Why are we still discussing Pete Rose? His guilt has never been in question, and now he has finally admitted what everyone knew all along: that he bet on baseball games involving his own team, the Cincinnati Reds. By acknowledging his guilt, he runs head-on into the wall of baseball’s death penalty, the unambiguous Rule 21(d):
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.
The rule was created after the famed case of Chicago’s Black Sox, all of whom were banned from baseball for life after conspiring with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. That case hovers over the Rose matter not only for its precedent but because it featured a player of comparable stature: the immortal Shoeless Joe Jackson, described by Ty Cobb himself as the greatest hitter he ever saw. For those of a remotely conservative turn of mind, then, two bedrock principles — what does the rule say? What has been done before in comparable circumstances? – weigh mortally against Rose.
But ever since he was banned from baseball in 1989, Rose’s application for reinstatement has not been measured against these standards. Writers, fans, and former players alike have instead focused on one criterion: the sincerity of Rose’s apology and admission of guilt. If this were the standard used in capital cases, most of the Manson Family would have been reinstated long ago.
Fortunately, Rose made a mess of his confession and apology. “I’m sure that I’m supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I’ve accepted that I’ve done something wrong,” he writes in his new book, which was published last Thursday. “But you see, I’m just not built that way.” Well, stop the presses. Rose has also said that he waited so long to confess because he “never had the opportunity to tell anybody [who] was going to help me” get back into baseball, making clear that his motives are purely utilitarian. The book’s title, My Prison Without Bars, is self-pitying and defiant, and his interview appearances have been similar. Support for his reinstatement is fading fast.
But it should never have come to this in the first place. Rose committed the most fundamental violation in sports, calling the integrity of the competition into question. One would hope that he is sorry about it. But remorse is irrelevant either way. The penalty is a lifetime ban.
Judging by his reception at ballparks in recent years, many forgave Rose before he could bring himself to apologize. If he ever became genuinely remorseful (let’s just imagine), he would be forgiven by one and all. In the absence of reinstatement, what would forgiveness mean? It would mean that baseball no longer regarded him as a pariah. Baseball already has invited him back to special ceremonies like the 1999 All-Century Team, and now would surely invite him to more. It would mean that he could reclaim some of his dignity. It would mean that he could finally assume the role of a genuinely tragic figure, an example to all of what can happen when a man’s hubris outruns any sense of limitation. The admiration and love that he earned on the baseball diamond would largely come back to him. Yes, we would say, he did something that cannot be undone. He broke something sacred. But he understands what he did, and he is living with the consequences. He would achieve redemption.
Rose, of course, is more interested in reinstatement than redemption, and now may get neither. Where he prefers one to the other, we have confused one for the other. How can it be true forgiveness, we think, if he doesn’t get back what he had?
The reason so many Americans feel that remorse is the proper criterion for Rose’s reinstatement is that our culture is no longer comfortable with fixed standards of judgment and the concept of finality. We live in an age of Botox, when time itself can be stopped or at least slowed, and consequences deferred. Where earlier generations were guided by certain shared moral codes, ours believes in nothing so much as the inalienable right to a second chance. What has been done, we believe, can always be undone.
So it is harder and harder for people to accept that not all deeds warrant second chances, even though almost all are worthy, in the right circumstances, of forgiveness. We have equated forgiveness with second chances, believing that mercy means a return to innocence, instead of a compassionate acceptance of one’s failings and an honest effort to live with the costs. In Rose’s case, that cost has been, and should remain, banishment from a game he didn’t love quite enough.
When Bart Giamatti banned Rose from baseball in 1989, one could take heart in both the result and the standard that created the result. But now, even if Rose’s reinstatement is denied, the standard has been weakened by even considering his case. The message in 1989 was: If you bet, you’re out. The message now is: If you bet, you’re out, unless you can come up with a really good apology.
So whatever happens from here, baseball’s death penalty is not quite what it was. For all the damage that Pete Rose has done, that will be his most ruinous legacy.