And his name is Pete Rose.
I'd like to think that this is an obvious point. I've seen it from the very beginning. And, while Pete Rose is far from being my favorite baseball player, I think it's a genuine tragedy that he is ineligible for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Statistically, and otherwise, his career is the sort that deserves recognition with membership in the Hall.
Except, of course, for one thing.
He violated a rule that is posted in every professional baseball clubhouse from rookie leagues all the way up to the majors. He would have seen that rule every single day of his career. He was on notice, every single day of his career, that he was in danger of being excluded permanently from the sport he obviously loved so much if he violated that rule. And, in spite of all that, he violated it anyway.
Why? Why would he do something with the potential to destroy his relationship to baseball? Because he was Pete Rose. Because he thought he had charmed everyone, especially in the media, to the point where he was bulletproof. To the point where he thought he was bigger than the game.
And, sadly, there are still people, especially in the media, who are so charmed. Take Bill Madden of the New York Daily News, for example. He recently wrote about Rose, making the point that he is the only player in baseball history to have his permanent ineligibility from the game extended to potential membership in the Hall, and adding that, if the baseball writers who vote on Hall membership are forced to sort through the steroid generation of players, they should at least get a chance to have a say on Rose's fate with Cooperstown.
That's fair enough, so far as it goes. But, on reflection, it starts to feel like an argument that allows leeway for both gamblers and substance abusers. If we're going to make peace with expanding the range of bad behavior that's forgivable in the game, where does that stop? Rose's gambling and the steroid sinners are bells in the history of the game that can't be unrung. But they ought to serve as guideposts for how the game operates going forward. The solution isn't to relax the gambling rule, but to make the drug rules tougher. One drug violation, a year's suspension; two violations, a lifetime ban and the erasure of all statistics. And don't say it can't be done with the players' union; take a strike, if you have to. Baseball executives might be surprised by the percentage of the public that would support them on this.
I hold no brief for the Hall of Fame, or the people running it. Their conduct in excluding Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon from participating in a Hall event because of their political views is, among other things, a violation of their tax-exempt status. Despite that fact, they certainly have the right to define the terms of membership in the Hall. That they have chosen to exclude Rose from membership consideration based on his permanent ineligibility from MLB speaks to nothing other than a real respect for the integrity of the game. There is no reason to think the decision stems from any personal animosity toward Rose.
There certainly is no personal animosity from the media toward Rose. And why should there be? He courted them, gave them great quotes, probably passed along more than his share of scoops. And they responded by making him ... well, Pete Rose. A guy who thought he was so popular that he was bigger than the game. Are they really the best people to be evaluating Rose's fate with the Hall? Doesn't their own participation in elevating his image create a conflict of interest for them in making that evaluation, since it would effectively allow them to validate their own role in Rose's tragedy?
And, once again, it is tragedy with only one villain. And his name is Pete Rose. He's the one who broke the rule. He is paying a price that is proportionate to the offense. He's not in jail. He's free to pursue any work he wants, including baseball-related work, such as his new job with Fox Sports. His records are all allowed to stand, and are even included in Hall exhibits. He just can't be a member of the Hall.
He did this to himself. I'd not happy he did it. I can understand why Mr. Madden is not happy about it. But none of us can undo the dilemma Pete Rose created for himself. And, even as things stand, his life serves to illustrate a principle that should be considered as American as any: no one is above the game.
Not even Charlie Hustle.