King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

On the theology of sports: How Pete Rose can prove the existence of God -- or not, depending on what you already believe.

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As soon as I heard that ESPN would be holding a mock trial of Pete Rose, with Alan Dershowitz and Johnnie Cochran debating whether the hit king should be in the Hall of Fame in light of his lifetime ban from baseball for gambling, it occurred to me that the argument about Pete Rose and Cooperstown is over. It’s moved into the realm of religion.

You either believe one way or the other, and nobody’s going to change your mind with logic, wit or rhetoric.

The mock trial, held at Harvard Law School, aired live Thursday night.

God — if that is indeed His, Her or Its name — is no stranger to sports. And I don’t mean just because of all the athletes who feel the need to use any on-air time to thank or praise God after a victory, as though God can’t hear you if you don’t talk to Him (to pick a pronoun) on the TV.

I mean that many of the most interesting and enduring arguments in sports are in essence arguments about religion. And for many of us, the beauty of sports is that they give us a socially acceptable arena for arguing about things.

A few years ago Allen Barra, then a fellow Salon columnist, and I were amusing ourselves with a fierce argument about clutch hitting in baseball. He, like most devotees of sabermetrics, doesn’t believe clutch hitting exists because no one has ever found any statistical evidence of it. Though I too am a believer in what people sometimes call (Bill) “Jamesian” analysis, I think clutch hitting does exist, and the lack of statistical evidence just means nobody’s ever figured out a way to measure it correctly.

To that, Barra said, “I don’t know what to say, because I feel like we’re talking about religion. You sound as if you want to believe in it. So I don’t know what to tell you.”

I realized he was right, and that the religious element was what made the argument so interesting. I couldn’t win. But I also couldn’t lose. We’d just have to keep arguing forever.

Heaven!

I wrote last year that I thought Rose’s ban for gambling should be lifted and he should be inducted into the Hall of Fame because he’d done his time, paid a sufficient penalty by losing his job, with little chance that he’d ever be hired to manage again, and being exiled from the game for more than a decade. I argued that baseball’s punishment for gambling, decided upon in the 1920s when gambling was a far greater threat to the sport than it is today, is far too harsh in a world where gambling isn’t just legal almost everywhere, it’s state-supported. I also wrote that I’d forgiven Rose for his transgressions, even if he continued to refuse to own up to them.

A lot of readers wrote me and said, in these words or others to the same effect: “Pete Rose gambled on baseball. End of story. He’s out.” Many also wrote that I couldn’t forgive Rose until he repented, asked for forgiveness. I find that idea strange, but that’s a religious argument that’s not sports related, so let’s leave it aside.

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My readers were unswayed by the nuanced brilliance of my arguments for Rose’s historical resurrection, just as I remain unswayed by theirs against it. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

The sporting life is full of religious arguments. Should college football have a playoff system? Should college players be paid? Who was better: Mays or Mantle? Or Ruth/Bonds, Unitas/Marino, Gretzky/Howe or any other pair you can think of, great or not. Is auto racing a sport? Figure skating? Golf? Bowling? Which is more exciting, college or pro basketball/football? Should cities subsidize stadiums to attract or retain sports teams? Would Mike Tyson in his prime have beaten Joe Louis in his? What about the ’72 Lakers vs. the ’96 Bulls? Do ballplayers make too much money? Should they be drug tested? On and on it goes. World without end, amen.

As I write this, the Rose mock trial hasn’t happened yet, so I don’t know whether Cochran was able to convince the 12-person jury in Judge Catherine Crier’s courtroom that Rose should be allowed into the Hall. If so, the verdict won’t get Rose any closer to Cooperstown, but it and $30 will get him a nice seat near the Party Deck at a Reds game.

I have better things to do with a Thursday evening. Some buddies are coming over and we’re going to debate how many designated hitters can dance on the head of a pin. And more important: Should they?

Note: The mock trial jury voted 8-4 that Rose should be made eligible for election into the Hall of Fame.

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