Changing rules on Rose puts Fame to shame


January 10, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

The baseball Hall of Fame is a wonderful little museum in a picturesque little town where baseball is said to have begun, but probably didn't. It makes for a good story, which is perfect because mythology is at the game's center, anyway.

But, as of today, the mythmaking gives way to the real world. And in the real world, the people who run baseball don't want Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame.

So, they'll probably change the guidelines, as if immortals were meant to be governed by rules.

People are governed by them, of course. Pete Rose, the person, was banished from baseball and sent to prison; only Rose can know which penalty hurt more. Pete Rose, the person, was guilty, and he has paid his debt to society and continues to pay it to baseball.

That, apparently, isn't enough. The people who run baseball want Pete Rose, the old heroic Pete Rose, to become a non-hero, a non-legend, as if the 4,256 hits accounted for nothing, as if his place in baseball didn't exist. They want to rewrite history, and all the places that are blackened out would be where Rose's name used to be.

And they want me to be a party to that. I won't. And I hope all the other writers who participate in the Hall of Fame election also refuse to take part in this ruse, in what amounts to a crime against memory.

Under ordinary circumstances, Rose would be eligible for selection to the Hall of Fame next year, five years after his retirement. He would be placed on the ballot, and 450 or so 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America would either vote for him or not. If 75 percent said Rose belonged in the Hall of Fame, he would take his place with the Babe and Willie and the rest. That's the way it's been done for bTC more than a half-century.

But these are not ordinary circumstances. The Hall of Fame has convened a committee today in New York that is expected to put a new rule in place, mandating that anyone banned by baseball would be ineligible for election. It would be the Pete Rose rule, and it would be as wrong as Rose has ever been.

That's OK, I guess. The people who run the Hall of Fame can make any rule they want. They can bow to pressure from the commissioner's office, which has made clear its desire that Rose not be included. They can close the doors and reopen as a hot dog stand. It's their museum.

But I don't have to go along for the ride.

The business of newspaper reporters being involved in the process of choosing Hall of Famers is shaky, at best. There is a definite conflict of interest, in voting on a story that you also cover. It sounds a lot like the nation's veteran political reporters banding together to elect Congress.

And yet, it's a tradition, and one, I confess, to which I had long looked forward. The Hall of Fame is special to anyone who cares about baseball, and the writers take the job very seriously. But that doesn't make it right either. If we're going to be honest about this, the writers should get out of the business of picking Hall of Famers altogether, regardless of the actions taken by the Hall of Fame committee.

Why not have all the players who performed for 10 or more years pick among their peers and determine which of them belongs?

That would leave to me and my brethren the more natural role of reporting the news and commenting on it. My comment, I hope, is clear. The Hall of Fame is built to honor great baseball players. Rose, whatever his many faults, and I am certainly not here to excuse any of them, was a great player. In fact, he is a role model of a kind. Rose's all-too-public failures suggest that we choose our heroes more carefully. The ability to run fast or jump high or hit a curveball does not make a man, or woman, worth emulating or honoring.

I don't honor Pete Rose. I don't like him. I don't respect him. He had so much, and he threw it away, and with such arrogance that I'm not sure I can feel sorry for him, even given his problems as a compulsive gambler. But no one has ever shown me that Rose didn't play the game at its highest levels and that he didn't try as hard it is possible to try each time out. That's what made him a great player.

Great players belong in the Hall of Fame. We just elected three new members, among them Ferguson Jenkins, who was once convicted of cocaine possession. He didn't go to jail -- in fact, his record was eventually made clean -- but he broke the law. Certainly, he might have been banned. Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were once banned for associating with Atlantic City casinos. Should we remove them from the Hall of Fame?

If Rose had never gambled on baseball, he would not have been banned. He still would have been a philanderer and a lousy father and somebody who cheated on his taxes. Meaning he would have been eligible for the Hall of Fame, and he would have been elected -- because he belongs.

Now, it looks as if they're going to change the rules. Even if they don't, the threat of the change should be enough to alert the writers to their duty, which is to write about the news and not make it.

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