Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Distinction With a Difference in the Bonds, Clemens and Rose Hall of Fame Conundrum

With the Hall of Fame class of 2014 complete, their induction this summer will bring the number enshrined in Cooperstown to 306.  That number would be at least 310 had Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens not tarnished their great diamond accomplishments by their close association with steroids, and Pete Rose not violated the foremost Thou Shalt Not in major league baseball by betting on baseball games.  Rose alone among them, however, was barred from even being considered for Hall of Fame honors by Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) members eligible to cast ballots. This Insight suggests there is a meaningful distinction between the use of performance enhancing drugs--a betrayal of sportsmanship that undermines the integrity of both achievement and statistical records--and betting on baseball as Rose did (and as a manager, no less), which is a betrayal of our trust in the integrity of the game itself.

Distinction With a Difference in the Bonds, Clemens and Rose Hall of Fame Conundrum

Kostya Kennedy, whose book, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, is due out in March, published an op ed article in the January 6 edition of The New York Times, "Give Rose a Shot at the Hall of Fame,", advocating that Rose "deserves his day of judgment" in BBWAA Hall of Fame voting.  Just as the balloting has concluded (so far, at least) that the performance enhancing drug (PED) allegations surrounding superstar players Clemens, Bonds and McGwire override their exceptional performances on the field of play, Kennedy argues it should be BBWAA electors--not major league baseball's permanently banished list--that determine whether Rose's betting on baseball games should preclude his residency in Cooperstown.  While sympathetic to this viewpoint, and even though Rose's prospects seem likely to be no greater than those who sold their soul to the PED devil for baseball immortality, I would argue there is a significant distinction that should not be lost between the sins of steroid users against the game and those of Pete Rose.

Much has been said about how the integrity of the game has been compromised by performance enhancing drugs like steroids and human growth hormone, particularly the credibility of sanctified baseball records broken by players presumed to have used such drugs.  The wonderful thing about baseball history, however, is that for those who care about it (and there are legions of us), there is an understanding of context in time and place which precludes the need to expunge their accomplishments as if they never happened or even the need to attach asterisks (although I would not be averse to this option).  The 1990s and the first half-decade of the twenty-first century will forever be known as the “steroids era” in baseball history, and the outsized accomplishments of that era (included sustained great performances by players well past their primes) will be evaluated in that historical context.

Because we can never know definitively who was taking what when, there are undoubtedly some players on whom suspicion will undeservedly be cast.  But the suspicions cast on McGwire, Bonds, Clemens and Alex Rodriguez, for that matter, seem deserved.  Their feats after they allegedly began using PEDs are legitimately open to question, to the point where their reputations are in tatters. But the irony is that Bonds and Clemens did so in search of greater immortality than they had already legitimately earned, forgetting there is no such thing as "greater" immortality. Immortality is immortality, and they were both there--the Hall of Fame waiting for them at the end of their careers.  For McGwire (if his Juiced teammate Jose Canseco's account is to be believed) and A-Rod, on the other hand, their entire careers are under a cloud.

Unfortunately, in the intensely competitive world of professional sports (baseball certainly included), sportsmanship--loosely identified with the trite saying, "it doesn't matter whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game that counts"--is often cast aside by players, managers, and teams writ large seeking an edge, any advantage they can get away with. Whether we’re talking about tricks played by the 1890s Baltimore Orioles of John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, and Wilbert Robinson (like hiding baseballs in the outfield grass or holding up base runners by grabbing their belt buckles), scuffing baseballs and throwing illegal pitches, using corked bats, stealing another team’s signals (especially from outside the confines of the playing field), or any number of other nefarious schemes, the ethic of sportsmanship has always been compromised on the diamond.

Using steroids and taking human growth hormone (or whatever the next designed performance-enhancer will be) does indeed do more than those other things to undermine the credibility and integrity of accomplishments, but does not necessarily undermine the integrity of the game itself.  It is players seeking an unfair and illegal advantage, to be sure, but the games played on the field still unfold according to rules, the strategies employed, and players’ execution.  A betrayal of sportsmanship does not compromise the basic integrity of the games as played.

A betrayal of trust--which is what betting on baseball certainly is--on the other hand, does compromise the integrity of the game, because the manager or players involved can deliberately effect the outcome based on the decisions and actions they take or fail to make.  We trust that the games are not fixed.  That is why Pete Rose’s sin of betting on baseball is irredeemable and why his lifetime ban is absolutely correct, even though there is no reason to believe he ever bet on baseball during his indisputably Hall of Fame-caliber playing career.  It does not matter that he never bet against his own team.  The edict against betting on baseball has been fiercely uncompromising since the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  It has to be, because the integrity of the game depends on it.

While in no way intending to diminish the gravity of what they did, all of the others who were banished for life from organized baseball prior to Rose--including Shoeless Joe Jackson, who has had many advocate on his behalf for Hall of Fame consideration--were players who conspired to fix games on behalf of gamblers.  Not managers.  Pete Rose was the first manager to be banned.  Whether player or manager, the damage to the integrity of the game is irreparable—betting on baseball is a betrayal of our trust in the game—but what Rose did was particularly insidious precisely because he was the manager.

Players' performances certainly determine the outcome of games, but a manager controls the game.  He is the "decider," to borrow a phrase once used by an even more important decision-maker than a baseball manager. Every decision a manager makes, and there are countless decisions in every game, can affect the outcome.  Never mind that Rose said that he never bet against his own team, implicitly reassuring us that he was managing every game to win.  Why should we not believe him?  Rose was such a competitor that it is impossible to fathom that he would ever manage to lose.  But how could we ever be sure that his betting on baseball did not affect his judgment as a manager, once a man—and manager—to whom is entrusted the integrity of the game betrays that trust?  Obviously Rose’s gambling was an addiction (he bet on all sports), and obviously his gambling debts were a grave concern to him; he needed them to go away, to reconcile with his bookies.  That’s a lot at stake, and a lot to have on his mind.  Once Pete Rose decided to go down the path of betting on baseball, and especially betting on his own team, his integrity as a manager was hopelessly compromised and one can never be sure what impact that had on the games he managed.

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