It's truly remarkable that baseball commissioner Bud Selig is considering reinstating Pete Rose, who was banned from the game for life in 1989 for betting on baseball games, including those involving his own team, the Cincinnati Reds. Why the change of heart? If baseball still believes the allegations are true -- and there is no indication that it believes otherwise -- then the punishment is clear. Baseball's Rule 21(d) is not ambiguous:
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.
There is nothing in the language about mitigating circumstances or time off for good behavior, and in any event, Rose has provided none of either. On the contrary, he has been in trouble with the law in the intervening years, and has remained defiant about the controversy, continuing to deny the obvious -- that he is a gambler and a liar.
And yet it seems likely that baseball will reinstate Rose. This became clear to me when I read the reaction of one of Selig's lieutenants to former commissioner Fay Vincent's statement the other day. Vincent said that Selig would be making the biggest mistake of his career if he reinstated Rose. But to Selig's flunky, this frank comment was simply beyond the pale.
"This is McCarthyism at its worst," fumed the spokesman. Whenever they trot out McCarthyism, you know the ballgame's over.
There are two main arguments for reinstating Rose, although one hesitates to call them arguments, since they are both as empty as Fenway Park in October. The first simply asserts that Rose has suffered enough and has "paid the price." But the price is lifetime suspension, so Rose would need to die before he's paid up. These are the consequences for the actions he knowingly took. To contemporary ears, however, any irrevocable punishment sounds terribly harsh, a violation of the right to a "second chance," which many Americans seem to believe is enshrined in our Constitution. This is the Sentimental Argument. It's soft-headed, weak, and amoral, but at least it's not mean.
The second argument employs the time-honored tactic of changing the subject. Sure, Rose bet on games, thereby violating the fundamental premise that all athletic contests rely upon for their existence -- that the game is on the level, that what people have paid to watch is an honest competition, not a charade. But you know, Ty Cobb was a pretty nasty guy, wasn't he? Racist and all that, may have killed a man, may have bet on games himself. And Babe Ruth drank a lot and chased women. And Mickey Mantle was a womanizer … and they're all in the Hall of Fame. So why not Rose?
The second argument uses the seductive appeal of subjectivity, dismissing the notion of an objective standard -- even a standard spelled out in a clear rule. Its goal is to distract us from the issue at hand by pointing to episodes from the past that may or may not have been handled well, in an attempt to diminish our moral authority to make judgments. This second argument can be called The Postmodern Argument: there is no truth, there are no standards, and even if there were, who are we to judge?
What Rose needs to do to win reinstatement remains to be seen. Some kind of abstract apology or confession will no doubt be required. My guess is that Rose's "admission" will be strikingly similar to that of Bill Clinton's in his notorious Lewinsky speech in August 1998. He'll start out with a generalized admission of wrongdoing (probably omitting first person pronouns), and then proceed effortlessly to recriminations and victimology. And yet, in conceding anything, Rose will be furnishing all the justification required to ban him for life -- he will be admitting that he did what the rule states is grounds for his punishment.
But why be bound by something so arbitrary as a rule, when subjectivity and emotion are available?
Judging by the coverage I've read, that's the general sentiment of the nation's sporting press. Typical of this line of thinking is Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post, who has had quite a week for himself. Two Sundays ago, he attacked Tiger Woods for not acting black enough; a few days later, he was on the bandwagon for Charlie's latest hustle. In his column on Thursday, he gave a virtuoso performance of the Sentimental Argument:
It's time for this 13-year public crucifixion to stop… if Selig truly is weighing whether to commute Rose's life sentence to time served, then he should do it without hedging, without qualification, without forcing Rose to endure one final public humiliation. Why? Why put the man through that? Whether he says the words, whether he truly is repentant or not, what is the point? For 13 years he's woken up every day knowing what his behavior cost him … When is enough enough?
This is brilliant stuff. Vaccaro's range encompasses a whole arsenal of blame-shifting ("public crucifixion"), self-pity ("public humiliation"), moral weakness ("when is enough enough?"), and nihilism ("what is the point?").
Vaccaro's position would be bad enough if he were merely speaking for the sportswriting fraternity, which has become a bastion of hectoring political correctness over the last 20 years. But the general public appears to share his view. A poll on ESPN's website indicates that 64% of respondents think Rose should be reinstated; 86% believe he should be elected to the Hall of Fame, whether reinstated or not. Only 13% (as of Saturday morning) shared my response: "Rose should remain banned from baseball and the Hall of Fame for betting on baseball."
Most disturbing of all, 92% believe Rose bet on baseball, and 57% believe he bet on Reds games. In other words, the majority believes he is guilty of the offense he is charged with -- for which the rule provides a clear punishment -- but thinks he should skate anyway. The analogy here (as in many other aspects of the case) is to the Clinton impeachment, when the majority of Americans thought Clinton guilty of perjury but didn't want him punished for it.
The Rose story is a window into the current state of American ethics, and it 's not a pretty view. For all that September 11 revealed about the resolve we are still able to call upon in times of challenge, we remain slothful and lethargic when it comes to the value judgments that firm principles require. And it is that sloth that Bud Selig will rely upon if he reinstates Rose, since the commissioner would never contemplate doing this without public support.
That such support exists, that such a substantial portion of the American public subscribes to subjective ethics, is the real story of the Rose affair. And yet the commissioner, as compromised a figure as he is, can still resist these forces and show real leadership by denying Rose's application. He has presided over a decade of damage to the game, from extra playoff rounds that emasculate the regular season to the degeneration of the game into a home run derby, fueled most likely by rampant steroid use. But all of this pales beside the issue facing him now. This could be his final chance to do something courageous.
If he gives in, though, Bud Selig will become baseball's Cardinal Law.
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