Every few years, like a bad penny, Pete Rose pops back up. Baseball’s all-time hits leader, who has now been barred from Major League Baseball for more than 30 years (the ban is two years older than Mike Trout), made headlines last week when he sent a 26-page petition to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred requesting, once again, reinstatement in the game — this time using the Astros sign-stealing scandal as the peg for his appeal. Rose argues that the Astros stealing signs is much worse than his crime — betting on his own team to win — and that “the pattern of discipline for rules violations has reformed significantly, and recent commissioners have set a clear precedent that serious violations of the rules no longer necessitate lifetime bans from the game of baseball.” Rose believes that, since PED users and sign-stealers weren’t banned from baseball, he shouldn’t be either.
Rose’s appeals are not new: He lobbied former commissioner Bud Selig for two decades, he made a pitch to Manfred right after the commissioner took over in 2015, and he even tried to persuade the Hall of Fame directly in 2016, to no avail. Trying to overturn his ban has been the central organizing principle of Rose’s life for the last 31 years, along with signing memorabilia at Vegas casinos, doing studio work for Fox Sports (which has mostly just resulted in memes), and being accused of statutory rape. So it’s not surprising to see him giving it another shot; he is 78, after all.
There is considerable reason to believe that this time, it might finally work. Whatever one’s thoughts about Rose’s offenses — and you should know that I personally believe he shouldn’t be allowed within 50 miles of an MLB stadium — a confluence of societal circumstances have conspired over the last five years to give him the best case he’s ever going to have for reinstatement. But it’s us that has changed, not Rose.
It is worth pointing out that Rose has stopped denying he did what he was banished for. Rose had previously claimed he didn’t bet on his own team’s games as manager of the Reds, violating baseball’s No. 1 rule. But after Manfred said in 2015 that Rose had not been “forthcoming” about his gambling (and was in fact still betting on baseball), Rose realized that his best tactic was to just admit what he had done and ask for a second chance. “Mr. Rose does not dispute the severity of his violations,” the new petition says. “Whether Mr. Rose’s punishment was justifiable and proportional in 1989 is not at issue in this petition.” This is a new argument: Rose, after 30 years of saying he has been railroaded by baseball, now says he deserved it all along. The difference is the Astros (and PED users, long a Rose hobbyhorse) didn’t get Rose’s punishment, which Rose argues they deserved; therefore, he must not deserve that punishment either.
Whether you agree with Rose’s argument that sign-stealing is worse than betting on your own team to win, which I don’t (one involves benefitting from a banned activity so your team can win, the other involves benefitting from a banned activity to line your personal pockets), it’s clear that he’s using the Astros’ scandal to maximize public sympathy. It is not flawed logic. Much of the anger toward the Astros has been less about their cheating — teams have been stealing signs for more than a century — and more about the technology and advanced analytics they used to do so. The Astros are thought to have had a cold, bloodless, McKinsey-esque obsession with efficiency, an approach that has been copied around baseball and is widely believed to have led to an increasingly dull, slow style of baseball throughout the sport. Baseball is played at a higher level than it has ever been, but it rarely looks like it; it just looks like people striking out and hitting homers all the time. I miss triples in the gap and double steals and the hit-and-run like everybody else does. And there is no greater avatar for that style of baseball, the mad aggression, elbow grease, “grit,” getting-your-uniform-dirty game that many baseball fans first fell in love with, than Charlie Hustle himself. Tired of the shift? Nobody ever asked Pete Rose to shift!
In this way, it is far from a coincidence that Rose received a presidential endorsement for his bid.
Trump’s worldview — that everything was better in a previous, whiter, gut-feeling world than the diverse, more analytical one of now — is basically the political version of the argument Rose has been making for decades. The cynicism of Trump is basically the cynicism of Rose: You know I’m bad, but at least I admit it, and besides, don’t you like me more than those other drips? This jibes with baseball’s fanbase, which is increasingly old and overwhelmingly white, exactly the sort of people who grew up watching Rose and would like to strike a blow for the past. Rose’s style of grievance politics, in which he blames other people for his problems, never gives an inch, and avoids the entire concept of public shame or contrition, is straight from the Trump playbook; Rose has been the angry white guy grousing about his plight his entire life. Trump and Rose have been arm-in-arm for years; they were guests on the Howard Stern Show together, and Trump crowed about having Rose’s support (and a signed baseball from him) in 2016 while campaigning in Ohio. (Even if Rose’s people said he never sent Trump the ball.) They are natural allies.
But it also doesn’t hurt that baseball has opened its arms to gambling more enthusiastically than at any time since long before Rose’s banishment. While Rose’s offenses went beyond simply betting — one of the reasons Rose agreed to the ban in the first place was because it would end John Dowd’s investigation, which reportedly was investigating whether or not he had in fact bet on his team to lose — the sport’s embrace of sports gambling, now that it’s legal nationwide, does make the case against Rose a little less self-righteous. If baseball is so offended by the very concept of wagering, why has it signed a massive deal with DraftKings to make the site “the official betting partner of Major League Baseball”? Gambling on games you’re involved in is such an important rule in baseball that it is posted on the wall of every clubhouse in the sport. But these days, you have to look past dozens of DraftKings and local casino banners to even find it. Baseball, like all sports, has lost the moral high ground in search of more profit. Rose can argue, convincingly, that Major League Baseball must not be that angry about gambling, not if there’s money in it.
Rose, after years in the baseball wilderness, has found that, by standing still, baseball, — and American culture — has come toward him. The sport has a fanbase that looks like him, reveres his style of play, and has an institutional preference to the past over the present. The world now rewards people who dig in their heels and make their grievances loudly known. And the sin he committed looks quaint from a certain angle in 2020. It’s Pete Rose’s moment. But it is not progress.