On Feb. 5, former Reds player, manager, and all-time hits leader Pete Rose submitted a petition to Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred asking him to review and overturn his indefinite ban from the game, as well as from the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is not especially newsworthy; he recently appealed his ban in 2015, and was rejected.
However, Rose’s petition has specifically cited the League’s unwillingness to ban management and punish players in the recent Astros sign-stealing scandal, claiming inconsistencies between these punishments and his own. The 20-page petition sent to the Commissioner’s office elaborates on these inconsistencies:
“Subsequent violations of Major League Baseball—namely steroid use and electronic sign-stealing… have intentionally and dramatically affected the results of plays and games, including the outcomes of two consecutive World Series,” the petition said.
The petition continues to compare Rose’s punishment to those of the Astros.
“The Field Manager and General Manager… received one-year suspensions without pay, nowhere near the magnitude of the penalty received by Mr. Rose,” the petition said.
With these claims in mind, let’s take a look at the recent precedent of punishments delivered under Manfred.
Currently, three individuals have active bans issued by Rob Manfred: former scouting director of the St. Louis Cardinals Chris Correa, Atlanta Braves General Manager John Coppolella, and Houston Astros Assistant GM Brandon Taubman. I would characterize MLB’s approach to these significant punishments as middle management scapegoating. In the wake of these recent scandals—along with the Astros sign-stealing—the league has decided to deliver its harshest punishments to officials within the middle strata of baseball’s organizations. In doing so, Manfred has protected the owners, his most significant colleagues, and the players, the individuals most vital to the in-game product, fandom, and baseball’s revenue engine. Rose is correct in claiming inconsistency.
I started playing baseball when I was about five years old, in a Cal Ripken league in New Hampshire. My nickname was Hollywood because I liked to wear sunglasses and eyeblack when I played. I wasn’t very good. This is not a unique anecdote; the game of baseball is played around the world by kids of all ages, making the phrase “banned from baseball” even more. Rose can very likely walk down to his local field, wearing a three-quarter sleeve adult softball league shirt, crush a few beers, and play ball. But saying that Rose is indefinitely suspended from Major League Baseball lacks the same gravity as the expression, “banned from baseball.”
I think the MLB takes pride in this inflationary language, as well as the punishments encased within. In evaluating bans related to the in-game product of the sport—a calculus that essentially excludes drug-related offenses—the MLB has banned significantly more people than its peer leagues. Indeed, the discussion of the ban’s fairness tears at the fabric of baseball itself, at a crossroads of fairness and preservation of history.
In Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary miniseries “Baseball,” narrator John Chancellor proselytized, saying:
“It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed; the only game in which the defense has the ball,” Chancellor said. “At its heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game born in crowded cities, an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating, and has excluded as many as it has included. A profoundly conservative game that often manages to be years ahead of its time… It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before.”
Baseball is a sport that likes to think of itself as a reflection of American values; still self-proclaimed as America’s Pastime, despite its decline in television ratings and the public consciousness compared to its peer leagues (see: Mike Trout’s popularity peer, NBA bench rider Kenneth Faried). Chief among these values is a sense of exceptionalism and purity, evidenced by the sport’s stubbornness to change its rules and format, and, as discussed previously, its proclivity to drop the ban hammer.
In delivering the Astros punishment, Commissioner Rob Manfred has failed to measure today’s game with these ghosts of the past: Rose, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and all others who were banned as a result of in-game conduct. Rose is correct that the Commissioner has been inconsistent in baseball’s willingness to punish players; the question then becomes one regarding a course of action. Do we accept the inconsistency, petition for stricter punishment, or right the wrongs of overly harsh punishment?
In order to conduct an effective discussion, one must assume guilt of the player involved, and then ask whether it is worth preserving the events of the game as it happened, or the sanctity of those events. Baseball is at an impasse. It prides itself on its history and it’s purity, and the recognition of one damages the stature of the other. I don’t expect the issue to disappear anytime soon. Currently, Astros officials are being lambasted by members of the media following another less-than-apologetic press conference, and Baseball’s most famous steroid-users are approaching their final years on the Hall of Fame ballot.
The Commissioner’s office, in deciding to review Rose’s petition, has set up a watershed moment for the preservation of the league’s purity and its history.
Andrew Simard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.