The 25th anniversary of Pete Rose’s banishment – if you can call that an “anniversary” – came and went over the weekend, and to commemorate the event I read my 10 bajilllionth Pete Rose story. This one made the case that Rose should be reinstated in baseball and made eligible for the Hall of Fame. No, my mistake, the story I read made the case that Rose broke baseball’s cardinal rule and should never be reinstated because lifetime bans should last a lifetime. No, I’m sorry, right the first time, the story argued that Rose has served his time and that he should be remembered for how he played the game. Or, wait, actually, now that I think of it, the story was more about how Rose knew the punishment for gambling on baseball, and he did it anyway, and he has never really shown any remorse, and if you do the crime you have to do the time.
To be honest, I can’t even remember anymore.
I have long found Pete Rose and his story utterly fascinating. Rose the indomitable player compelled me to write The Machine about the 1975 Reds. Rose the con man motivated me write a hundred pieces through the years and to visit him many times. I have at different times started writing a one-man play about Rose – the opening scene is of him sitting at a folding table, a “Pete Rose: Hit King” banner behind him, and barkers in the background shouting, “Come see Pete Rose! Come see the Hit King! Come talk to the man who cracked more hits than any man in the history of the game!” The trouble with the play, like the trouble with Rose’s life, is that there’s no second act.
In any case, I read the Rose stories this time like I do every time he pops into the news for some reason or another, but it was different. For the first time, I found myself utterly bored by them. I guess many people (most people?) passed that line years ago, but it took me longer. It occurred to me this time around that we have run out, we have officially passed the point where there’s anything enlightening to say about Pete Rose. Some people think he should be forgiven. Some people think he should not be forgiven. Some people think his gambling did not impact how he played or managed the games. Some people think his gambling did impact the way he played or managed the games. Some people think it doesn’t even matter because gambling on baseball creates dangerous ripples.
A question for you: Let’s say that 25 years ago, someone did something rotten to you personally. Let’s say they cut you out of a deal or they publicly embarrassed you or they stole your girlfriend/boyfriend. Would you forgive that person? I have friends who would not forgive, could not, no matter how many amends made (were they sincere?), no matter how many apologies offered (were they real?), no matter the history before. I have other friends who would forgive. At some point, the question of forgiveness moves beyond the act itself because the act never changes. At some point, it becomes a simple and very personal question. You would have the right to never forgive. You always have that right. But you also have the right to forgive at any time.
The other day, we were talking about Buck O’Neil and his seemingly inexhaustible supply of forgiveness. I told the story again of the time I was with Buck and a wonderful Negro Leagues player from his era. The question of black hotels came up.
This other player talked how degrading it was to be turned away from the white hotels.
Buck talked about how much better the food was at the black hotels anyway.
The other player talked about how these white hotel clerks would make him feel like less than a man.
Buck talked about how he would run into Joe Louis or Ella Fitzgerald at the black hotels.
The other player talked about the endless and sometimes frightening hours spent looking for places to stay.
Buck talked about they could stop in any black neighborhood and be treated like kings.
They were talking about exactly the same time, exactly the same experiences, but Buck chose to see it the way he saw it. I use the word purposely: Chose. It wasn’t natural. It wasn’t easy. You don’t think he felt the bitterness of a lifetime being denied? He was turned away from the white high school in Sarasota. He was not allowed to even try and play in the Major Leagues. He was never given the chance to do the baseball thing he was born to do, manage in the Major Leagues – he was passed over again and again for inferior men.
I hear people say, ‘Why should I forgive?” There’s no right answer anyone can give you. Buck CHOSE to see the strides being made. Buck CHOSE to believe in the goodness of people. Buck CHOSE to forgive the people who had treated him cruelly or, worse at times, callously. He remembered that boy in North Dakota, the one who screamed the N word at him from across a street. Buck called that boy over, asked him why he did that, explained to him what that word meant, gave him tickets to the game that night. He CHOSE to forgive because, otherwise, well, he had his reasons. Faith. Hope. The belief that hate eats you from the inside.
I’m certainly not comparing Pete Rose to anything in Buck’s life, I’m only talking about forgiveness here. That impulse to forgive or not forgive now seems at the heart of every single thing anyone says about Rose. One of the stories I read in this latest go-around went into excruciating detail about the terrible evils of gambling on baseball, the calamitous effects Pete Rose had on the game even if he never bet against the Reds. OK. Another story I read delved deep into Rose’s lies, half-truths and unseemly responses the last 25 years. Fine. “If only he had said I’m sorry …” one commenter wrote in agreement, which is not quite right because no human on planet earth has said “I’m sorry” more than Rose – the guy would autograph baseballs with the words. What the commenter meant was that, beyond Rose’s words, he just never SEEMED sorry.
But all of these stories really needed only five words: “I don’t forgive Pete Rose.” And all the positive stories – the ones I’ve written often about how good a player he was, about how you should look at a whole life, about how he has more than repaid his debt – needed one fewer word: “I forgive Pete Rose.” That’s all any of us are saying at this point. We will explain our positions – I don’t forgive because he’s not remorseful, I do forgive because so much time has gone by, and so on – but more and more I believe the positions come first, then the explanations. I have long ago forgiven Pete Rose. I’m just coming up with arguments for why.
At the beginning, I mentioned the “lifetime ban” that is written about so often. This concept leads some people to say that Rose should be inducted into the Hall of Fame someday, but only after he is dead. Hey, makes sense, right? There’s just one problem with this. It’s not a “lifetime ban.” It’s a “permanent ban.”
In the matter of Peter Edward Rose Rose, manager of the Cincinnati Reds.
Agreement and Resolution 5a: Peter Edward Rose is hereby declared permanently ineligible in accordance with Major League Rule 21 and placed on the Ineligible List.
Permanent. There was a lot written unwritten in that agreement, promises made and not kept, thoughts and plans no doubt carried to the grave by commissioner Bart Giamatti. But let’s be clear: The word “lifetime” does not among the 881 words in the agreement. So why do people keep calling it a lifetime when it’s actually a permanent one? I can’t help but think it keeps coming up because some people are willing to forgive Pete Rose … he just has to die first.