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It's time to forgive Pete Rose for his sins against baseball

Pete Rose -- like Bob Knight, Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton and various other vexed characters from recent days -- tends to draw extremes out of people. It has always been that way with Rose. He gets under your skin. As a player, he famously couldn't run, couldn't throw, had little power and lacked grace at each of the six positions he played. (That's four of the five tools, you know.) And he still became one of the most famous players in baseball history.

He did this with hustle and line drives and a sense of the moment and by shoving himself into the spotlight. Headfirst dives. Aqua Velva commercials. World Series heroics. Funny thing is, it was never hard to find people back in the 1970s who would call Rose the very best player in the game in those days ... which was silly. Rose, in retrospect, was probably the third-best player on his own team, behind Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench.

Then again, it was never hard to find people who thought Rose wasn't worth a damn. And ... that was even more ridiculous. For 15 years (1965 through '79) Pete Rose averaged more than 200 hits, more than 100 runs and more than 50 extra-base hits per season. Among the 50 players who had 6,000 or more plate appearances, only Hall of Famers Rod Carew and Morgan bettered his .388 on-base percentage. Pete Rose was definitely worth a damn.

But there's just something in Rose's character that makes people see through prisms of black and white, good and bad, love and loathing, right and wrong, liberal and conservative. Here it is, 20 years after he agreed to a lifetime suspension for gambling on baseball (and, he would finally admit, his own team), and the debate about him is as raw as it ever was. Screaming. Insults. Good journalists such as ESPN's Buster Olney will call Rose "nothing less than a lowlife," and excellent writers such as Fox's Mark Kriegel will call him a "skell" -- which seems awfully harsh. It isn't like Rose mugged people. As far as I know, he hasn't killed anybody or kidnapped anybody or betrayed his nation or bilked senior citizens out of their social security. He bet on his team. He lied about it.

On the other side, though, there are people (and I've been guilty of this myself) who will come to Rose's defense by either (a) downplaying what Pete Rose did or (b) degrading the feats of other great baseball characters with the "It ain't like there are any angels in the Hall of Fame now" argument. It's impossible to estimate just how many times Ty Cobb and Leo Durocher and Cap Anson and various other imperfect Hall of Famers have been pulled from their peaceful place and used as a talking point for the Pete Rose Belongs lobbying group.

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There's just something about Rose. His faults, like his good qualities, have always been outsized. While writing my book The Machine about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds,excerpted in this week's Sports Illustrated, I was astonished that virtually every player on that team shared a story about the time that Rose said a few kind words when they were in a slump, or the time Rose picked up their check when they weren't making any money, or the time Rose invited them to his house for dinner. Will McEnaney remembers Rose giving him shoes. Gary Nolan remembers Rose believing in him when he was hurting. Joe Morgan remembers Rose pushing him and inspiring him into becoming the Hall of Fame player he became. Ken Griffey remembers Rose being a guy who treated him with respect from the start.

Pete Rose played baseball ferociously -- in 1975, the year that the Reds won the National League West by 20 games, Rose did not take a single game off. He was famous for signing autographs for long stretches of time, especially for kids. He was invariably giving to the sportswriters who covered the team -- sure, in part because he wanted to maintain an image, but also in part because he just loved talking about baseball. He loved connecting. Nobody thought he was a saint. But fathers in cities all over the country would point at him and tell their sons: "That is how you play the game."

And yes, this is the same man who loved hanging around at race tracks with shady characters, who was not exactly discreet on the road, who gambled on his own team when he was manager of the Reds and then, for years, thought that if he lied voraciously enough that he would get away with it. He went to jail for cheating on his taxes. Now your best bet to find him is in Vegas, where he sits in a memorabilia store in the Caesar's Palace shops while barkers out front shout, "Come and see the Hit King!"

So, yes, everything about Pete Rose is oversized. You could certainly make the case that no one in recent American sports -- not even O.J. Simpson -- went from so high to so low. He represented, to so many, everything that was good about baseball. And he then represented, to so many, everything that was awful about the same game. That's one helluva a big character. If they ever remade Citizen Kane, you could have Pete Rose whispering "Rosebud."

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So how do we get beyond all that and discuss one of the most talked about baseball questions of the last two decades: Should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame? I think the question needs the word "should," not "will," in it, because honestly I don't think he will get in. For Rose to get inducted into the Hall of Fame, two basic things would have to happen:

One, he would need to be reinstated somehow. Yes, there are people who want Rose to remain banned from the game but somehow put on the Hall of Fame ballot ... but that's just not likely. He would have to be reinstated, and even though lately Hank Aaron has been lobbying on behalf of Rose, I don't think reinstatement is likely. It would take an act of will, and I don't see that sort of will coming out of the Commissioner's office.

Two -- even if he WAS reinstated, he would need 75 percent approval from either the Baseball Writers Association of America or the Veteran's Committee (made up of living Hall of Famers). I honestly don't think he's even close to getting that. The BBWAA can be a pious bunch -- just ask Mark McGwire. And the current Hall of Famers have very mixed views about Rose. I don't think he could get 75 percent either way, not in the near future.

So, I think there are too many hurdles ... but we can certainly discuss whether he SHOULD go in. There are strong arguments why he should not. For one thing, he knew the punishment for gambling on his own team was a lifetime ban. He absolutely knew that. And when the time came, he AGREED to that ban. He signed the paper.

Second, gambling has a direct effect on baseball -- not only on the game itself but also on the larger connection to fans. People call gambling on the game "baseball's cardinal sin" for a reason. Baseball is not a fast-paced game, it's not an especially violent game, it's not an especially easy game to appreciate. So, the pact that baseball has with the fans is this: We play every day (except when it rains), and every team has a chance until the final out, and everything you see on the field is real. Gambling breaks that pact (and some would say so does the use of steroids).

Third, some would say, Rose never came clean. He bet on baseball, lied about it, attacked those who questioned his lies, and he sold each succeeding admission at market price. Here's where we are now: Rose has admitted that he did bet on the Reds to win (he claims he had a standing $2,000 bet on the Reds every night). That's troubling enough. But it has taken so many lies to get here that it's impossible to know if that's really where it ends or if there was more -- if he bet on the Reds to lose, if he bet some days while not betting others, etc.

All those are viable reasons. But I will come clean and say that I do think Pete Rose should be reinstated and he should be in the Hall of Fame. This is why:

First, as mentioned, lots and lots and LOTS of people keep writing that Pete Rose committed baseball's "cardinal sin" -- a quick Google search finds many, many examples:

• Time, 1999: "baseball's cardinal sin: gambling on the game."

USA Today, 2004: "... he willfully and repeatedly committed one of baseball's most egregious offenses -- the cardinal sin of gambling on the game while in uniform"

Sports Illustrated: "Rose has looked into our eyes and maintained that he did not bet on baseball -- the game's cardinal sin."

Los Angeles Times: "Pete Rose, by contrast, committed the cardinal sin of his profession."

And so it goes ... this has been repeated so many times that people have simply come to accept it as undeniable fact. Betting on baseball is the cardinal sin.

Only ... it isn't. Or anyway, nobody REALLY BELIEVES what Pete Rose did is baseball's cardinal sin. If we are using "cardinal sin" to mean the worst possible thing a baseball player can do or, to be more precise, "the sin that condemns a person's soul to eternal Hell," well, I can think of about 200 things you can do on a baseball field worse than gamble on a game. You could take a baseball bat and hit the umpire. You could purposely throw a baseball at a batter's face or at a fan or at someone in the dugout in an effort to kill him. You could hide state secrets under your hat and use the game as a way to get them to America's enemies. You could commit various terrorist attacks. I mean, come on, let's not get carried away -- there are quite a few worse things in the world.

But the real point is this: Even under the gambling umbrella, what Pete Rose did is not even CLOSE to baseball's cardinal sin. I would think that taking a large sum of money from gamblers and then purposely playing lousy enough that your team will lose the World Series, yes, THAT might be called baseball's cardinal sin. Nobody suggests Pete Rose did that. Betting on your team to lose and then going 0-for-5 in a playoff game and committing an error with the winning run on third, yes, THAT might be baseball's cardinal sin. Nobody suggests Pete Rose did that either. Purposely performing poorly on the field during a regular season game in order to cash in on bets, yes, even that might be baseball's cardinal sin. Nobody suggest Pete Rose did that either.

Seems to me the cardinal sin would be to AFFECT THE OUTCOME OF GAMES in order to profit on it -- either by gambling yourself or taking money from gamblers.

What Pete Rose DID do -- or at least what we KNOW he did -- is bet on the Cincinnati Reds to win while he was manager of the team. Did he do more? Maybe. But this is what we know and the Dowd Report is clear in saying "No evidence was discovered that Rose bet against the Cincinnati Reds." In 20 years of digging and pinching you would think that if Rose indeed bet against the Reds at any point it would have come out. All you can know is what you know. I think it's probably fair to say that Rose bet on his team to win.

Is that awful? Of course. Did it have an impact on the game? Maybe. Did it have a dramatic impact on the game? I guess everyone will have to judge for themselves, but I would say probably not. Truth is, the gambling issue is just more complicated than we want to make it out to be. A few weeks ago, I put a few polls on my blog asking about gambling and baseball. I don't have any illusions that these little polls accurately reflect the way America feels about stuff, but a couple thousand mostly diehard sports fans voted, and I don't think the results seem out of line.

When I asked if a player should be banned for making a $5 bet on a game with a friend, 82 percent said that NO, he should not be banned. And I actually think that number in reality would be way higher -- could you even IMAGINE them banning a player for making a friendly five-buck bet on his team to win? Come on.

But then, when I asked if that bet with a friend was for $500,000, then almost 70 percent said that YES, the player should be banned. So what we have here is a question of quantity. You know the old Churchill line. He asked a woman if she would sleep with him for five million pounds. She said she would. He asked her if she would sleep with him for five pounds, she asked, "What kind of woman do you think I am?" He said: "Madam, we've already established THAT. Now we're haggling over price." So it goes with gambling on baseball ... beneath a certain level it really doesn't matter to most.

Which led to my second set of questions. I asked if a player should be banned for playing rotisserie baseball -- 92 percent said no. Now, rotisserie baseball is most definitely gambling. The definition is playing games of chance for money. There's really no way around it ... fantasy baseball is gambling. So a huge percentage of people are perfectly fine with that ... unless it's for a lot of money. Because then I asked if a player should be banned for playing in a $1 million rotisserie league -- suddenly 70 percent said yes.

In other words ... I think many of us are good at being against the CONCEPT of gambling on baseball, but not so sure of ourselves when it comes to the particulars. And the truth is that gambling is a multilayered thing. Bet to win? Bet to lose? Bet every day? Bet when the mood strikes? I know people will see this as me trying to downplay what Rose did ... and maybe I am. But it's been 20 years. As far as we know, he didn't throw games. As far as we know, he didn't alter the World Series. As far as we know, he managed to win. As far as we know, nobody played baseball harder, nobody had more influence on the game, and nobody walked off the field with a victory more often than Pete Rose.

And there's something about forgiveness in here too. One thing you hear people say is that Pete Rose hasn't EARNED our forgiveness. It's hard to argue the point. Over the last 20 years, he has been brash and dishonest and indiscreet and arrogant. But there's something else. Pete Rose made a lot of people happy playing baseball. He inspired a lot of people to try harder. He cracked more hits than anyone who ever played the game. And anyway, I didn't think forgiveness was supposed to be earned. I thought forgiveness was supposed to be given. I thought that was the whole point.

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