Professor Giamatti imparted a very important lesson last week. The fact that he had to expel one of the most popular kids in the institution made his message even clearer: Bet on baseball, and you bet your life.
"This whole episode," said the commissioner, "is about whether you live by the rules or not." Pete Rose knew the rules about gambling and baseball—every player is told them every spring training, and every clubhouse has them posted—and he knew the consequences of breaking those rules. Even if Rose says it ain't so, the inescapable conclusion from a mountain of evidence is that he bet on baseball games. He now must pay the price: permanent expulsion from the game. He has the right to petition for reinstatement after one year, but his lack of contrition argues against his return.
In the six months since the commissioner's office began its investigation into Rose's gambling activities, many fans have asked, "What's so bad about betting on your own team?" Or its companion question, "What's so bad about it if he didn't try to fix games?"
There are practical answers to those questions. Unless Rose bet on every game that the Reds played—and he didn't—he was, in essence, betting against them in games on which he didn't have money at stake. And don't you think a manager who has a lot of dough riding on his team will manage an ordinary, regular-season game as if it were the seventh game of the World Series? That might explain Rose's penchant for needlessly warming up relief pitchers and, in turn, explain why so many of his relievers have come up with sore arms.
But those practical considerations pale beside the more serious issue, which is that the very heart of any serious sport is its integrity. And gambling strikes at that heart. You don't allow gamblers near baseball for the same reason that you don't throw lit matches in a forest: The whole thing could go up in flames. In explaining his 30-day suspension of Rose last year for bumping an umpire and nearly inciting a riot among fans, then National League president Bart Giamatti said he didn't want baseball turning into international soccer. By handing down last week's sentence, the commissioner signaled his determination to keep baseball from turning into anything remotely resembling a high-profile form of professional wrestling.
The commissioner's statement announcing Rose's punishment was as eloquent as it was forceful, and I left the Sutton Parlor of the New York Hilton feeling that baseball was stronger for the Rose affair, not weaker.
One particular sentence of Giamatti's address stands out: "But this [institution of baseball], because it has such a purchase on our national soul, has an obligation to the people for whom it is played—fans and the well-wishers in the millions—to strive for excellence in all things and to promote the highest ideals." As former commissioner Bowie Kuhn, an alumnus of Princeton, said later that day, "The Yale man was splendid."
(In an aside during his press conference, Giamatti also criticized states that rely increasingly on various types of gambling to balance their budgets, and added that any kind of wagering on sports has the potential to jeopardize the integrity of those sports.)
It would be hard to find two more dissimilar men than the protagonist and antagonist in this wrenching drama—Giamatti, the man of letters, and Rose, the man of numbers. Yet they share a deep and abiding passion for the game. "My life is baseball," said Rose, whose wife, Carol, gave birth to a daughter earlier in the week. "I hope to get back into baseball as soon as I possibly can. I'm looking forward to that. As a matter of fact, I've never looked forward to a birthday like I'm looking forward to my new daughter's birthday, 'cause two days after that is when I can apply for reinstatement."
Rose is dreaming, of course. He thinks he did nothing really wrong, he thinks he doesn't have a gambling problem, he thinks he'll be back soon. But if he really hopes to return to the game, he's going to have to change—Giamatti made that clear—and that probably means he's going to have to stop hawking autographed trinkets on cable shopping networks. One would have thought that his lawyers, who were smart enough to see that he was about to get tagged out in the judicial rundown into which they had maneuvered him, would have advised their client to wipe the smile off his face.
But that's Pete, his defenders will say. Well, that Pete will have a hard time getting back into baseball or, more significantly, getting into the Hall of Fame, and the two should go hand in hand. Professor Giamatti gave a wonderful lesson, but the kid for whom it was intended didn't seem to be listening.