I was called up to the major leagues in September of 1976. One of the first—and still one of the best—teams I played against was the ’76 Cincinnati Reds, who were just coming off a dramatic World Series victory against the Red Sox the previous year. Nicknamed the “Big Red Machine,” the Reds were absolutely stacked with talent, including one of the best players I ever played against, Pete Rose.
A lot of negative things have been said about Pete over the years, of course, despite his legendary career. I’m often asked whether I think Pete should be in the Hall of Fame, and, truthfully, it’s not an easy question to answer. Here’s my take. As we know, Pete is serving a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball for gambling on the Reds as a player-manager, which also means he’s ineligible for the Hall of Fame. I can’t say I disagree with the way the votes have come down against him over the years: rules against gambling are necessary to protect the integrity of the game, and they must be enforced if they’re to be useful. Gambling cannot be taken lightly.
However, I think Pete has already paid perhaps the highest possible price for his bad decisions—he never had another career opportunity in baseball. To me, then, the question comes down to the scope of the lifetime-ban rule. As it stands now, if you’re caught gambling (regardless of whether you were betting on your team to win or lose), you’re given a ban that 1) prohibits you from being employed by Major League Baseball again, in any capacity, and 2) is in effect until the day you die.
The first part makes perfect sense to me, because to preserve the integrity of the game MLB simply cannot employ players and managers with a history of betting on games, period. And I agree that the direction of the bet shouldn’t matter. If you bet on your team to lose, well, that’s obviously a problem. Less obviously, if you bet on your team to win, you still compromise the essence of the game. For example, if you’re the manager, you may rush your star closer out there before you would otherwise, perhaps even if he needs to rest that day. Your best pitchers may get too many innings for their own good. Being too invested (literally) in controlling the outcome of the game is sure to put people and intelligent decisions at risk.
In my opinion, however, part 2 doesn't make quite as much sense as part 1. A “lifetime” ban seems excessive. Will it really be necessary to keep Pete out of the game when he’s in his 80s? I mean, really? He’s already lost any chance to have another job in baseball, and as I see it, that’s the essential point of the punishment anyway, to hurt the offender in terms of their career and livelihood. That’s a steep penalty to suffer—as it should be. But a ban that persists long after retirement age? What if, as an alternative, we take the amount of time Pete’s been out of the game so far—22 years—and make that the standard punishment? Maybe round it up to 25 years and call it the “Pete Rose” rule. In my view, this would accomplish everything the lifetime ban was created to do (25 years out of the game will pretty much ruin any career).
Pete’s clearly paid for his poor decisions, so I think the time has come to look at his career and legacy in a fresh light. He served his punishment—he never had another job in baseball and he likely never will. Just think about that for a minute. We do and should believe in justice, and violations should be reprimanded. But isn’t it possible that, at this point, keeping Pete out of the Hall of Fame may say more about us than it does about him?