Forty years ago Vince Lombardi, head coach of the NFL champion Green Bay Packers, informed his defensive coordinator, Phil Bengtson, that Commissioner Pete Rozelle was suspending Paul Hornung, the game’s biggest star, for betting on football games (including betting on his own team, the Packers, to win). “A full year’s suspension?” Bengtson gasped, as recorded in his book, Packer Dynasty. He was stunned. “Isn’t that pretty severe?”
No, as it turned out, a year was just enough. It straightened Hornung out and served as a warning to other NFL players who were known to have bet on or were suspected of betting on pro football games. (All-Pro tackle Alex Karras was also suspended, and several other players were suspended or fined.)
If Pete Rozelle had been baseball commissioner at the time the Pete Rose betting scandal broke, how much better off everyone associated with baseball, from the commissioner’s office to the fans, would be. Instead, the Rose versus Major League Baseball horror show has now lasted through three commissioners and dragged on for nearly a decade and a half. Like a Balkans border dispute, it continues to flare up into ugliness just when everything seems to be settled.
On August 12, hundreds of thousands of baseball fans, thanks in large part to the Internet, started buzzing with the news that BaseballProspectus.com had posted an article by Derek Zumsteg and Will Carroll reporting that Pete Rose and MLB “have reached an agreement that would allow him to return to baseball in 2004.”
The report came as a shock but not a surprise, since Rose and Commissioner Bud Selig were known to have engaged in a series of preseason meetings, at least one of which was attended by Rose’s former Philadelphia Phillie teammate and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. There was more to the story, but baseball fans were so high with the news that nothing else seemed to matter; at last, baseball’s longest standing embarrassment was over.
Or so everyone thought, for about 45 minutes. Once again, baseball fans had underestimated MLB’s talent for fouling a fat pitch off its own foot. Many fans had yet to hear the details of the alleged agreement when MLB Chief Operating Officer Bob DuPuy released a statement on MLB.com that read in part, “The story that appeared on the Baseball Prospectus web site today regarding the return of Pete Rose to baseball in 2004 and the alleged written agreement that had been reached by Rose and Commissioner Selig is unsubstantiated and totally unfounded.”
DuPuy added, “When a decision is made, it will be reported through the appropriate channels.”
For many fans, the aftershock came in two stages: first, disappointment that Rose wasn’t back in the game, and, second, anger that MLB hadn’t simply used the occasion to, as one of the first callers discussing the matter on WFAN put it, “say it was true—even if it wasn’t.”
Only, insists Baseball Prospectus‘s Will Carroll, the report was true and is true. “We stand by our story,” he says. “This isn’t something we invented or posted just to tease the baseball world.”
It also isn’t the kind of story that BaseballProspectus.com usually deals in. The site is regarded as a very reliable source for news on trades, injuries, and financial information. “This was just too good a story to pass up,” says Carroll. “It fell right into our laps, and after thoroughly checking it out, we saw no way we could ignore it.”
Carroll adamantly tells the Voice that “we have four very good sources who have confirmed the existence of a written agreement, including two from inside MLB and one from within the Reds’ organization.” Carroll says a “memo had been found with a copy of the agreement signed by someone in the MLB office who has been publicly denying the existence of the agreement.”
His colleague Zumsteg adds, “The actual agreement was read to us over the phone by two different sources. In both cases, the wording was virtually identical.”
According to Baseball Prospectus, the agreement as read to them specified that Rose will be removed from the permanently ineligible list; he’ll be eligible to have a job with a baseball team during the 2004 season; and there will be no public admission of wrongdoing. A fourth term left blank the date the agreement will take place.
Why was no date specified?
“I think,” says Zumsteg, “that the key is in the precise wording of DuPuy’s statement: ‘When a decision is made.’ In other words, when MLB chooses to finalize the agreement by putting a date on it, ‘it will be reported through the appropriate channels.’ They want to make the announcement at a time and place of their choosing.”
“Well, if it was me, I’d wait till after the World Series, at some time when it would have the most impact. I mean, you’re probably not going to announce it the week of the Hall of Fame inductions.”
Carroll says, “They need to have their responses to every question prepared. Note that we were told the agreement says that there be ‘no public admission of wrongdoing.’ It doesn’t say anything about whether or not a private admission was made. But we all know that at any press conference the question is going to be asked: ‘Did Pete finally admit to betting on baseball?’ And because neither side is going to want to discuss it further, they have to be ready with appropriate responses.”
The question remains, whether the agreement was written or not, why MLB continues to torture Rose, the public, and itself by not simply calling a halt to the fiasco. “It’s all a matter of control,” says Chuck Korr, a professor of history at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and author of The End of Baseball As We Knew It. “In virtually any system of law you find outside of a totalitarian regime, it’s enough for the state to simply make its case and, if the accused is found guilty, announce the punishment. In totalitarian societies, that’s not enough: The accused has to admit his guilt. Major League Baseball, as a self-governing body, is pretty much in the position of a totalitarian regime, and as such is demanding that the accused admit his guilt before sentence will be declared.”
Hasn’t MLB already announced its sentence with a lifetime ban on Rose?
“In that case,” replies Korr, “why have both sides continued to meet? What is there further to say? The truth is we all know that the commissioner’s lifetime ban can end anytime the commissioner says so.”
Bill James, who defended Rose last month on ESPN’s Pete Rose on Trial, summed up the feelings of millions of disgusted fans (or at least the 80 percent of the almost 400,000 who voted in the ESPN poll during the show) when he said, “This issue has been sitting in baseball’s ass like an undigested late-night snack for 10 years—it is well past time to pass it out and get off the pot.”
To which Spaceman Bill Lee adds, “The Pete Rose issue is baseball’s Vietnam, except the Vietnam War didn’t last as long. Baseball should do now what we should have done in Vietnam: Declare victory and pull out.”