Twenty years ago, Jim Bouton kept the diary that became the baseball book Ball Four. The anniversary has gone unremarked--perhaps because magazines and television news shows are waiting for the anniversary of the book's publication, next year, perhaps because with all the ballyhoo surrounding Woodstock and the moon walk and the Cubs' choke and the Miracle Mets there hasn't been enough time, enough resources. Of course, more likely than either of these two answers is that no one thought the occasion important enough, which is indicative of the state we are in. The Pete Rose scandal has once again left people who should know better pondering big questions like "Why do we create heroes?" and "Why do they always let us down?" Ball Four, when it came out in 1970 complete with high-profile excerpts running in sports sections around the country, was supposed to have changed all that. The idea that Mickey Mantle might have actually hit a homer in the mists of a hangover, or that he might have led late-night peep sessions on the rooftops of hotels known by the euphemism "shooting beaver," or that players with the expansion Seattle Pilots might have actually kissed each other in some sort of homophobic joke--i.e., that baseball players, like the rest of us, were human--was revolutionary at the time, and there were those of us who thought the game was better for the drastic change. (Bouton, I would argue, is one of the most important baseball figures of the postwar era. A thread runs through his life--from his career as a baseball player and author to his later business enterprises developing Big-League Chew and baseball cards for the average person--in which he attempts to make the game, its players, and its trappings more accessible to the fans.) Yet an argument that at this point in the grand scheme Bouton is a more important figure than Pete Rose would be painfully optimistic. Because the revolution didn't stick and never will. Because the forces of counterrevolution are too strong in this game. Baseball always revitalizes itself--that's one of the remarkable things about it--but unfortunately part of the process of revitalization is the resurgence of hero worship. Looking back at the various baseball traumas involving the Black Sox, Babe Ruth, the finding--with the arrival of Jackie Robinson--that many baseball people had been racist and that many more still were, and on to Ball Four, it seems that every generation has its period when it is disappointed by some star, or when it sees behind the curtain and then imagines itself more sophisticated, cured like a piece of meat. Yet each new generation falls prey to the same old trap--the lure of the hero.
Still, we thought we had to be more sophisticated than we're showing ourselves to be in this Rose fiasco. Most ridiculous of all was the normally reliable ABC commentator Jeff Greenfield, who opened a Nightline segment with the famous Bertolt Brecht quotation "Unhappy is a land that needs heroes," then went blithely on, saying, "But America is a land that needs its heroes..." Then there were George Will and Hodding Carter arguing last Sunday on the relative benefits and pitfalls of the "Towerization" and "Nixonization" of the United States--as it pertained to Rose. There were the columnists who relished the idea of Commissioner Bart Giamatti relishing his final victory over Rose, there were those who mourned a fallen hero, and there were all too few saying that all the Cincinnati Reds had lost was a manager who couldn't handle a pitching staff if his job depended on it. For Rose, in the end, it was no saving grace that his job didn't depend upon this elusive, subtle talent.
In defense of Giamatti, had his announcement last Thursday been any less forcible it would have left baseball floating in the same uncertainty that it had been for six months. He was up against a blustery, hard-nosed opponent who really did believe he was bigger than baseball. We awoke last Thursday morning after Giamatti's press conference, and the first thing we did was turn on the television in time for the statements by Rose's lawyer and Rose himself--without introduction. They were so assured in their belief that it would be one year out and then back to normal that we thought Giamatti must have caved in. When we caught up with Giamatti's statement, however, it left no doubt as to the seriousness of the situation or the consequences for Rose.
The touch of sadness is that Rose himself appears to have even now only a dim recognition of what is happening. He told reporters outright that he had not bet on baseball, yet when questioned about why he would accept a lifetime suspension if he were innocent he was speechless. (The Tribune was laughable in its coverage. An avowedly misty-eyed Bernie Lincicome [!?] compared Rose to "a deer frozen in a camper's headlights," while Jon Margolis pictured Rose as a schoolboy in disgrace.) Rose's one sign of alertness was a one-liner delivered in response to a question on whether he knew alleged Chicago bookmaker Dominick Basso. Rose said no, then added that his name sounded like someone who ought to be from Chicago. If Rose does indeed know Basso--and all the records indicate that he does--then it was a line delivered by a liar of such amazing talents that nothing he says can be trusted.
As for the ban on Rose, it is fair, reasonable, and completely called for. Much has been made of how society has changed in the years since the Black Sox scandal, how gambling is now recognized as an illness (when it's not merely a pleasant diversion), how it's wrong to punish a gambler more severely than a cocaine addict. This is where the hero-worshipers suddenly change tack and say, "Ball players are human too." It's true, ball players are prone to the same illnesses as everyone else, but gambling is the one illness forbidden them. It's unfairly harsh to say this particular "illness" is "not allowed," but that is one of the many unreasonable conditions professional athletes accept in being athletes.
The ability of baseball fans to forget--the game's ability to revitalize itself--should be fought here. Anyone with any imagination should have no trouble picturing the painful events of September 1920, when the Black Sox scandal was laid bare. For those having difficulty, however--and to illustrate the evils of gambling over all others in baseball--let's imagine two scenarios. Let's say it is discovered that Dennis Eckersley--already an admitted alcohol abuser--had fallen into cocaine use late last year. He was having a great year, celebration was called for, and what was a diversion in September became an addiction in October. In fact, he was in such sad shape that the full-count pitch he threw to Kirk Gibson was a mere shadow of his mid-season stuff. Dennis Eckersley, then, has lost the battle with himself--the battle of self-discipline, the fight to keep himself sharp--and he has paid for it, letting down his teammates and the fans. The consequences are dear, but fair; there's justice in that. Now imagine that Eckersley is--as so many people speculate in a worst-case scenario--a coke addict who's fallen heavily into debt. His dealer knows gamblers, and Eckersley's debt is erased if he loses a game or two in the series. What would be the effect on baseball if Dennis Eckersley now admitted he grooved that pitch to Kirk Gibson? For whatever reason: to buy coke or heroin or a scotch distillery, for the sheer thrill of having endless supplies of money or--as in the case of the Black Sox--in an attempt to buy his family some security. What would be the effect?
Ball players fight the same battles we all do, but the one vice they are not permitted is gambling on baseball. The rules here are strict, and they are designed to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. If a ball player associates with people who bet on baseball, he is warned, and if he persists he is suspended. If he bets illegally he is suspended; if he bets on baseball the suspension is more harsh. If he bets on his own team he is banned for life. These rules are posted in every clubhouse in the major leagues. Pete Rose knew them and he apparently violated them with small--if any--thought to the consequences. Anything less than a lifetime ban would have compromised the basic separation between baseball and gambling.
The commissioner's ruling stands. His judgment is final. Legal rules of due process do not apply. (Remember, the Black Sox were acquitted.) If the commissioner cannot be trusted to make the correct decision for baseball, he or she should not be commissioner. And as for the possibility, in this case, of parole in one year, it is probably Giamatti's way of saying, "If all the other legal investigations you face turn up nothing, then perhaps I'll reassess the reasons for my own beliefs." But don't bet on it.
Rose himself remains a difficult figure to judge. In his Tribune column Mike Royko pooh-poohed the description of Rose's story as an "American tragedy." He says "tragedy" is best applied to such things as children being run over by cars. In this he's wrong. A child's accidental death is senseless and for that reason it couldn't be less tragic; in a tragedy, the events--both fateful and deserved--overflow with meaning. Pete Rose's story is tragic in that he brought his disgrace on himself. He was a player of dubious abilities who broke a record he never should have approached through a singleminded determination and an unbridled ego. He put himself in a situation where thanks to fate (in this case, the arrest of his friend Thomas Gioiosa on cocaine and gambling charges) the very qualities that made Rose great--his determination and his ego--would also bring about his downfall. As the blind seer Teiresias says in Oedipus Rex: "You have your eyes but see not where you are in sin, nor where you live, nor whom you live with. . . . Misery shall grind no man as it will you."
If there is any ill worse than ill, that is the lot of Pete Rose. A land that creates heroes invites tragedy, and if there's small solace in that perhaps we can dream of a land where Jim Bouton is revered above Pete Rose.