Baseball is a game of errors and redemption. It is a game that keeps track of mistakes and features them as part of the official line score--runs, hits, errors. Pete Rose made the ultimate error by betting on baseball while he was managing the Cincinnati Reds in the late '80s. Although he consistently denied his guilt, he accepted a lifetime ban from the game. For the next 14 years, Rose continued to publicly deny that he had ever bet on baseball. The arrival last week of his new book, in which he finally confessed, stunned the baseball world. Rose wants to persuade that world that his admission should redeem him and thus restore him not just to the game but ultimately to the Hall of Fame. I disagree.
There is only one capital crime in baseball, and the reason for that is historic. In 1919 gamblers rigged the World Series, and the guilty players were tossed out of baseball for life by the first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. That middle name tells you all there is to know about how tough he was, and ever since it has been clear that anyone who bet on a game in which he was a participant would be banished from baseball for life. No one has ever been reinstated, not even the hapless "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who for years begged Landis to be reinstated and whose cause has drawn support largely because Jackson was illiterate and almost surely had what lawyers would describe as "diminished capacity" to comprehend the consequences of his actions.
Against that backdrop, Rose presents a difficult case. His credentials for the Hall of Fame are superb--no player has had as many career hits--but before he can be voted on by the baseball writers (who initially have the power to grant that ultimate honor), he must be reinstated in the good graces of the game. Only the commissioner has that authority. And no commissioner thus far has seen fit to pardon anyone, because the lifetime ban has been an almost perfect immunization against the gambling virus.
Rose has not made things easy for himself. His book is like the player he was. He was known as Charlie Hustle, and he hustles through brief moments of remorse and apology. In what may be the most remarkable statement in the book, he writes, "I'm sure that I'm supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now that I've accepted that I've done something wrong. But you see, I'm just not built that way... Let's move on.'' It's as if the ordinary rules of public apology do not apply because he is different.
Rose is a product of our culture. We teach our business moguls, our movie stars and our Pete Roses that the rules of conduct, and even our laws, do not apply to them as they do to the rest of us. During Major League Baseball's investigation of Rose in 1989, one of his lawyers argued to me that "Pete Rose is a national institution. He doesn't think baseball can afford to take him on."