Rose did his time now punishment exceeds his crime


February 07, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The grand wizards of baseball are treating Pete Rose with an intransigence that should embarrass them. They want him out of the game. They want him out of the Hall of Fame. Their hearts are as cold as a foot of snow. It is ugly and autocratic and closed-minded.

Let's all be thankful that baseball's idea of justice has little in common with society's. When you commit a crime in society, as Rose did, you pay the appropriate penalty and go back to your life. But when you commit a baseball crime, as Rose did, there is no second chance.

A world with no second chances is a cold-hearted world indeed. Let's hear it for the national pastime.

The grand wizards will say that a rule is a rule, that a lifetime ban has long been the punishment for betting on baseball in any manner. Well, if a rule is a rule, why did they suddenly change the rule governing inclusion on the Hall of Fame ballot?

The truth is that any rule can be changed, and the grand wizards should reconsider the gambling rule. It does not recognize that some violations are more serious, that there is such a thing as degree. Such intractability can lead, as it did for Rose, to a punishment that exceeds the crime.

It is true that any player who fixes games should be banished for life. No argument there. The game must always be above such suspicions. The crime is baseball's capital murder, and deserves the ultimate penalty. Some crimes do not merit second chances.

But Rose did not fix games. Never in the long process was such a suggestion made. His worst sin, apparently, was betting on his own team. That certainly isn't right, or legal, but it isn't wrong enough to merit the lifetime ban, and in turn, the kangaroo-court justice meted out by the Hall this week.

Granted, you can still bleed the game's integrity while betting on yourself. A manager could empty his bullpen trying to win the game on which he has bet, making it all but impossible to win the next. But at least he is still playing to win. In neither theory nor reality is the crime as serious as the felony of intentionally losing.

There is a better way to handle it. Let the commissioner determine the extent of the punishment. That would allow for the degree of the crime to be interpreted. It is how pro football and

basketball handle it. Both leagues, like baseball, have had scandals. But they don't share the paranoia.

It might make sense to give the commissioner a rough framework. Life for game-fixing. A five-year ban for betting on your own team. A three-year ban for betting on other games. A one-year ban for spending too much time with the wrong gentlemen in overcoats and sunglasses. Repeat offenders? Goodbye.

Rose would be out five years. He would still pay much of the price he is paying now. His name would be mud, his income stripped. But instead of being discarded as so much waste, he could show he has learned a lesson. We could put him in the Hall, where he most assuredly belongs -- scads of his bats and balls are already there -- and that would be that.

Some will say Rose deserves no understanding because he knew about the gambling rule and still broke it. Yes, it was arrogant and doltish. But athletes are no different from the rest of us: They make mistakes, and as long as their mistakes aren't too odious, they deserve second chances. That is a tenet of a free society. It should be a tenet of baseball.

Of course, the chance of the grand wizards implementing any change is about as good as the chance of spitballs being declared legal, or of a major-league team hiring a black general manager. What little change that occurs in baseball occurs at a sloth's speed.

That the game's rules and traditions are held sacred can be as maddening as it is endearing. The distance from home to first has been 90 feet for a century, which is beautiful. But the gambling rule was established at about the time that women were given the right to vote. Giving it another look isn't sacrilege.

Instead of putting such thought to the matter, though, the wizards seem intent only on pushing Rose around. This latest business, changing the Hall rules to exclude him from the ballot, is childishly spiteful. The wizards -- they include baseball's highest officers -- knew Rose cared about the Hall, so they took it away. Nyah-nyah, no dessert for you.

They should be ashamed. In their haste to keep their Hall pure, which in itself is a naive dream, they employed the kind of arbitrary rule-making common to dictatorships. Uncover a potential threat to your view? Just make it illegal.

They are behaving destructively, not constructively, and that is cheap, small. It is time for everyone, particularly those in the game Rose has served so well, to lighten up and show the man some compassion. Are we so mean-spirited that we want to see him destroyed forever? Did his crime merit that? No.

Rose is hardly a sympathetic figure of Homeric dimension, but he is paying for the mistakes he made in society and doing it with his chin up, and soon will be a free man. That is the way the judicial system works. Baseball should cut out the self-important posturing and seek a similar strain of tolerance.

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