Pete Rose: Which part of Rule 21(d) still baffles he and his partisans?

How the Astros sign-stealing scandal is irrelevant to whether or not Pete Rose should be reinstated to baseball and eligible for a Hall of Fame ballot.

Show me any baseball controversy that involves rule-breaking or cheating, and I’ll show you yet another excuse, if not a Twitterverse eruption, to resurrect the Pete Rose case that should have been closed for all time already. Now Rose himself steps up with a fresh petition for his reinstatement to baseball and, concurrently, eligibility for Hall of Fame election.

This time, the ignition is Astrogate, and the nuke commissioner Rob Manfred dropped on the Astro Intelligence Agency last month. “[H]ere [Rose] advances the new argument,” the petition says, “that his lifetime ban is disproportionate relative to other punishments imposed for serious violations that also undermined the integrity of the game.” Oops.

Right there the question that should have been provoked is, Which part of Rule 21(d) still baffles Pete Rose and his partisans? Because Rose isn’t banned for “life,” as the rule’s language should have made as clear as a swing and a miss:

1. Any player, umpire, or club official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has no duty to perform shall be declared ineligible for one year.

2. Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.

John Helyar’s The Lords of the Realm wasn’t the only place where it was suggested powerfully enough that Rose’s gambling on baseball began before he became player-manager. And any lingering doubts should have been resolved when the notebooks of Michael Bertolini, a Brooklyn bookie through whom Rose bet rather liberally, were made public five years ago.

Part two of Rule 21(d) doesn’t distinguish between betting for or against his team. (One of Rose’s most frequent pleas is that he only bet on his team to win.) It should have eliminated the distinction between Rose betting as a player and Rose betting as a manager, unless someone is witless enough to believe he’s immune because “club . . . official or employee” doesn’t specify “manager.”

Rose pleads that his punishment is “disproportionate” in light of such grotesqueries as the Astros’ extralegal electronic sign-stealing because, well, what he did was nothing compared to what the AIA (and, implicitly, the Boston Red Sox’s replay room reconnaissance ring) did for affecting game results: “There has never been any allegation that Mr. Rose’s misconduct was intended to gain a competitive advantage over other teams. It did not change results of plays or games to his personal benefit in terms of outcomes on the field.”

That does highlight a missing link. A series of directives from the commissioner’s office against off-field-based or device-abetted electronic sign-stealing is something different from doing what should have been done when the issue first arose, in 2017 itself, amending baseball’s official rules to ban it and to prescribe particular, proportionate punishments for violating such a ban.

But it’s also irrelevant to Rose. Because his “misconduct,” as his petition says it, could very well have affected the outcomes of Cincinnati Reds games on which he did bet. He could have made lineup decisions based on his bets those days. He might have balked at using certain players on certain bet days, not just because he felt less than confident in them on those days by themselves, but because he might have feared their performance, or lack thereof, might affect the net results of particular bets.

And, it’s irrelevant because Rule 21(d) specifies Rose’s punishment for betting on his team one way or the other, regardless of whether he only bet on his team to win, and regardless of whether he bet when he was strictly a player and not the player-manager, or when he was the player-manager, or when he was the manager alone. 

Rose’s petition also references the impacts of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. (He refers repeatedly to “steroids”; the drugs in question aren’t all steroids.) But Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood raised a pretty point when he tweeted last month, “I would rather face a player that was taking steroids than face a player that knew every pitch that was coming.” Precisely.

We don’t really know what those substances really did or didn’t do when it came to actual performance, even as we know how long it took before baseball’s government finally put some rules for testing and discipline in place after a long period known as the steroid era’s Wild West days. But the juiced player still has to guess upon and hit the damn pitch. Juiced or not, the player who knows what’s coming has the deck stacked in his favor going in.

That, too, is irrelevant to Rose’s petition. Playing the whatabout game is bad enough in partisan politics. It’s just as bad when it’s played on behalf of Rose. For the longest time one of Rose’s staunchest defenders was Bill James, and even he said it best when still defending Rose, more or less (in The Politics of Glory, subsequently republished as Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?):

Pete Rose isn’t banned from baseball because he’s a bad person. He’s banned from baseball because he broke the rules . . . the problem with Pete Rose isn’t that he gambled. The problem is that he broke the rule against gambling.

. . . And in baseball, you get fired for gambling. It has to be that way, because

1. The gambler’s interest in baseball is slightly different from the fan’s interest of the interest of the team, and

2. The gambler’s interest, once it takes root, is so powerful that will warp the game, pushing the sporting interest aside like a tree root pushing away a sidewalk.

Rose’s new petition may well have the salutary effect of prodding Manfred and baseball’s entire governing apparatus to consider augmenting the official rules toward a specific, once-and-for-all, no-questions-asked off-field-based electronic/technological sign-stealing ban. If it does, Rose will have done the game a phenomenal favor. But it won’t help what’s left of his own cause.

Next: New York Yankees: with James Paxton out 3-4 months

Says whom? Says Rule 21(d). And, says the Hall of Fame, which is not governed specifically by Major League Baseball. The Hall passed its own rule, in 1991, that says those on baseball’s permanently ineligible list are ineligible concurrently to appear on any Hall of Fame election ballot. Those who still miss or dismiss the distinction between “lifetime” and “permanent” must come to terms with that, too. Sadly, still, they include Rose himself.

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