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New commissioner not only obstacle between Pete Rose and reinstatement

Exactly 25 years ago -- on Aug. 23, 1989 -- Pete Rose was banished from baseball for betting on the game, an anniversary that comes one week after Rob Manfred was named to succeed Bud Selig as Major League Baseball’s new commissioner. It’s no surprise, then, that the future of Rose’s ban landed immediately on Manfred’s plate.

“It’s time to let Pete Rose back in. #New Commish” tweeted ESPN’s Mike Greenberg even before Manfred was officially confirmed. A few days later, with a wink, set the odds of Manfred’s reinstating Rose at 8 to 1. And the general public has been rich with comments like this one, in a letter to the editor of the Providence Journal.  “Isn’t it time for Major League Baseball and its new commissioner, Rob Manfred, to make peace with Pete Rose?”

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Other issues -- the pace of the game, instant reply, continued labor peace -- are far more important to the sport, but the Rose issue carries serious emotional weight. Millions of fans are passionate about Charlie Hustle, and with the Reds (Rose’s old team) set to host the 2015 All-Star game next July the buzz around him will only intensify. Reinstating Rose would become a defining aspect of Manfred’s legacy and would by and large win points with baseball fans, far more of whom support Rose than oppose him.

But it’s not that simple. If Manfred, who’ll officially take over on Jan. 25, 2015, did decide that after 25 years Rose has served penalty enough he would be making a decision that his predecessor and champion, Bud Selig, pointedly refused to make. He would also be going against an outspoken group of anti-Rose hardliners that includes former commissioner Fay Vincent.

And let’s say Rose is let back in the game. How would that pan out? Would baseball allow Rose to continue betting on non-baseball sports and horse races, which remain integral parts of his life? Would he still be allowed to work at the Las Vegas mall where he makes his living signing autographs? Would he be allowed to do his paid appearances at casinos? To what extent would baseball want to control Rose’s life, and how confident, given Rose’s history of recalcitrance, would it feel that it could do so?

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Nor is it clear what role Rose would take on if he is allowed back in the game. “The only field job I could take is manager,” Rose said to me recently. “As a coach you can't make the kind of living I make.” Rose earns between $1 and $1.5 million a year through autograph sales and appearances; big league batting and base coaches might make a few hundred thousand.

A quarter century later, there are no easy answers to the Pete Problem

Rose remains highly intelligent about the workings of the game and he could surely contribute to a young player’s education and drive -- that was evident even in his one-day publicity stunt turn as manager of the independent league Bridgeport Bluefish in June. But he won’t get one of the 30 major league manager’s jobs. Twenty-five years out of the game is just too long. And at 73, Rose is more than eight years older than the Mets’ Terry Collins, the current oldest manager in baseball. Rose might do some work as a spring training instructor but that’s about it.

Selig has already said that even if Rose remains banned he’ll be allowed to participate in the All-Star Game in Cincinnati. Baseball has long controlled Rose like this, cherry-picking times to allow him on the field for events that benefit baseball in general or the Reds in particular. That’s not fair to Rose, but given his transgressions -- betting relentlessly on the Reds while managing them, impeding the investigation and lying about it for many years -- he can't complain about fairness.

At the soul of the “let Pete back in baseball” movement, of course, is the implication that lifting the ban would get him into the Hall of Fame. Maybe, maybe not. He’d still need to be voted in. And besides, if the Hall of Fame wanted to take action it wouldn't need Manfred to lift the ban. Just as the Hall’s board concocted a rule specifically to keep Rose out in 1991 -- between the start of his ban and the start of his eligibility for election -- its current board could pass a rule to make Rose eligible tomorrow. That would be relatively simple.

Allowing Rose back into baseball though, as crowd-pleasing as it may be, remains an issue full of thorns.