Let’s briefly review the obvious. Baseball’s Rule 21, of which Pete Rose was acutely aware, states that any player who bets on a baseball game will be banned for one year, and if he bets on a game in which he has a duty to perform he will be banned for life. The rules of the Hall of Fame state that any ineligible player cannot be elected. Therefore, if you believe that Pete Rose bet on Reds games while managing the Reds, you are obliged to conclude a) that Rose should not to be reinstated or elected; or b) that Rule 21 must be changed. Nobody seems to be arguing for b), so everyone must buy into a), right?
Wrong. Instead we hear:
1. Rose should be reinstated, but only if he apologizes. This, the grand prize winner for senselessness, is — surprise! — the line that major league baseball appears to be pursuing. If Rose bet on Reds games, “I’m sorry” makes no difference, sorry. There’s no contrition exemption in Rule 21. If he didn’t bet on baseball at all, of course, he has nothing to apologize for. And if he bet on baseball but not on Reds games, then he’s served the one-year suspension that the offense warrants, plus twelve. No apology necessary; and none desired, frankly. I know therapy is practically a duty these days, but could we, this one time, just do without closure?
2. Gambling is no big deal. Gambling is no big deal if you bet on Reds games; no big deal if I bet on Reds games. A rather big deal if the manager of the Reds bets on Reds games.
A closely related view is that pipeheads like Howe and Strawberry, who did worse things than Rose, got second, third and eighth chances. Other guys in the Hall of Fame, like Cobb and Hornsby, were far bigger creeps than Rose. But the comparative argument is a red herring. We’re discussing Rose: judgments of other cases, for other offenses, can never be dispositive. You want to talk about Howe and Strawberry, be my guest.
This is a not very subtle form of context-shifting. Strawberry’s drug use, which destroyed his talent, is “worse” for him. It does not follow that it is “worse” for baseball to use drugs than to bet on games in which you participate, and it is this second sense of “worse” that we are supposed to be considering.
3. Gambling is OK, as long as you don’t bet against your own team. First, betting on your own team violates a well-known rule. Rules have to be drawn somewhere, and here is as good a place as any. Second, the potential for corruption is very large, as Gerald Posner says:
The possibility exists that decisions won’t be made in the team’s best interests, but rather because of the money riding on the game. If a manager bets on a game, he may bring a player off injured reserves sooner than he should in order to win, or he may pitch a reliever without enough rest, not caring that he won’t be able to pitch for several extra days. If a betting manager gets in large debt to bookies, he can clear his account by merely revealing inside information about the team. The opportunity for corruption is greatly increased. This is not to suggest that Rose compromised the Reds in any way. The chance that such impropriety could result is the reason for such a strict taboo on betting baseball.
4. Rose was a great player. For most of his career Rose was a great player. For the last third he was a serious liability, hanging on only to break the hits record. But Rose certainly merits election on his playing record. If he didn’t, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. There is very little sense in debating the Hall-of-Fame eligibility of someone who wouldn’t be elected if he were eligible. The contrary argument, more rarely but occasionally heard, that Rose wasn’t really a great player, suffers from the same logical deficiencies, along with factual inaccuracy.
5. Nobody is entitled to an opinion about Rose’s gambling who hasn’t read the Dowd Report. Well, I haven’t read Newton’s Principia either: am I entitled to an opinion about gravity? I will remain among the sluggards who haven’t read the whole report; it runs to hundreds of dull pages and I cannot interest myself sufficiently in the matter. But I have read the sections excerpted in an admirable article by Derek Zumsteg six weeks ago. Several witnesses with nothing to gain said Rose bet on the Reds, including one of his bookies, Ron Peters, who says he took bets from Rose directly. The betting slips indicate that Rose bet on the Reds. Bill James’ famous defense of Rose is tendentious at best, dishonest at worst. Zumsteg sticks to the evidence and it is devastating. The people who have read the Dowd Report and box the ears of the rest of us have had plenty of time to refute Zumsteg. No one has. In any case, it is not too much to ask, I think, that discussion of Pete Rose be confined to the question of whether he bet on Reds games.
Still, in some company even our editorialists look good. In a recent ESPN Internet poll more than 60% of the voters supported Rose’s reinstatement even if it can be shown that he bet against the Reds. Not on the Reds, mind you: against the Reds. Even after correcting for sample bias, we can safely conclude that at least 60% of the voters in a particular Internet poll are moral, not to say mental, defectives.
John Perricone comments. I asked John to refute Derek Zumsteg’s piece on Rose. This he declines to do, arguing instead that major league baseball wouldn’t have demanded that Rose sign an agreement if it had had compelling evidence that Rose bet on the Reds. Of course this cuts both ways: if Rose was innocent, or even if he bet on baseball but not the Reds, why would he sign this extremely punitive agreement instead of taking his one-year suspension? Rule 21 allows, as John points out, for bans “in the best interest of baseball,” but let’s face it, nobody’s gonna be suspended, let alone Rose, for betting on college basketball and tax trouble.