Rethinking Pete Rose’s reinstatement

In the wake of the news that Pete Rose has officially applied to Major League Baseball for reinstatement, 25 years after he was permanently suspended, and that Rob Manfred will officially consider Rose’s application, Charlie Hustle’s making headlines. So yes, this is a thing again.

I find that most people made up their minds about Rose and his situation a long time ago, and they’re not changing. But there might yet be some people out there who haven’t thought real hard about this, and might be open to a real discussion. So let’s have the beginning of that conversation right now.

Pete Rose is essentially the first baseball player in history who’s been punished as he’s been punished. Of course his crimes have been many, but Rose was essentially punished for one thing: betting on his team to win. I wouldn’t begin to suggest that it’s an excusable offense; I’m merely saying that, as far as I know, Rose is the only man who’s ever drawn a permanent suspension for this particular offense.

By all accounts, Rose’s suspension was perfectly justified by the facts at hand, and by Major League Baseball’s long-standing regulations.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean his punishment was just.

Look, there are three common justifications for punishing someone.

Two of them – incapacitation and deterrence – have reasonable places in a civil society. I promise that we’ll return to those in a moment.

The third is retribution, which does not have a reasonable place in a civil society. Which is why very few civil societies still levy capital punishment for even the most heinous offenses. We kill people in the U.S. largely because retribution, revenge, feels good. It’s not a great way to set policy, though. If you think otherwise, you might as well skip ahead to the next article, because absolutely nothing else I’m going to say today will interest you…

Still here? Excellent.

With retribution out of the way, we’ve still got incapacitation and deterrence.

I think we can all agree that Pete Rose shouldn’t have been managing the Cincinnati Reds in the 1980s, or any other team since. Granted, by all accounts he was a tremendous teammate in the 1960s and ‘70s, and seems to have actually been a pretty good manager in the ‘80s, too. But why take a chance, right? Just think what Pete Rose could do if …

Wait a minute. If what, exactly? If he’s hired to manage? Pete Rose is nearly 74 years old. Is there really some significant chance that a real team’s going to hire him as a manager, with the ability to influence the outcome of baseball games? With all the baggage he brings along?

Yes, the Reds might well hire him as some sort of roving instructor. Just as the Cubs have hired Manny Ramirez. The oft-suspended Manny Ramirez. So far, I haven’t read any reports of Ramirez despoiling any tender young Cubbies. Not saying it won’t happen. I’m just trying to imagine how a 74-year-old Pete Rose is going to ruin baseball, and I’m having a real hard time.

OK, so what about deterrence?

This one’s a little dicier, because the only available evidence cuts both ways. First I can argue that we shouldn’t worry overly much about gambling because Pete Rose is the only example since the Black Sox … and then you can argue that Rose is the only example precisely because the penalty for gambling is so severe.

There’s no objectively correct answer here.

So let’s talk about proportionality for a moment. Yes, it’s another area without any objectively correct answers, but please bear with me. Would you agree that we shouldn’t chop off the hand of someone who steals a loaf of bread?

As you know, the penalty for betting on a baseball game in which you’re involved is a permanent suspension. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re betting for your team or against it. I will suggest that while both offenses are highly problematic, the punishment should not be the same for both. In the early 1960s, NFL stars Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were both suspended for one season for betting on games (but not against their own teams). Hornung wound up in the Hall of Fame, while Karras became a television star. Neither were generally thought to have seriously endangered the sport or its popularity.

My point? We may draw a distinction between the law and justice. According to football’s law, Hornung got suspended for one season. According to baseball’s law, Rose got suspended forever. We may, as conscious human beings, also consider the justness of the law, and later redress punishments that come to seem unjust. In the real world, that’s happening all the time (if not often enough). As you probably know, during the 1980s, the sentences meted out for offenses involving crack cocaine were generally far more severe than those for offenses involving powdered cocaine. According to at least one source, the sentencing disparity was 100 to 1.

In 2010, Congress reduced that sentencing disparity.

In another step toward fairness, in 2011, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to retroactively apply the new FSA Sentencing Guidelines to individuals sentenced before the law was enacted. This decision will help ensure that over 12,000 people — 85 percent of whom are African-Americans — will have the opportunity to have their sentences for crack cocaine offenses reviewed by a federal judge and possibly reduced.


Things change. Standards change. Society changes. People change. Yet somehow we’re supposed to believe that nothing in baseball has changed since 1919, and that Pete Rose is exactly as dangerous in 2015 as he was in 1989.

Finally, I would like to address a couple of opinions that seem to show up every time this subject comes up…

First, there’s this one: Rose agreed to a permanent ban!

Yes, he did. Technically speaking, that’s absolutely true. It’s also true that other players before him had been “permanently” banned, only to see their suspensions lifted after a year or two. So Rose had at least some cause to believe that he might someday be reinstated. Also, I don’t really care what Rose agreed to. If you agree to a 20-year prison sentence for stealing bread because the alternative is a 30-year sentence, can’t you still make a reasonable plea for clemency after 10 years?

Second, there’s the notion that Rob Manfred shouldn’t lift Rose’s suspension unless it’s good for baseball.

Friends, Baseball has become an enterprise worth BILLIONS OF DOLLARS. And not two or three billions. More like twenty or thirty billions. Is there anything Pete Rose could do at this point, either positively or negatively, that would make even the tiniest difference to even the most fastidious of baseball’s accountants?

I sincerely doubt it.

Manfred’s decision has nothing to do with anything that’s quantifiable, now or in the future. It’s become a political matter, a moral matter, and – for Manfred and Rose and all the other interested parties – a personal matter.

It’s the wrong question. The right question isn’t, “What will reinstating Pete Rose do for baseball?” Any answer, no matter how well considered, must amount to a trifle. No, the right question is actually this: “What will not reinstating Pete Rose do for baseball?”

The answer to that question is, again, a trifle. But given a choice between trifles, why not choose the trifle that releases a man, however flawed, from purgatory? Why not choose the trifle that will, from everything we’ve been told, bring some measures of real joy to thousands of baseball fans? Why not choose the trifle that allows for the possible redemption of an old man while he might still enjoy it? Why not choose the trifle that acknowledges our infinite fallibility, but also our infinite capacity for mercy and forgiveness?

My thanks for Craig Calcaterra for helping me think through this one.