- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
More than 25 years have passed since Bart Giamatti announced that Pete Rose had accepted lifetime banishment from baseball.
That’s long enough.
No real purpose is served by keeping him locked away from the sport anymore. The time has come for Major League Baseball to find some middle ground with Rose -- to let him back in, in some way, to create a loophole within the rules they control.
This year is the perfect time for Rose to be paroled by baseball. The All-Star Game is in Cincinnati this summer, and Rose should be on hand, perhaps even to throw out the first pitch, or more appropriately, catch it, as host to the baseball gala in his hometown. Rob Manfred has just taken over as commissioner from Bud Selig, who carried the responsibility of keeping Rose outside the gates in spite of a groundswell of fan support for his reinstatement. Selig knew what Giamatti went through in that horrible summer of 1989, during the stressful and devastating investigation of Rose, and because Giamatti died eight days after that announcement, no one could blame either of the two men who succeeded him, Fay Vincent and Selig, for harboring a personal distrust of Rose and a personal distaste for him. Rose committed baseball’s capital offense, betting on games, and then lied about his actions for years.
For his crime within the sport, Rose was given what could be regarded as the most significant penalty allowed for someone whose whole life has been built around baseball.
But with Manfred now in power, he should consider Rose’s situation again. Keeping him out no longer serves a practical purpose, and if Manfred lets him back in, Rose can help the Reds, at the very least.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Manfred has to give Rose the benefit of full reinstatement -- nor should he, because of the precedent it would set. If Manfred welcomes Rose back into the sport with no strings attached, then he would have to consider posthumously reinstating Joe Jackson, Ed Cicotte and others who were banished from the sport. Manfred should not mitigate in any way the power of the penalty rendered upon those who bet on games. No player or team staff member who would actually consider betting on baseball should ever believe that it’s possible to be welcomed back.
But Manfred can construct a way that allows Rose to return to the sport in a constructive manner. (The issue of whether Rose would be eligible for Hall of Fame selection can be left to the discretion of the Hall -- it’s not Manfred’s place to decide that -- but given the outspoken views of current Hall of Famers about Rose’s actions before and after he was suspended, it’s very unlikely that any veterans’ committee would vote for Rose while he’s alive.)
Rose will be 74 years old this April. Even if baseball permits him to return for some kind of role, he would never manage again, he would never be a general manager. If Manfred wants to ensure that Rose could never influence any game, he could stipulate that Rose is not allowed to work in baseball operations in any capacity -- not as a spring coach, or a special baseball adviser. Manfred should permit a permanent relationship between Rose and the Reds. Rose should be allowed to make appearances on behalf of the team, speak to fans and contribute to broadcasts. Whether the Reds choose to retire his number should be a decision left to Cincinnati ownership.
But keeping him outside the gates entirely is pointless now. Rose is already marginalized, destined to have some form of the phrase "lifetime ban" among the first words of his obituary. He was investigated, he agreed to the plea bargain, and eventually, he confessed. He has been suitably shamed, kept away from the game for many years.
Rose has a habit of saying stuff that makes folks in baseball cringe, and if he went to work for the Reds in some capacity, it’s possible he would make some gaffes. But if he did again, would it really matter? If he criticized Selig on the Reds’ airwaves, for example, would this change the perception of any baseball fan -- whether they like Rose or not -- about his past actions? Rose has reached an age where words are more easily forgiven, like those uttered by an uncle or a grandfather at a holiday dinner table. Pete Rose is who he is.
He is the all-time hit king, who had more plate appearances than anyone in history, with almost 2,000 plate appearances more than the guy in second place. He is someone who played with a passion that burned in him, and was part of one of baseball’s last dynasties. He is a former manager of the Reds who broke Ty Cobb’s record. He is the most prominent figure in baseball history guilty of violating what is regarded as the sport's most important rule. He is someone who deceived the sport’s leaders, and was kicked out for decades. He is beloved by Reds fans.
None of that will be changed by giving Pete Rose a role in the sport now, by letting him back into baseball and allowing an aged man a last opportunity to connect with fans who loved him, and to make a final peace
The lifetime ban for Pete Rose has been effective. But while he won't manage or be a GM, letting him back in for the fans makes sense.