Keith Strudler: Time To Lift Pete Rose's Lifetime Ban?
25 years is a long time. Perhaps not in true historical terms, like compared to the history of dinosaurs. But in the context of an average human lifetime, 25 years is a considerable chunk. That duration, 25 years, is now how long baseball record holder Pete Rose has been exiled from the sport for gambling on it as a player and a manager. Rose, of course, holds the major league baseball record for hits at 4,256. He made 17 all-star games and managed for five seasons. But, he also bet on baseball, including his own team, while he was in the sport. That, of course, defies the sacred code of any sport, the idea that someone on the field of play compromises the integrity of an unscripted outcome. So for that reason, compounded by the egregious tenor of his gambling habit and adversarial denial of its occurrence, former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti essentially banned Rose in perpetuity in exchange for not pursuing any additional penalties, which would likely get really legal really fast. Giamiatti died soon thereafter, and the ban continued on, now almost in tribute to the former commissioner. So ending this 25 year ban feels about as easy as unmasking the tomb of the unknown soldier – even if we can do it, it’s not going to get a lot of support.
Still, many have suggested now may be the time to do so, particularly in light of baseball’s recent hazy past. As the sport confronts a generation of athletes and records that likely exist fully under the influence of performance enhancing drugs, Pete Rose becomes just another case file instead of some kind of horrid outlier. It’s nearly impossible to say whether gambling is worse than steroids. And that’s beyond the fact that baseball’s history includes scores of really bad people, from Ty Cobb to Vince Coleman to Lenny Dykstra. So, while Rose may have crossed a clear line in the sand, the sport's recent wind storm has made that demarcation more and more translucent.
What seems to be at the core of the ban is the vaunted Baseball Hall of Fame, or simply Cooperstown. Lifting the ban on Pete Rose means he could technically take a place amongst baseball’s aristocracy, like Babe Ruth and Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson and the rolodex of household names that stand as royalty to the avid baseball consumer and historian, a subgroup that’s increasingly older by aggregate and rare amongst anyone born after the Ford administration. If Rose’s ban were lifted, he might just be voted into this hall of fame, crippling the purity of the sport and all that goes with it, or so the reasoning goes.
I don’t have a particular feeling about Pete Rose, either in or out of the game. At the very least, he comes off as a jerk and an ego maniac. But, then again, that’s not entirely unusual in the land of elite athletics. He definitely broke a clear code of the sport, and he’s about as honest as 3-card monte dealer. Perhaps that’s enough to keep him out of the game. I’m not really sure.
But I’ll say this about this about the ban, which seems poised to continue with the election baseball’s new commissioner Rob Manfred, who’s about as establishment as Citibank and Brooks Brothers. If baseball thinks its future is predicated on whether some 73 year old record holder gets into some old building in upstate New York, it might as well hand the keys over to soccer. Baseball doesn’t have a gambling problem. It doesn’t really have a steroid problem. It has a perception problem, that it’s a bunch of old stiffs in suits that care more about the past than the future. Which is why you’ve got four hour games and 162 game seasons that feel more like punishment than pastime. Baseball would be smart to let Pete Rose back in not because it’s the right thing to do, but so they can stop talking about it, and start worrying about how to get 12 year olds to care about their sport. It’s a step they seemed a bit more poised to make with the success of this year’s Little League World Series, even if they’ve still got miles to go – that’s a lot for a game that evolves like the dinosaur.
Should Pete Rose be in baseball? I don’t know. But I do know this. They shouldn’t be talking about it 25 more years from now. Because by all accounts, 25 years is a very long time.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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