Pete Rose and the Fallacy of Forgiveness

The canonical non-statistical baseball arguments are:

  • The Designated Hitter
  • Steroids
  • The pace of the game
  • Instant replay (at least until replay was adopted last year)
  • Pete Rose’s banishment from baseball

So here I go writing about Rose. I already wrote about replay, and I know it may not be wise to post about two of the big ones in my first four posts—I should think about leaving some in the tank—but the Rose thing flared up again on a couple of major sports blogs and I figured I should try to play with the big boys. (Well, actually, it flared up a couple weeks ago. But I had work and a sick toddler to deal with, and Pete Rose isn’t going anywhere.)

My position on the issue matches up pretty much exactly with Craig Calcaterra’s in the link above, and basically amounts to this: Pete Rose’s suspension from baseball doesn’t move me at all. If Pete Rose is let back into baseball tomorrow, I won’t feel any which way about it; the same if he dies while still banned from baseball. Now, “I don’t care” might seem like an unpromising premise for a blog post, but what’s funny about it is if you know me, you would expect me to care, because I’m the most dyed-in-the-wool defender of the rights of the accused and the convicted you can imagine. I’m against solitary confinement and the death penalty; I’m in favor of letting convicted felons vote; I’m convinced that Adnan Syed is innocent—like, materially innocent, not just reasonable-doubt innocent. Hell, even in a baseball context I’m a knee-jerk liberal: I’m in favor of letting steroid users into the Hall of Fame en masse. So why is it that the case of Pete Rose leaves me cold?

Part of the reason this post has been two weeks in the making is that I find it difficult to put my finger on the answer, but I think I’d put it this way: I have not yet seen a convincing argument for why Pete Rose’s punishment should be rescinded. The proponents of clemency for Rose are relying on the kinds of arguments bleeding hearts like me generally find convincing—arguments based on the injustice of indefinite punishment and the salutary value of forgiveness—but those arguments seem to me inapplicable to the Rose situation. And I think that’s a large part of why the push to readmit Rose has, if anything, lost traction over the last few years.

The first appeal Rose’s proponents make is an appeal to the injustice of a permanent ban from baseball, generally framed as an appeal to let him out with time served. Buster Olney: “More than 25 years have passed since Bart Giamatti announced that Pete Rose had accepted lifetime banishment from baseball. That’s long enough.” Joe Posnanski: “It has been almost 25 years. He has paid his debt.” Rob Neyer, in a piece called “Yes, Pete Rose Has Suffered Enough: “…this penalty was too serious. …[a] 10- or a 15- or a 20-year suspension might do just as much to discourage gambling as the permanent suspension.”

First of all, as Calcaterra points out, if Rose found a permanent ban unjust, he ought not to have agreed to it. He could have pursued his legal case against baseball instead. This point, that Rose agreed to the punishment, weakens the “draconian” argument but doesn’t eliminate it: if a punishment is unjust, it’s unjust even if you get the guilty party to agree to it.

But the thing about these “long enough” arguments is, long enough for what? The ban isn’t this long to make Rose “pay a debt” or “suffer enough”; the ban is there to reflect the seriousness of the crime. When someone gets ten years in prison for marijuana possession, I know what I mean when I say that’s unjustly harsh: the severity of the punishment has no resemblance to the harm done by the crime. Would anyone argue that gambling by a sport’s participants does not pose an existential threat to the sport itself? Baseball learned that lesson the hard way in 1919.

Furthermore, Pete Rose is not being deprived of something he’s entitled to, like freedom or property; a convict has the right to eventually reenter society, but Rose has no right to reenter baseball. People are banned from clubs or organizations or companies all the time, and we don’t equate it with life in prison except when we are on their side and want to put a thumb on the scale. The problem with the “it’s been long enough” arguments is that they’re arbitrary. They presume that “forever” must be too long a time by definition. But there’s no reason why that should be true, and especially no reason why baseball should unilaterally determine that this punishment, which was codified almost a century ago and posted on every clubhouse wall, was wrong all along. How many other of baseball’s policies should be changed once they actually have to be put into effect?

The second move Rose proponents make is to preach the virtue of forgiveness. Once we find it in ourselves to forgive Pete Rose for betting on baseball, the reasoning goes, we are free to wipe his slate clean and let him back in. In this framing, people who don’t want Rose to be let back in baseball are cast as spiteful, vengeful, undignified in comparison with his more levelheaded, at-peace defenders.

The most prominent recent post in this vein comes from Joe Posnanski, a writer I greatly enjoy but whose prizing of forgiveness has led him into error in the past. In his forgiveness piece on Rose, he frames it as a matter of one’s personal proclivity for forgiveness—”Let’s say that 25 years ago, someone did something rotten to you personally. Let’s say they cut you out of a deal or they publicly embarrassed you or they stole your girlfriend/boyfriend. Would you forgive that person?”—and goes from there to, of all things, Buck O’Neil’s capacity to forgive the racism he suffered while playing in the Negro Leagues. It’s all so heartfelt that I feel an embarrassed, futile urge to cut him off before he really gets going, because he’s barking up the wrong tree: I have forgiven Rose. In fact, I never felt wronged by him in the first place: I was 8 when he was caught, and such a casual baseball fan that I had never heard of him before that point. (This was typical for me; it was the year the Giants went to the World Series but couldn’t name a single player apart from Will Clark.) I have no hostility at all towards Pete Rose, and the calls for supporters of Rose’s punishment to “forgive” him sound unfamiliar to me, like when someone calls you by the wrong name. I’ve also seen the people who are still furious with Rose, or who at any rate claim to be in comment threads, and they evoke no familiarity in me either.

I’m not an ethicist, but the notion that we punish people out of an unforgiven sense of being wronged, and that forgiveness removes the need for punishment, seems confused to me; official clemency and personal forgiveness are not the same thing. This is a distinction that has become clearer to me now that I’m a father: the moment my daughter throws her cookie on the floor, I’ve already forgiven her, but she still can’t have it back. Or if that strikes you as an unserious example, consider education. I teach college composition, and like any writing teacher, I’ve had to deal with plagiarism cases, some of which really did give me a sense of betrayal. I’ve forgiven (and in most cases forgotten) all of those. But if a student who plagiarized in my class comes to me for a letter of recommendation, or for my signature on a form amending the grade from an F to a C, I’m going to say no—again, not as a way of twisting the knife, but based on my professional obligation to maintain the standards I’ve laid down.

Would I ever write such a student a recommendation letter? Sure, if they demonstrated that they had come to understand the severity of their transgression, and had changed as a result. Showing growth and maturity as a result of a moral failing is admirable. But that’s not something that happens automatically, after a set amount of time; it’s proven through one’s words and actions.

That’s why Pete Rose’s failure to express any kind of contrition for betting on baseball is important: not so we can feel that he’s made it up to us, but so that we can see that he’s changed since he bet on baseball (and, for that matter, since he accepted the permanent ban), and thus can fairly be treated differently than he was then. (Posnanski’s evidence that Rose has apologized—he’s even willing to sell signed baseballs that say “I’m sorry” on them!—is not reassuring in this regard.) In another post, Posnanski criticized those who wanted Rose to come clean and apologize as, essentially, too demanding: “It did not seem to matter much to people that coming clean and apologizing are two things Pete Rose does poorly.” But in fact, it does matter very much that Rose still can’t bring himself to own up: it shows that he has not changed since he accepted the lifetime ban, so why should the ban itself change? Rose’s continued failure to swallow his pride is an argument against clemency, not in favor of it.

Rose’s supporters might argue that I’m quibbling on the word “forgive”; that what they’re talking about is simply official pardon, not a personal change of heart (though Posnanski, at least, clearly means the word on a personal level). But if that’s the case, we’re right back at “it’s been long enough”: the arbitrary judgment that baseball should decide it didn’t mean what it said when it said “permanent ban.” What benefit can baseball gain for itself by weakening its punishment on this score? Pete Rose’s own interest is not irrelevant here, but is that interest great enough to make up for the harm done by sending the message that permanent bans aren’t permanent, that you can plead guilty to the ultimate penalty and then hope to get off—at least, as long as you have the statistical record and the journalistic support that Pete Rose has? I don’t see it.

The benefits of the Rose ban are symbolic, not material; I don’t think that there’s some deluge of player betting that’s being held back only by the league’s firm stance. That’s why I won’t kick if Rose is ever let back into baseball. But I don’t think he will be in his lifetime, because I think baseball sees it the way I do: barring some road-to-Damascus transformation on the part of Pete Rose, this is not really a moral issue. It’s an issue of how an organization responds to behavior that threatens that organization. And if Rose’s defenders want to start winning this argument, they need to start showing that letting Rose back in is what’s right for our sport, not our souls.

Image Credit: “Cincinnati: Pete Rose Way” by wallyg is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


4 thoughts on “Pete Rose and the Fallacy of Forgiveness

  1. Great post Tom. One bone to pick: I don’t think you can continue to assert that the whole Pete Rose issue leaves you cold. You care too much about the sport of baseball for that to be true.
    Joan Starr

    Liked by 1 person

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