Pete Rose still doesn't get it. Then again, neither do I.
The other day, the Hit King told a Pittsburgh radio station: "I picked the wrong vice. I should have picked alcohol. I should have picked drugs or I should have picked up beating my wife or girlfriend because if you do those three, you get a second chance. They haven't given too many gamblers a second chance in the world of baseball."
What Rose did, and what he was banished from baseball for in 1989, was bet on baseball games, a clear violation of Rule 21(d): Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible. He knew the rule as a player for 24 years, the final three as a player-manager, and as a manager for three more, and he knew the consequences. Yet, as the Reds manager, he bet on his team to win in selective games -- which basically means he was betting against the Reds when he wasn't betting on them.
He did the one thing that could call everything in baseball into question. By betting on games he could manipulate, he made a mockery not only of the integrity of the game, but also of the great things he had done in his career: 4,256 hits, 17 All-Star Games at five different positions, three batting titles. He didn't just set records; he set a standard for hell-bent play. He might have been the first unanimous Hall of Famer.
We all loved watching him compete. But we should all hate what he did when he decided he was above Rule 21(d), then refused to come clean for 14 years. As his remarks to The Fan in Pittsburgh indicate, he still doesn't quite own up to the gravity of his crime.
Here is what I don't quite understand. Why do so many people fail to see the danger of what he did, or even what Joe Jackson did? Why does an old friend of mine have license plates reading FREE 14? Why do members of my rotisserie league care more about Pete being in the Hall of Fame than Pete seems to? If he really cared, he wouldn't be going to Cooperstown every induction weekend to give what you might call a HOF moon: signing autographs at the Safe at Home memorabilia shop for four days at $60 a pop.
He's not the victim here. We were.
Now the Biogenesis suspensions have given him a new cover, in the form of another crime that strikes at the heart of fair play. Hardly a day goes by without a Rose citing or interview or story. That's partly the fault of the media, which wants to compare the use of PEDs to the use of a bookie. But Pete plays right along, showing a hint of remorse for what he did, while pointing to others and saying: Look what they did.
Those comparisons only confuse the issue. It's like asking people to pick their poison: cyanide or strychnine? You really don't want players to go near either one of them. And, by the way, Pete was pretty close to both, as this 2005 piece by Shaun Assael for ESPN The Magazine illustrates.
Along with the recent suspensions has come a new wave of sympathy for Rose. Hall of Fame second baseman and Reds teammate Joe Morgan is adamantly opposed to letting the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens into the Hall, but he recently said this: "Pete did a bad thing. & He broke baseball's cardinal rule. And he shouldn't have taken 10 years to come clean. But he never cheated the game. Yet he's out 24 years as opposed to [Ryan] Braun getting 65 games? That just doesn't seem right to me."
Even Fay Vincent, the deputy commissioner when Rose was banished, seemed inclined toward clemency when he told USA Today that he was impressed that Rose recently urged A-Rod to admit his mistakes: "It's the first time I've ever heard him recognize the reality of the situation. If he had done this 25 years ago, or was better advised, it might be different for him."
It might also be different for him if he committed a true act of contrition. Rose has to do a little more than keep afternoon hours at a memorabilia shop in Las Vegas, of all places, signing apologies on balls for customers.
He has a lot to offer besides autographs. He could tell his cautionary tale to schools and organizations. He could pass on his vast database of game knowledge to young players. He could stop wagging his finger at the other baseball sinners, and he could stop crashing the annual party in Cooperstown out of respect for those who worked so hard to get there.
He worked hard, too. But then he threw his legacy away for what? I'm not even sure Pete knows: He quit going to Gamblers Anonymous after just a few meetings because he didn't see himself in the room.
I know the arguments for his admission to the Hall of Fame. There are other scoundrels and villains with plaques. His contributions can't be denied. (And they're not -- there are more than 20 pieces of Rose memorabilia in the museum.) He only bet on his team to win. It's time to forgive him.
But that would be giving the Hit King a pass he doesn't quite deserve. The best way for Pete Rose to change that lifetime ban is to change that life.