Bill Conlin: For 20th anniversary, let Hall of Fame voters snub Pete Rose

Two decades after being banned, Pete Rose should be treated like Mark McGwire.
Two decades after being banned, Pete Rose should be treated like Mark McGwire.
Posted: July 20, 2009

IT HAPPENS every All-Star Game.

After baseball commissioner Bud Selig addresses the state of his game's cash-engorged balance sheet at the ballwriter Q & A, somebody rolls the head of Pete Rose toward the podium: What is the status of the lifetime exile of baseball's longest running embarrassment since the DH rule?

And Selig invariably replies, "It is under review."

This year he reiterated that the fallen Hit King did, after all, voluntarily accept a lifetime ban. Then Bud added, "We do spend some time discussing it."

"Under review."

That is a Seligism for, "Not on my watch."

"Discussing it."

That is Budspeak for, "Over the dead bodies of my great, great-grandchildren."

On May 9, 1989, Major League Baseball was presented with the Dowd Report, a 225-page investigation into allegations that Peter Edward Rose bet illegally on a number of sports, including baseball. The report was backed by packing crates of evidence that he had not only committed baseball's unpardonable sin, but surrounded himself with an entourage that included drug dealers, bookmakers and convicted felons.

Twenty years ago this Aug. 24, commissioner Bart Giamatti, who would die of a massive heart attack a week later, announced that Rose had voluntarily agreed to a lifetime ban. There would be no finding that he bet on baseball, however, despite pervasive evidence corroborated by the FBI that Rose had bet between $8,000 and $16,000 per day on baseball during the 1987 season, including bets on the Reds team he managed. Rose could apply for reinstatement after a year.

That was the suspension for a pathologically ill man, a compulsive gambler who turned to betting on his own game as the cheering faded. The narcotic of playing a daily game that had fueled his psyche during a 24-year career that produced 4,256 hits had been replaced by pushers disguised as oddsmakers.

When I knew him well as a Phillies player, Pete was betting on horses, greyhounds, college and NFL football, college and NBA hoops. Rose and Phils owner-to-be Bill Giles would run neck-and-neck in a 6-week Biggest Loser competition at Derby Lane, the St. Petersburg puppy palace.

I don't believe Rose was a compulsive gambler then, merely a garden variety obsessive-compulsive. The "W" was more important to him than the amount. I remember Pete on the phone one morning in spring training poring over the NCAA Tournament brackets. He was making his picks in a yearly head-to-head with a Philly sports columnist. The stakes were a buck a game.

Rose was simply an adrenaline junkie in every endeavor, from hitting Nolan Ryan fastballs with Stan Musial's National League hits record on the line to hitting on women. When I heard about Steve McNair leasing an expensive SUV for the 20-year-old mistress who killed him, I thought of a Los Angeles woman Rose had met through a Phillies teammate and had presented with a leased Mercedes to plight their part-time troth. In a bizarre "back-atcha," the young woman hired a banner plane that lazily circled the Vet, wishing Pete a happy 40th birthday, signing the fluttering greeting card with, "CU in SF" while his future second wife stormed to the clubhouse for a throwdown with her footloose man.

But that was Pete. Nobody ever played tightrope better. Nor did anybody fight off life's 0-2 pitches with more dogged determination.

"Driven" does not come close to summing up his essence.

I have told the story about a September day in 1979, riding a hotel elevator with the late John Vukovich to catch the bus to Shea Stadium. A scowling Pete Rose joined us a few floors down.

"She filed," he said by way of greeting. "Karolyn effing filed the divorce papers today . . . Well, only one effing thing to do. Go out tonight and get four hits . . . "

And that's just what he did.

Pete went 4-for-5 against the Mets in a 2-1 Steve Carlton victory. From there, he streaked to a .331 average with 208 hits and made a late run at batting champ Keith Hernandez. People parroting the revisionist theory that Rose was an "overrated" player seem to ignore that in a span of 17 seasons he hit over .300 15 times, won three batting titles and made the All-Star team at four positions.

On Feb. 4, 1991, the Hall of Fame board of directors formalized a special committee decree banning anybody ruled permanently ineligible from the ballot until their reinstatement. The action removed the BBWAA from the Rose equation and ended a furious internal debate.

Rose, of course, continued to fight off that 0-2 pitch. He lied, denied and played scorned martyr while continuing to bet conspiculously in Las Vegas between memorabilia shows, where he affixed his eight-letter signature to anything not submerged. Pete even chose his SoCal condo for its proximity to an airport with frequent shuttle service to Vegas.

And even his long-deferred, oft-denied, admission of guilt in 2004 was made in a book, "My Prison Without Bars," which revealed, for a healthy advance, of course, that he had bet on baseball, including the Reds.

I believe Rose's lifetime ban was his just desserts. It should never be lifted.

But I also believe his exclusion from the Hall of Fame ballot was unjust. When he fell in with the Gold's Gym scuzzballs who helped feed his gambling habit and began his betting slip-documented wagering on baseball games, he was no longer a player. In seven volumes of Dowd Report evidence, there is nothing linking him to betting on baseball while a player.

The Hall of Fame is a private, nonprofit, entity. While it certainly walks in step with MLB's agendas, the HOF unilaterally invoked the 1991 ballot ban by a 12-0 vote.

Major League Baseball gave Rose his day in court 20 years ago. Now he deserves the same appraisal of his career and his smarmy life in its latter stages as Mark McGwire, a self-hung man indicted by what he didn't say to a congressional committee. McGwire and Sammy Sosa were lionized for revitalizing flagging interest in baseball with their thrilling but "enhanced" 1998 assault on the single-season home-run record. McGwire has been nearly 50 percent shy of the required 75 percentage in each of his first three Cooperstown elections.

Would Pete Rose fare any better if the Hall of Fame directors handed him back to the BBWAA for a onetime special election?

I don't think so.

But even a landslide rejection would provide a fitting interment for the 4,256 basehits stroked by an imperfect man who played the game of baseball as perfectly as anybody ever has. *

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