On Gambling (a Pete Rose follow-up)

A friend and reader left a Facebook comment in response to Monday’s Pete Rose post, wondering why Pete Rose in particular was punished so harshly:

Is it because he had so many hits and was so popular? Is it because gambling on his own team is somehow the worst crime there is? Was it just a perfect storm of elements? I don’t know, but it’s never sat that well with me that Rose has been treated as so vastly different from the other great rule-breakers. … I realize you’re speaking more broadly about Rose’s suspension from baseball as a sport, not just his exclusion from the Hall, but for me (since I never saw him play & don’t have any sentimental attachment to him), it comes down to this – is the Hall really that venerable? It’s full of racists, mediocre players, and jerks. Is gambling that much worse? I suppose that’s the wrong bar to set, but then again, there’s gotta be a bar somewhere.

First, as kind of a side issue, my friend isn’t alone in thinking that Rose got singled out for harsh treatment because of his fame as a player; Joe Posnanski, in a comment responding to me (in my pre-nonymous days I blogged and commented as tomemos), made a similar point:

I think if it wasn’t Pete Rose, if it was a lesser player, the rule WOULD have been changed already and the player would have been reinstated. I think it’s the distaste many people have for Rose — and his own worst-enemy qualities — that has kept this going for 25 years.

It’s interesting that multiple people (well, at least two, but surely more) feel that Rose’s fame as a player has earned him tougher treatment from Major League Baseball and from sportswriters, since to me it seems obvious that there would be no support for Pete Rose if he were Joe Shlabotnik. A mediocre player, or a manager with an undistinguished playing career, who was caught betting on his team would have been drummed out of the sport without a fuss, remembered only as that bonehead who gambled his way out of baseball. The issue wouldn’t have kept going for 25 years because no one would have put up any kind of a fight for even half that long.

Admittedly, this is only speculation, but I do think there’s evidence for it—for instance, that Rose’s most fervent supporters are disproportionately Reds fans, or that so many of the posts arguing for his reinstatement talk about his stats and his playing style. In retrospect, one of the unsavory baseball-related things Rose did—extending his career year after year to become the all-time hit leader, putting himself in the lineup long after he was any use there—was (unwittingly) pretty savvy, since it made the disparity between his accomplishments and his treatment that much more glaring (“he has the most hits of anybody and he’s not in the Hall of Fame!“).

So I don’t think baseball jumped hard on Rose because they wanted to make an example of a big fish. If there’s something about Rose that made baseball throw the book at him, my guess is it’s that he defiantly denied everything; if he had responded with any kind of humility or contrition, he maybe could have changed the script, rather than putting baseball in a position where it had to fire back with both barrels (mixed metaphor alert). But mainly I think that, actually, baseball got this one right: gambling on your own team really is worse than other forms of rule-breaking or bad behavior, and it’s worth erring on the side of being too harsh in order to prevent it.

Cheating, generally, is bad, but it is at least an extension of what the player is supposed to be trying to do anyway: excel at the sport. We expect professional players to try their utmost to win, and that mandate usually spills over the bounds of good sportsmanship (is it cheating to trash-talk a player to try to psych them out? if the umpire thinks the ball hit you but it didn’t, is it cheating to take the base?) and often right up against the bounds of the written rules themselves. But when a player or coach gambles on a game he is performing in, he trades the mandate to win for a whole other set of mandates from forces that don’t have the best interests of the sport at heart. The problem with cheating is that the cheater isn’t playing according to the rules; the problem with gambling is that the gambler isn’t even playing according to the principle of competition. People make a big deal out of Rose’s claim that he only bet on the Reds to win, but even if we believe that, gambling imposes a whole host of other perverse incentives (as this comment expresses well), and those incentives are not what we mean when we talk about sport.

So that’s why I’m okay with Rose being banned from baseball. But with all of that said, I’m not so certain he shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, largely for the reason my friend indicated: if the Hall tries to act as arbiter of who deserves to be inducted on the level of morals or sportsmanship, it’s bound to run into countless contradictions. Bill James, in his book on the Hall of Fame, thought the idea of Pete Rose being banned from sitting in a dugout but allowed to stand at a podium and accept baseball’s highest honor was absurd, and you can see the point. But when I examine my own feelings about it, I think this is exactly what would make sense to me. The idea of Pete Rose being in a dugout or a coach’s box, with an actual job to do in the game (even if just as a figurehead), really does make me cringe; do we want young players to be sitting down the bench from a living symbol of baseball’s unwillingness to make its penalties stick? On the other hand, since Pete Rose is already in everyone’s mental Hall of Fame—whether we individually favor his induction or not, we all agree he’s one of the historically great players—keeping him out seems like petty denial, a kind of hands-over-the-ears refusal to acknowledge what’s obvious to everyone. So while I’m not 100% comfortable with it, I guess I say, sure, let him in.

I don’t think there’s a chance in hell this will happen; the cognitive dissonance of a banned player being admitted to the Hall of Fame, understandably, is too great. But I would embrace the idea that the Hall of Fame is solely for recognizing accomplishments as a player or manager, and that issues of character, morality, and legality should be reserved for determining who actually gets to represent baseball on the field, in the clubhouse, and in the front office.

Now, someone tell me what to do about Shoeless Joe Jackson…

Image Credit: “Pete Rose” by kjunstorm is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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