I was 12 years old on September 11, 1985, when a 44-year-old veteran first baseman named Pete Rose seemingly did what would forever be his greatest claim to fame.
Rose singled to center field off San Diego Padres’ pitcher Eric Show for his 4,192nd career hit, surpassing the legendary Ty Cobb’s traditional career total of 4,191. Like most of America, I was tuned into the game that night. Later in the game, Rose tripled for hit No. 4,193, and he scored both runs in the Reds’ 2-0 victory.
A rookie pitcher named Tom Browning pitched into the ninth inning for his 16th win of the year, en route to a 20-win season.
Pete Rose, the player, was headed to the Baseball Hall of Fame as soon as he would be eligible. And it looked like he would be around the game for decades to come. In that 1985 season, Pete Rose, the manager, directed a young team to 89 wins and a solid second-place finish in the NL West. They’d won seven more games than they should have, and Browning, a pitcher that Rose pushed for promotion from the minors, looked like he would become a fine big-league starter for years to come.
It didn’t happen that way.
Rose proved to have some serious flaws as a manager; he worked his key pitchers too hard, and couldn’t develop a power pitcher. Like his mentor, Sparky Anderson, he had too much of a proclivity for off-speed artists like Browning. Power pitchers like Jose Rijo and Norm Charlton floundered under Rose, and others, like Mario Soto and Danny Jackson, hurt their arms.
The lack of quality pitching meant that fine young players like Eric Davis, Paul O'Neill, Barry Larkin, Rob Dibble and Browning never got out of second place under Rose. So, Rose wasn’t a great manager. Well, neither was Ty Cobb. He was still a fantastic player with a wonderful legacy.
And then we found out about the gambling.
Pete Rose, who personified so much of what made baseball a great game, had dishonored it with actions that brought the sport into disrepute. Rose, with an obvious gambling problem, dragged baseball through the mud for months during 1989. Finally realizing this was a battle he couldn’t win, he negotiated a lifetime ban (with the possibility of parole) that he thought would end in a few years.
A few days later, Bart Giamatti, the Commissioner that Rose was fighting, died of a heart attack. A lot of people blamed Rose for his death, believing that the stress of fighting the baseball icon pushed him over the edge. Many of those people are still in positions of power in baseball today.
The rules are clear on this subject.
If you bet on baseball, you’re suspended for a year. If you bet on your own team, you’re banned for life. In Rose’s case, I can see a case for lifting the banishment, and a case for not doing so. Both have plenty of merit.
I commented on Rose’s ban in another article on here a few weeks ago. This week, word leaked that Commissioner Bud Selig was considering finally letting Rose out of the baseball slammer. What follows is a summation of what I said two weeks ago, just in case it sounds familiar to some of you.
I don't believe Rose ever bet on the Reds to lose; if he had, I would say he shouldn't be allowed within 100 miles of Cooperstown or a major-league ballpark (I would also say that any bookie who took a bet from the Reds' manager on the Reds to lose needs a lobotomy, but I digress). I believe Rose when he said he expected to win every game he managed; he was that competitive.
The problem is that when you have a bet on a team to win, and you can actively influence the game's outcome, as Rose could, you're going to do whatever you can to win. How many times did Pete Rose overwork a pitcher, trying to make sure that he didn't lose his bet for that day? Rose did mishandle his pitching staff—I am old enough to remember this—and the Reds' pitchers used to come up with a lot of sore arms. While overworking your pitchers is a reason to fire a manager, it’s no reason to kick him out of baseball. But risking a pitcher's arm while managing to protect your bets, as I am convinced Rose did, is another story.
The impression I got in 1989 was that Giamatti wanted Rose to 'fess up to the betting and admit to a gambling problem, at which point he would seek help for his problem and be suspended for a few years. Instead, Rose made it a nasty court battle, lost it, and ended up with a worse deal than he could have gotten.
Pete Rose is where he is because of his own actions. If he'd admitted to the betting on baseball 10 or 15 years ago, maybe by now enough people would have forgiven and forgotten. Instead, he lied for 15 years.
I figure he's served 20 years of his life sentence, and he’s not the only person in this generation who has disgraced the game of baseball. Taking into account the cokeheads of the 1980s, the ‘roidoids of the past 15 years, and the assorted jerks du jour like Albert Belle and Darryl Strawberry, Rose is just another face in the gallery of rogues. In my book, he can come out of what he called a “prison without bars” and just be another disgraced former hero.
Rose is now 68 years old and I can't imagine anyone would ever let him manage again. He might not even live too much longer. I can’t see him doing any more damage, which is more than I can say for some of the steroid users who haven't been caught yet.
It’s time to let Pete Rose enter the Hall of Fame, let the Reds officially retire his number 14, and bring the soap opera to an end.