Friday, March 20, 2015

La vie en Rose

Baseball fans eagerly awaiting the administration of new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, are debating how the new tzar of the game will rule on cases close to their heart.  One of those cases is the ongoing drama, saga, soap opera, or whatever you choose to label it, of discredited star Pete Rose, and his attempts to be reinstated into Major League Baseball.

Pete Rose 2008
Pete Rose
Rose you may recall, was banned from the game by the late commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti back in 1989 for gambling on baseball games, including ones in which he participated as player and manager. Fans appear to be split over the fate of Rose, aka “Charlie Hustle.” Those who support him say the man with more hits than any other player in the history of the game has paid the price for his transgressions. His detractors on the other hand, feel a suitable punishment is nothing less than a lifetime ban. Some are not even satisfied with that, as the possibility of extending Rose’s punishment into eternity is very real. Case in point, the great outfielder “Shoeless”Joe Jackson has been dead for over 60 years, yet efforts to forgive his sins (of participating in the 1919 Black Sox scandal), and rehabilitate his credibility in order to induct him into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, have thus far fallen upon the deaf ears of the Commissioner’s office. There are those who feel that Rose shouldn’t be allowed into the Hall of Fame (if at all) before Jackson, and Jackson certainly isn’t getting inducted anytime soon.

Rose’s detractors have a compelling case in their favor, namely the rules of baseball, Rule 21(d) to be exact, which addresses the subject of  “betting on ball games”. The rule in its entirety states:

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.

Clearly, Pete Rose falls into the second category and according to the rule, should be “declared permanently ineligible,” case closed.

Rules are rules after all.

Baseball is a game governed by rules, and no individual, no matter how great or important, is larger than the game.

I agree with that statement completely. By the same token, I believe that no rule is bigger than the game either.

Any student of the game knows that baseball has evolved a great deal over the 170 years since the first rules were put down on paper. Since then, rules have come and gone, they’ve been expanded, contracted, stretched, repealed, amended, side-stepped, tweaked, broken, ignored, and just about everything else you can do with a rule. There once was a rule that banned professionals from playing the game. Pitchers in the early days threw underhand (hence the term pitching), because the rules said they had to. And then there was the time, when any player who had dark skin was prevented by the rules from playing "organized baseball" of any kind.

A rule comes to be a rule because a perceived problem needs to be addressed. The gambling rule came about after multiple betting scandals rocked the game in the late ‘teen’s and early twenties of the twentieth century. The throwing the of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago White Sox was only the tip of the iceberg. There is very good evidence that players for the 1918 Cubs as well as the 1914 Athletics also were compensated for doing their best to lose World Series games, which they did. Gambling and game throwing were simply means to supplement the relatively paltry incomes of ballplayers of that era. The practice was rampant and threatened to destroy public trust in the “National Pastime.”

Kennesaw Mountain Landis
To combat the problem, major league owners created a new position, that of commissioner, the first of whom was the sour-pussed Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Landis, granted by the owners the power of chief judge, jury, and executioner, wasted no time in giving eight White Sox players including Jackson, the boot for their part in throwing the 1919 Series. He later put through the no-gambling rule along with its severe punishments. Landis for all his shortcomings, did manage to clean up the game as his treatment of the White Sox players, and everybody else whom he happened to think was not on the up and up, sent an unequivocal signal to MLB employees that it was to be either the commissioner's way, or the highway.

One measure of  Landis's efficacy in cleaning up the game is the simple fact that between the early 1920s and 1989 when Pete Rose was banned from the game, not a single major league ballplayer was suspended for betting on baseball, or conspiring with gamblers to fix games. That doesn't mean they weren't doing it, they just weren't caught, that is, until old Charlie Hustle.

That it works so well is a good argument that Baseball Rule 21(d) is sound and effective. I have no problem with the rule itself, just with its inflexibility and the severity of punishment. Some might say that there are no distinctions in gambling, that the very act of betting by someone involved in the game betted upon, undermines the very nature of competitive baseball. In other words, a two dollar bet is no different than a twenty thousand dollar bet, or that betting on your team to win is no different than betting on your team to lose. Granted, Pete Rose's bets were more in the twenty thousand dollar range than the two dollar range, but no one with any credibility has ever proven or even suggested that he bet on his teams to lose.

I agree there still is a conflict of interest when a manager of a ball club has money riding on his team to win. He may for example, because of his vested interest in a particular game, play starters whom he should be resting, or do other things to win that particular game to the detriment of winning other games down the line, or even a championship.  Common sense however would dictate that this transgression is much different from a manager betting on his team to lose.

I think it would be very difficult to prove that the Cincinnati Reds, both the team and the franchise while under the management of Pete Rose, were hurt by his gambling on them to win. If they were it would stand to reason that Reds fans would be the ones screaming the loudest for a lifetime ban on Pete Rose. In fact, quite the opposite is true, his biggest supporters are the fans from his hometown, which happens to be Cincinnati.

The same cannot be said of Joe Jackson's 1919 White Sox, who did indeed lose that year's World Series, were not contenders for many years after the team was broken up in 1920, and struggled mightily at the gate after the fans on the south side of Chicago lost faith in their team.

As far as disciplinary action goes, I believe that the punishment should fit the crime. A two dollar bet should not be penalized as severely as a twenty thousand dollar bet, and betting on your own team should not be dealt with as severely as betting against your team.

And I believe that under no circumstances, should a player be banned from the game for life, without any chance for redemption.

Yes friends I do believe in forgiveness, even for characters like Pete Rose.

One other issue I'd like to mention before I shut up, in this day and age where average MLB salaries are measured well into the seven digits, it's very hard to imagine that any player who makes that kind of scratch would be tempted to sacrifice a lucrative career for whatever amount gambling or associating with gamblers could possibly offer. Unless of course they have an addiction like Pete Rose, in which case the cure for the problem would be intervention, rather than banishment.

You might not like Pete Rose nor the things he did to get himself into trouble. But his contributions to the game of baseball are significant and should not be overlooked. In my opinion, those contributions should make Pete Rose eligible for a one way ticket to Cooperstown, despite his transgressions.

He deserves to be there, as does Joe Jackson, albeit, posthumously. As for Judge Landis's rule well, I think a little tweaking would be in order. A graded systems of penalties to match the severity of wrongdoing would be a good start. Perhaps a twenty year maximum suspension for the most egregious offenses would be enough to prevent players from crossing the line. After all as far as a baseball career is concerned, twenty years for all intents and purposes is a life sentence, even for a manager.

The punishment of an eternity in baseball oblivion for the crimes of people like Jackson and Rose, is ridiculously excessive, if you asked me. 

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