Man of the Decade

If we get the heroes we deserve, then Pete Rose may just be the man for America today. In his career as a baseball player, Rose embodied the democratic idea that hard work could overcome inherited setbacks. There were lots of players with greater natural talents than Rose. He wasn't the strongest, the fastest, or the smartest. But he worked the hardest, and he became the best.

Today Rose has come to embody the fact that, in America today, nothing matters except money - and perhaps fame, which matters because it can be turned into money. By now everyone knows the story of the square-jawed, helmet-haired old Red. In the first days of 2004, it was unavoidable. After nearly three decades in big league baseball, first as a player then as a manager, in 1989 Rose was banished from the sport for betting on games. That meant no baseball-related jobs and, worst of all, no induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In early January, Rose finally admitted that the old allegations were true and launched a campaign for his reinstatement.

In major league baseball, betting on the game is no ordinary offense. It is a violation equivalent to a public corporation issuing false earnings figures to its stockholders. The system simply doesn't work if the integrity of the rules is in doubt. As a former player and general manager of the Texas Rangers, Tom Grieve, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "In every major-league and minor-league clubhouse in America there's a great big poster that says, among other things, that you can't bet on baseball and if you do you face a lifetime ban. The general manager reads it to the team on Opening Day every year. It's not a secret. [Rose] knew that, and he broke that rule."

Back in 1989, Rose denied that he had ever bet on the game, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He accepted the banishment and went into exile. For more than a dozen years since, he has led a sleazy tent-show existence. He wrote a book defending his innocence and casting himself as a victim. He made a living by selling off slivers of his fame at autograph booths and other personal appearances. And he seems to have continued the downward spiral of a compulsive gambler, amassing debts that led to a five-month jail term for non-payment of taxes. Apparently, Rose didn't hit bottom in jail. He currently has a brand-new $150,000 debt to the IRS and is in danger of going back to the slammer.

FINALLY, AT THE start of this year, with his last chance to appear on the regular Hall of Fame ballot looming, Rose got religion and confessed, in a book, for money. "Yes, I did it. Now let me back in" was the gist of his public comments. There was no sign that Rose had done any soul-searching. "I'm not built to act all sorry," he writes in the new book. And there was no hint of a desire to make amends for his past misdeeds, which would be required if Rose were dealing with his gambling addiction in a 12-step group.

One sportswriter aptly compared Rose to a child who, having eaten his peas, feels entitled to dessert. And most Americans seem inclined to give it to him. An ABC News poll showed 56 percent of the general public, and 72 percent of self-identified baseball fans, supporting Rose's full reinstatement.

And why shouldn't they let Rose off the hook? The vice president allegedly shovels multi-billion dollar no-bid contracts to his former company, and we're not supposed to question that. Kenneth Lay and Bernard Ebbers (heads of Enron and WorldCom) are still roaming free and living off their ill-gotten gains. Why should the moral standard be higher for a mere athlete?

Why don't we just put up the "for sale" sign on this country and be done with it? Life in the 21st century would be so much easier if we didn't have to pretend that fair play and sportsmanship (and democracy) still count.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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