Pete Rose turned 70 years old on Thursday. It's not known if he marked the day by sliding headfirst into a three-layer cake. The day Peter Edward Pan begins his eighth decade, we all start aging in dog years.
Rose is the world's oldest child. His life has been ruled by impulse and compulsion. If it feels good, do it. As a manager, Rose used gambling to provide the competitive rush he no longer had as a player. After 15 years of denials, Rose admitted in his book My Prison Without Bars that he bet on baseball games. He got a $1 million advance for that stunner. For $1 million, Pete Rose would admit he was a komodo dragon.
Since the book appeared in 2004, any chance Rose had of being reinstated to baseball -- and being eligible for its Hall of Fame -- seemed as likely as Pete nailing an exacta every day for the rest of his life. And yet, the debate lingers. It's not pushed by Rose. He has reconciled himself to the notion he will not be in the Hall. The talk is furthered by the drug cheats, alleged and admitted, that still dominate the headlines.
•Rare photos of Pete Rose
It used to be, Major League Baseball summarily dismissed Rose's pleas by saying he violated the game's scarlet rule. It's not that easy now. Not when Mark McGwire's name is on the Hall of Fame ballot, and Roger Clemens' will be. Not when there is no good solution for Barry Bonds.
I am an unapologetic supporter of Rose for the Hall of Fame. I have been since the day Bart Giamatti kicked him out of the game. Every time another hero dips baseball's credibility into a vat of juice, I feel better about my position on Rose.
Rose's transgression tarnished the game's integrity. It did not enhance his chances to be enshrined. Can we say the same for Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez? All are at least suspected of cheating the game, in a different way. A better way, apparently. Each made the right mistake. Allegedly. None has joined Rose on the game's permanently ineligible list.
I've had a Hall of Fame vote for more than 20 years. I have never voted for anyone I've believed juiced. If baseball's lords won't draw that line in the dirt, I will. And yet ...
I voted for Rose. I wrote in his name 15 times. In my own way, I'm as hypocritical as the lords of the game. I'm judging by degree, too. I'm saying what Rose did is less wrong than what the juicers did. How can I be OK with Pete and not with the three-time proven juice-aholic Ramirez?
It's entirely contradictory and subjective and meets no standard of rational judgment. It just is.
At is most essential, the Hall of Fame is a museum. Lots of museums house scraps of bad memory. Some trade in it wholesale. Ever been to a Holocaust museum, anywhere?
I do not go to Cooperstown seeking divine inspiration. I did not take my son there, point to Ty Cobb's plaque and say, "He loved his mom. Instead of awarding him a Nobel Prize, they put him here.''
Puffs of smoke do not rise from the transoms when a new member is enshrined. The Hall of Fame is a place for honoring achievement. Rose had 4,256 hits. No one had more. That's one hell of an achievement. Besides, a lot of Rose's things are there already. If baseball wants to mirror-gaze momentarily, maybe it ought to question the righteousness of that.
It would be nice if athletic grace equated with the walking-around kind. It almost never does. We still tongue-cluck when our jocks fail us away from the arena. That's on us, not them.
And yet ...
If I give Rose a Hall pass, why not the others?
Rose's gambling didn't help him get 4,256 hits. It didn't mess with the outcome of a game any more than another player's pill/cream/needle did. It's specious to suggest that because Rose never was found to have bet against his own team, his gambling was less harmful.
What if he bet on the Reds and had to use his closer for a fourth day in a row, to try and win the bet?
Maybe it's the man himself. In some ways, Rose remains what we like to think is good about the game, and ourselves: a less-than-supremely gifted dirty shirt, self made, who rose on the back of his own sweat ethic. A little boy who played a little boy's game the way all of us imagined we would, if given that chance.
Rose's wounds have been self-inflicted, caused by the same stubborn arrogance that fueled his chase of Cobb's hits mark. He believed he could outlast the game, same as he did Cobb. Rose was admittedly a selfish player, but his selfishness never hurt his team. Compare that with the profound selfishness displayed by Manny Ramirez.
Pete hasn't taken down anyone but himself. Legions of high school kids aren't betting on ballgames. They are experimenting with performance enhancers.
In Cincinnati, fathers with good, long memories still tell their sons to "play the game like Pete did.'' Who would say that about the Steroid Era suspects?
What's the solution? Can hypocrisy and suspicion co-exist in Cooperstown? Why is one man's gambling worse than another man's drugging?
Maybe the Hall of Fame should include a Cheaters Wing/Annex/Cell Block. The Hall of Exile.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Asterisk Room ...
Regardless, baseball needs to do something. If you're OK with keeping Rose's nose pressed against the window, fine. You must do the same for the others. Either that, or admit them all to the museum. But start with Rose. His brand of cheating didn't help him 4,256 times.
The Hit Kid turned 70 on Thursday. Baseball's dilemma remains ageless.