because I would have been a tremendously remorseful individual. And I would have felt the burden of that the rest of my life, in everything that I did. And I would have, in my travels, been a totally different person.

"My lifestyle would have changed. I would have felt an obligation to change and to become someone that the baseball world would once again learn to love after forgiving me. I would have been that guy. And I don't think Pete has been."

There were no promises made to Rose that day in 2003. But Schmidt went into stunning detail about the topics on the table in that meeting.

The men in that room actually talked informally, he said, about how Rose should go about holding a news conference to admit what he never could admit all those years: that he'd bet on baseball. They kicked around when he should hold that session. And where.

That news conference, of course, has never taken place -- to this day.

But the men in that meeting also talked about the changes in lifestyle Rose was going to have to make. No more trips to Vegas. No more hanging out at the racetrack. That was going to have to stop.

And, of course, none of it ever stopped. Not then. Not now.

But the nature of the conversation tells you how much momentum was being built for Rose's reinstatement. It may not have been imminent. But it was clearly within reach.

"So we were very confident," Schmidt said, "that once we left Milwaukee, that some phone calls would ensue, some e-mails and discussions with Pete's representatives and the commissioner's office, that a plan would be put in place."

But that plan never even made it onto a crumpled up sheet of scrap paper in Selig's office. And that was no one's fault but the Hit King's alone.

People in the commissioner's office are still muttering that Rose's first public stop after leaving Selig's office was an appearance at a Vegas sports book. It wasn't quite the reconfiguration of Pete Rose's life they had in mind.

After that, just about everything went wrong that could have gone wrong. And I guess I should confess I was mixed up in part of the undoing myself.

I got word of Rose's meeting with Selig, which was supposed to be private, and reported it on ESPN. And that leak, Schmidt says now, reignited the furor swirling around Selig and turned up the heat from the anti-Rose crowd.

OK, maybe. But that heat wave was coming whether that news leaked or not. It was just a matter of when, not if. And even if it hadn't, we know now, without a doubt, that the big problem here was the Hit King himself.

He couldn't change. Or at least he didn't change. He knew -- or should have known -- what he had to do. He never did any of it.

He didn't avoid those sports books. He didn't swear off the track. He wasn't amenable to any compromises, wasn't willing to trade an ambassador-type job and spot on the Hall ballot for a concession that he'd never be allowed to manage again.

"Pete's interpretation of reconfiguring his life would be a lot different than our interpretation of reconfiguring his life," Schmidt said. "Pete's not doing anything illegal, and from that side of it, you know, you never know what could happen in the future. He's being prevented from earning a living in the industry in which he became a king. It would be almost akin to an actor being blackballed."

Yeah, almost. Maybe Bud Selig could have overlooked some of those transgressions. But there was zero chance he could overlook the way Rose chose to admit to the world that he had, in fact, bet on baseball.

Instead of a bare-his-soul news conference, Rose couldn't resist the sound of that cash register ringing. When he "told all" in a book, released it on Hall of Fame election week and launched into a book tour instead of a news conference, he was cooked. Forever.

That may all be on him. But it's still a sad tale. The Hit King is 68 years old now. He has lived two decades in purgatory. That's a lot of time to serve. And it has taken its toll, Morgan said.

"I feel that Pete's a different person now," Morgan said. "I think that's the other thing here. I think … he's different than he was. I think Pete always felt he was bulletproof before, and I think Pete feels now, or he has to know now, that he wasn't bigger than the game. He wasn't bigger than any situation. I think he realizes the mistake that he made.

"I think he realizes that he can never get those years back. I think he realizes that he doesn't want his legacy to be that he lied all those years and he never came clean. I think he's a different person now."

Only now it's too late. If he'd felt this way -- sincerely felt this way -- six years ago, you wouldn't be reading this column. If he'd just run the plays in the Schmidt/Rose/Selig playbook back then, his days as a pariah would be history.

Instead, his sentence now looks more like a life sentence every day. Which was just how Bart Giamatti portrayed it in that Manhattan ballroom exactly 20 years ago Monday.

Except back then, the permanence of it all hadn't set in. Now, though, it's hit us.

Now, 20 Hall of Fame Induction Days have come and gone. But the wait for the Hit King's very own Induction Day has never seemed longer.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com