A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my bed watching TV when this hilariously corny Skechers commercial featuring Pete Rose came on. It’s nice that the guy can laugh at himself, I thought, but seeing him shamelessly promote his lifetime ban from Major League Baseball made me feel for the guy. I always thought he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, especially after he so eloquently called out Robinson Cano last year (I’m a bitter Yankees fan). I had the same reasons as everybody else- he was one of the greatest hitters of all time, he never hurt anybody, he (supposedly) only bet on his team to win, and he only gambled as a manager. In his own words, “I should have picked drugs or I should have picked up beating up my wife or girlfriend because if you do those three, you get a second chance. They haven’t given too many gamblers second chances in the world of baseball.” After reading Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, however, I started to think about what Rose’s actions meant for the game of baseball.
Huizinga remarks that “as soon as the rules are broken the whole play-world collapses. The game is over. The umpire’s whistle breaks the spell and sets “real” life going again.” What Pete Rose did was collapse the play-world, and that’s why he deserves his ban. The other transgressors he was talking about- drug users and wife beaters- didn’t do so. They are morally reprehensible people, but they didn’t hurt baseball, they hurt themselves and other people. When Pete Rose bet on baseball games, he completely stripped them of play.
As I see it, a constitutive quality of baseball is its randomness. When fans go to the stadium, they want to see something natural unfold, something that could have countless different endings. When Rose gambled, he robbed baseball of this “unknown” quality. The game was no longer real. Fans weren’t watching baseball anymore. It may have been a tainted version of the sport, but it certainly wasn’t baseball. In Take Time for Paradise, A. Bartlett Giamatti (the guy who banned Rose) writes that for the participant, sport is “all neatness denied and ambiguity affirmed by the power of the random, by accident or luck, by vagaries of weather, by mental lapses or physical failure, by flaw in field or equipment.” All of these beautiful imperfections were voided by Rose’s gambling. Did that pitcher lose his control, or was he trying to walk the batter? Did that runner slip because the field was wet, or was he trying to make sure his team didn’t score too many runs? Was Pete Rose calling to the bullpen because his pitcher was tired, or did he need his team to give up a few more runs so that he could beat the spread? Obviously, not every moment of every game that Pete Rose bet on was fixed, as no one person can have that much control. But what gambling does do is create doubt, and no matter how small that doubt is, it ruins the game and everything that it stands for. Once a fan has to think twice about whether a certain play happened without any outside influence, he/she loses the transcendent, religious-like connection to the field that Giamatti describes.
I seem to be in the minority in regards to my criticism of Rose, as 81 percent of the 500,000+ people that took this recent ESPN poll believe Rose’s lifetime ban from baseball should be lifted. It’s a logical position to take, and one that I had only a few weeks ago, but it fails to take into account what is really important. Nothing else matters but baseball-not how good he was, not what other players have done, and not the fact that he’s now making (somewhat) funny Skechers commercials. Rose’s actions challenged the values that make the sport what it is, and for that reason, he should continue to be banned from Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame.