Bring back Charlie Hustle

Pete Rose is unrepentant and unapologetic, but so what? He's done his time -- and forgiveness is the American way.

By King Kaufman
Published December 13, 2002 12:15AM (EST)

I've forgiven Pete Rose.

I sat in a dugout with him two weeks before he was banned for life from baseball and interviewed him for a story that had nothing to do with his troubles, and though we never discussed his case, I came away from our 10-minute conversation as convinced as I could be that he had bet on baseball, and that he had bet on games involving his own team, the Cincinnati Reds. The former offense is punishable by a year's suspension, the latter by a permanent ban. Though I realize it's unfair to judge a man based on a single conversation, even given the convincing evidence that had been made public by then, I also haven't seen anything in the 13 years since we spoke that's made me doubt for a second that Rose was guilty as charged.

I don't condone what I believe he did, but I've forgiven him.

Rose is reportedly negotiating with commissioner Bud Selig for reinstatement from Major League Baseball's permanently ineligible list. Sure as I am of Rose's guilt, I'm equally sure he'll be allowed back into the game soon. And I think the game will survive just fine. It's time to let Pete Rose back in, though I'll miss him as a topic for debate. The Rose issue sparks a lot of righteous indignation, which I always find amusing.

Forgiveness feels good. We live in a forgiving country -- that's what we're told every time we allow some lout of a TV star back into our living rooms, or accept the idea that the scoundrels of past presidential administrations are seasoned statesmen who can offer wisdom in a crisis. And it's true. A lot of us have forgiven Rose. Polls consistently find that fans want him reinstated, and he's received long, loud ovations at the two official appearances that baseball has allowed him, at the 1999 All-Star Game and the "Memorable Moments" ceremony before Game 4 of last year's World Series.

We Americans love our flawed, tragic heroes, and if they won't redeem themselves, as the unrepentant Rose won't, we'll handle the redemption part for them.

Rose effectively signed a plea bargain with Major League Baseball in 1989 to short-circuit a process that was about to lead to a hearing he had gone to court to try to block. He agreed to a lifetime suspension and acknowledged there was "a factual basis" for that suspension, though he made no admission of guilt. He also agreed not to pursue reinstatement or any other remedy in court. Baseball agreed to issue no formal finding that Rose was guilty of betting on baseball and permitted him to apply for reinstatement after one year.

Baseball is freaky about gambling and always will be. Gamblers came pretty close to ruining the sport early in the 20th century, culminating in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and baseball remains uniquely vulnerable to the temptations of wiseguys. With its long season, individual games take on less importance, so it's theoretically a little easier to justify throwing one here and there. Rose was never accused of betting against his team, but betting selectively on some of your team's games creates a conflict of interest, too. A manager with a bet down on Tuesday's game might burn through his bullpen to win it at the expense of Wednesday's and Thursday's.

That's why baseball has such a heavy penalty for what, in other sports, would warrant a serious but lighter sanction, say a one-year suspension. That's as it should be. But the death penalty is too much, too final. Pete Rose has done his time.

Rose will probably have to show some sort of contrition before he's allowed back in, something he has resolutely refused to do over the years. He has continued to insist that he didn't bet on baseball and has generally acted as though he were the last honest man standing up to the hypocritical baseball empire, or a poor pitiable victim who never did anything wrong, whichever better suits his needs, most of which involve selling autographed bats.

I don't need an apology from Pete Rose. I've already forgiven him. It's not like he was a dumb kid who made some mistakes and has now learned his lesson. He was 48 years old at the time of his suspension, and he'd spent his entire adult life in baseball, an industry in which all of the employees know the rules against gambling -- and the punishment -- by heart. A Rose apology now would be nothing more than a statement that he's willing to say whatever he has to say to get back in.

The central question for Major League Baseball is, what is gained or lost by reinstating Rose, apology or no? The argument against allowing him to come back is that as a gambler he threatened the integrity of the game, and forgiving and forgetting would tarnish the game's reputation.

But tarnish the game's reputation for whom? Not the fans, who have made their feelings clear. And surely not the media, because who cares what we think, except to the extent that it affects how fans think?

By ending Rose's ban, baseball can end the ugly episode of his exile. It can look, for a change, like it's taking the high road, offering forgiveness even to an unrepentant sinner. The awkward period of having the game's all-time hits leader unable to be around the sport unless he buys a ticket will close. The grand opening of a new stadium next spring in Cincinnati, Rose's hometown and the city in which he became a hero, will not be overshadowed by his absence -- or, worse, his presence, down the street, selling souvenirs out of a tent. I suspect that this specter is precisely the reason that Selig, five years after Rose applied for reinstatement, now seems to be in a forgiving mood.

Baseball should let Rose return with the stipulation that he can't work as a manager or general manager. I doubt he'd fight that, since it's unlikely anyone would hire him for those positions anyway. He's far more likely to be hired as some sort of roving minor-league instructor or as a glorified mascot -- community relations, it's usually called -- for either the Reds or the Philadelphia Phillies, who won their only World Series with Rose as their first baseman.

And then baseball should modernize its draconian gambling rules just a bit. Gambling isn't quite the societal evil it was considered to be three-quarters or even one-quarter of a century ago. The state I live in, and probably the state you live in, encourages gambling. A lot. If a player or manager is found to have gambled on his own team, he should be banished for a long time -- 10 years? Fifteen? -- and prevented from both playing and managing once reinstated. The anti-gambling message would still be crystal clear. Betting on baseball would still get you banned and ruin your career, but it wouldn't keep you from getting a job as a hitting instructor 20 years down the road. I think the game's integrity would be safe.

Once reinstated, Rose would become eligible for the Hall of Fame. There's a small faction of contrarians who believe that he was overrated as a player, that he was nothing more than a singles hitter, which is sort of, but not quite, like saying that Pamela Anderson is nothing more than a sex symbol. Rose was a singles hitter nonpareil, but he also hit more doubles than anybody except Tris Speaker. He's fifth in runs scored. He was an All-Star 17 times, at four different positions.

It should be right there on his plaque, with the 4,256 hits and the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards and the four championships and that nickname that's as fitting in his retirement years as it was in his playing days: "Charlie Hustle."

I'd like to stand in Cooperstown and read that plaque someday. I'll remember what a great player he was, and what a colossal screw-up he became. I'll remember that long-ago conversation in a dugout, when I sat there and thought, "You are so going down, pal." And I'll remember how I forgave him.

That's how we Americans do things.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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