The public passion for Pete Rose leaves me dumbfounded. Not only did Rose commit the unpardonable sin of betting on baseball--at least in the judgment of then commissioner Bart Giamatti in 1989--he was not a very great player. It's ludicrous to count him among the game's immortals, even as the all-time hits leader. So Rose amassed 4,256 hits in his 24-year career, topping Ty Cobb's 4,191 (4,189 by the count of the revision-minded Total Baseball); he did so by playing more games, batting more times, and making more outs than anyone else in baseball history. If he prided himself on any one statistic it was batting average, yet he barely finished his career over .300--his .303 ranks him well out of the top 100 on that all-time list. It's as if someone suggested that Agatha Christie was a better mystery writer than Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett simply because she wrote dozens of books to their handfuls.
Rose won the most valuable player award in 1973, the year he won the last of his three batting titles, but he never hit 20 homers, never drove in 100 runs, and walked 100 times in a season only once. Only once did he lead the league in on-base percentage--in the pitching-dominated year of 1968, when he walked only 56 times--and only once did he steal 20 bases. These are curious numbers for a player who spent much of his career as a leadoff man. Twice he won a Gold Glove as an outfielder, but that award is notorious for going to hitters who field their positions moderately well, and Rose was never considered a great fielder at any of the four positions he played: second base, third base, outfield, and first base. In his 1986 Historical Baseball Abstract, stats expert Bill James considered Rose the best multiposition player in history and ranked him the 22nd-best player of the century overall; but for "peak value" he was 97th, and James kissed him off with the label "least gifted great player ever." His great strengths were consistency and determination, but even by those measures his worth was dubious. Total Baseball didn't put Rose among the top 25 players from 1961 to 1992 (the Pittsburgh Pirates' great-fielding second baseman Bill Mazeroski was 22nd, I might add, and the Cubs' Ron Santo 15th), and his 20.0 career rating makes him, in Total Baseball's eyes, the 269th best player in baseball history. It's worth noting that from 1980 through his final year of 1986, when Rose was chasing Cobb and then having one last self-congratulatory glory tour around the league, he was considered a below-average first baseman five of those seven seasons. For the last two-plus of those years he was also the Cincinnati Reds' manager, and wrote his name into the lineup with the knowledge that most days he was giving up an advantage at that position to the opponent.
The source of Rose's great popularity, I believe, is that he played baseball as if it were football, spiking the ball at the end of innings, crippling the career of catcher Ray Fosse in 1970 by crashing into him in the glorified exhibition that was the All-Star game, and--Cubs fans will never forget--spiking Ernie Banks at first base back in the 60s. If Rose's popularity makes any sense at all, it's because during his career football replaced baseball as the country's most popular sport, and betting on football became the national pastime.
All that, however, is precious little to justify Rose's spot on the all-century team voted on by "the fans" and presented before the second game of the World Series a couple weeks ago. It was a ridiculous exercise to begin with, of course, as the team was to be made up of nine outfielders and but six pitchers--a roster construction more like a Little League than a major-league team. Hitters tend to be more popular than pitchers, however, and this was a popularity contest from the beginning, so the disgraced Rose made the team ahead of far more deserving players such as Stan Musial and Honus Wagner--both hastily penciled in at the end by an oversight committee--not to mention outfielders Frank Robinson and Rickey Henderson, both of whom are so far superior to Rose it's not worth considering.
Baseball got what it deserved when Rose made the team and received a roaring ovation at the presentation, just as Rose got what he deserved when NBC on-field reporter Jim Gray turned the occasion into an opportunity to grill Rose on the betting-on-baseball charges that ended his career in the game ten years ago. Gray got what he deserved, too, as public sentiment immediately turned against him.
Yet I think the firestorm should be examined a little more closely for its impact and meaning. Fans and players found different sorts of fault with Gray; it wasn't just a matter of everyone coming to Rose's defense. I believe fans attacked Gray's behavior because Gray, like so many moralists in the sports media these days, had put himself in the position of being Rose's confessor, of telling him what he had to do to atone for his sins. I'm sick of this whole thing in which sportswriters and sportscasters demand that so-and-so apologize for such-and-such. I couldn't care less if Rose apologized for the disgrace he's brought on himself and the game; I don't think it matters ultimately if Rose apologizes or not.
Rose likes to point out that if he were a drug addict or an alcoholic or a wife beater or even a murderer, his behavior wouldn't have affected his entry into the Hall of Fame, something he's been denied since he was banned in 1989. Rose points out that even Charlie Manson gets parole hearings. But betting on baseball is the sport's one unpardonable sin--because unlike substance or spousal abuse, it directly impacts on the integrity of the game. It's been 80 years since the Black Sox scandal, and the culture has grown more tolerant of human flaws. Yet the famous line "Say it ain't so, Joe," addressed to "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (who finished 12th in the all-century team balloting, reflecting a bad-boy bias in the voting), remains not sentimental piffle but a clear indictment. To throw a game, especially a World Series game, is to throw the entire sport into question. To bet on one's team to win, as Rose allegedly did, is different only by degree--especially when a manager does it. (The money a manager has riding on a game could corrupt his decisions during the game. For example, he might call on an ailing pitcher and risk his health when anyone else would give him additional rest.) Gray was wrong to ask for an apology, because no apology is acceptable. If Jackson were alive and apologized today, he wouldn't undo the damage of the 1919 World Series.
The Sun-Times's Greg Couch did an excellent piece after the Gray-Rose brouhaha analyzing the factual basis for Rose's ban. Bill James has been a persistent critic of investigator John Dowd's work on the case (James depicts Dowd as an earlier Ken Starr, out to embellish his personal reputation by bringing down the mighty) and says the evidence wouldn't stand up in court. Legal analysts, however, rightly point out that this is a private matter of Major League Baseball, which can have its own rules of evidence. Me, I think Dowd was an overzealous prosecutor, but I also trust Giamatti--who shortly after imposing the ban died of a heart attack no doubt exacerbated by the strain of the case--to have made the right decision. Giamatti was perhaps the commissioner who held "the best interests of the game" most at heart, and if he believed Rose bet on baseball that's good enough for me.
It would be wrong to see the players' response to Gray as a show of support for Rose. I think the players simply objected to the way Gray upstaged the game--many were probably upset with Rose from the beginning for the same reason--and believed Gray made a bad situation worse. They probably also objected to the way Gray made it his duty to get Rose to apologize. Unfortunately, when Chad Curtis hit an extra-innings homer to win the third game of the series, then refused to grant Gray an on-field interview, the firestorm upstaged the game again.
That was the truly unfortunate thing about the Rose-Gray situation, that it upstaged the World Series--not that this wasn't a series worth upstaging. The Atlanta Braves were greatly overrated and came into the series with a number of holes in their team that the New York Yankees exploited. For all the high praise Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz has earned over the years, he failed to recognize two key trends of the 90s: the increasing importance of the bull pen and of the leadoff man, especially in postseason play. A team with a starting staff like the Braves' can win 100 games year in, year out, but in the playoffs a team with a good bull pen not only has more arms ready to meet any contingency but also has better-rested starters. Look at the way the high-kicking, deep-breathing, sidearm-slinging Orlando Hernandez has performed in the playoffs the last two years. He's won five of six starts, and he shut down the Braves in the series opener aside from a home run by Chipper Jones, an advantage the Yankees eventually overcame when they scored four in the eighth inning off a weary Greg Maddux and an all-too-human John Rocker. Likewise, Schuerholz went into the season knowing he didn't have a decent leadoff man and did nothing to address the deficiency, leaving woeful Gerald Williams at the top of the order in the series. No matter how good a player Jones is, the Braves didn't gain full advantage of him because they didn't put enough players on base in front of him. By contrast, Chuck Knoblauch and the great Derek Jeter (an early contender for the next all-century team) always seemed to be on base for the heart of the New York order. In a short series, a team with a high on-base percentage usually overcomes a less consistent team with more power.
The great crime committed by both Jim Gray and the Braves was to diminish the Yankees' second straight series sweep. Back-to-back series sweeps had been attained only twice before, both by Yankees teams considered among the best in baseball history: the 1927-28 "Murderers Row" of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and the 1938-39 teams of Joe DiMaggio. Last year's San Diego Padres could easily be dismissed as a team that didn't belong in the series, but not so this year's Braves. For all their shortcomings, it was still amazing that the Yanks could beat each of their top starters: Maddux, Kevin Millwood, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. So allow me to put Rose and Gray aside for the moment and say that the Yankees, who won a record 125 games last season, counting the postseason, and 11 of 12 playoff games this season, are the best baseball team I have ever seen, the most complete in speed and power, pitching and defense. And they're one of the most enjoyable to watch, with Jeter and Hernandez and bull pen closer Mariano Rivera, who reminded me peculiarly of Smilin' Zack, the rail-thin, death-masked figure from Li'l Abner who put people out of their misery because he liked 'em quiet (what a perfect metaphor for a closer). The graceful, gliding Bernie Williams; Paul O'Neill with his tap-shoe stride; savvy veteran pitchers David Cone and Roger Clemens: these Yankees were my all-century team, one that I didn't have to worry would be corrupted by Pete Rose.