Pete Rose finished his Major League career with 4,256 hits. In terms of untouchable numbers in sports, it is one of the most coveted. It doesn’t get as much attention as the home run records or the consecutive games record, but then again those records have fallen in recent memory.
Speaking of which, consider the following.
- We’ve seen Barry Bonds break Hank Aaron’s career home run record and (shudder) Mark McGwire’s single-season home run record, for better or worse
- We’ve seen Cal Ripken Jr. break Lou Gehrig’s streak of consecutive games played
- Six of the top ten passing yards leaders in the NFL have been active in the last five years, and three or four other guys could be in that conversation in the next year or two
- All-time leaders in rushing yards in the NFL have seen a paradigm shift since 2000
- 19 of the top 20 leaders in receiving yards in the NFL have been active since 2000 (here’s looking at you, Art Monk)
I’ll stop short of continuing into examples in the NBA and NHL, as the other half of America’s "Big 4" sports, partially because I’m less familiar with them but also because you get the idea: records fall. Those single-season home run record numbers were fragile for a number of years. The Iron Horse's record was never supposed to be broken. Records are, apparently, made to be broken.
But nobody will ever catch Pete Rose for the most hits in a Major League career. It just will not happen. For hitters, finding the combination of talent and luck that made such a run possible for Rose is as improbable as you can get without being impossible. Being a great hitter, staying healthy, the longevity, always hitting at the top of the lineup, having a manager willing to start you every day for years on end, having a lineup good enough to generate base runners and turn the lineup over again and again, constantly playing at an energy level that five Nick Puntos couldn’t generate – the kind of energy that makes people think you’re insane. Rose had all that working in his favor. And in today's game, I'm not sure how it could happen again.
While other records are being broken because the game has evolved or because the players are just better athletes, those 4,256 hits go beyond talent. Baseball players are faster, stronger, trained better, have their food and workout and sleep and life balances down to a science, but that has nothing to do with whether or not the record will stand, because a record like this isn't about something as fleeting as physical talent.
Today, Alex Rodriguez is the active leader in career hits with 3,070. Regardless of what we might feel about him personally, he’s a great baseball player. It took him 21 seasons to reach 3,070 hits.
Through 21 seasons, Pete Rose had 3,990 hits. Just to drive that point home, after 21 seasons A-Rod is 39 while Rose was 42. And he still collected another 262 hits over three (admittedly lackluster) seasons.
In baseball, if a player gets 200 hits in a season he’s lauded for his talent, for staying healthy and playing everyday. For a player to get within reach of Rose, he’d have to average 200 hits a season…for 21 years.
Ichiro managed it for a while. Remember how long that period was in baseball, where he was this other-wordly talent for collecting hits? He averaged 224 hits a season for a decade, and he was still 2,000 hits short of Pete Rose.
By those standards, Pete Rose’s Hall of Fame case seems as solid as you can get. It’s open and shut. It’s obvious. When it comes to hits, he's unmatched and untouchable. When you talk about the best hitters in the history of baseball, there’s not just an argument for Pete Rose to be in the conversation. There’s an argument for Pete Rose being the conversation.
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Momentum for reinstating Pete Rose as eligible for the Hall of Fame had gained support throughout the 2000s. Time heals all wounds, or so they say. These wounds ran particularly deep.
Pete Rose struck out against Goose Gossage on August 17, 1986, and never played again. A player-manager since '84, he was just the manager from that day forward. In February of 1989, he was questioned by outgoing Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth regarding reports that he had bet on baseball. Rose denied it, Ueberroth dropped it, but that was hardly the end of it. New baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti commissioned an investigation, which led to an in-depth report on Rose's betting activities throughout the mid 80s.
Rose denied the accusations when the report was published in May of that year, and thus began his long slide from the graces of baseball. Legal posturing on both sides came out in the Commissioner's favor, and on August 24 Rose was replaced as manager of the Reds. He accepted a place on baseball's ineligible list and that there was "factual reason" for being banned.
For years Rose denied he did anything wrong. Then he denied he bet on his team. As recently as last summer he was still denying, to Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, that he bet on the Reds as a player. Rose didn't just refuse to admit that what he'd done was wrong, he lied about doing it.
While Rose denied ever betting against the Reds, only for them to win, the investigator and author of the 1989 report (The Dowd Report, by lawyer John M. Dowd) thinks otherwise. Whatever the case, Rose bet on baseball while he was involved in baseball, and he placed bets on his own team as a manager and as a player. He admitted betting on baseball and other sports in his 2004 book, My Prison Without Bars. If it wasn't clear before the admission, it was clear after, and there is no misunderstanding about what that means.
Rule 21 Misconduct, (d) Betting on Ball Games, Any player, umpire, or club, or league official, or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.
So how did momentum for his reinstatement ever gain traction?
Because America idolizes its athletes, especially ones who are the best at what they do. Because time heals old wounds, even when they're caused by a man who once epitomized the heart and soul of the game itself. Because we like happy endings. Because Rose applied for reinstatement from Fay Vincent in 1992 and from Bud Selig in 1998, and we like redemption stories. Because for a moment in 2003, it sounded like Selig was considering reinstatement. Because people like to forgive, and Rose gave them a reason to after (partially) admitting his sins in his book. Because people feel like there is a sliding scale of sins, and that gambling isn't as bad as using performance enhancing drugs - regardless of what the rules of baseball actually say about such a thing. Because in March of this year, Rose applied for reinstatement from a third Commissioner, and the baseball gods know that we all love a tryer. And nobody tried harder on the baseball field than Pete Rose. Have I mentioned that we also love nostalgia?
In March, there wasn't any hard evidence that Rose had bet on the Reds as a baseball player. Granted, there shouldn't be a distinction that matters between betting on your own team as a player or as a manager. But just when it seemed like the world, and perhaps even Rob Manfred, was ready to look the other way and open the doors for Rose, evidence appeared in late June which drew out - in painstaking detail - how Rose had placed bets as a player.
It was the death knell for Rose's chances at having his permanent (not lifetime, but permanent) banishment from baseball lifted. After years of momentum building for forgiveness, the reveal that he'd still been lying about betting on baseball after all these years was a bridge too far. Maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise. He had a serious problem with gambling and never sought help. Pete Rose destroyed his relationship with baseball, the thing he loved more than anything else on earth, because he couldn't stop gambling.
When Rose met with Manfred over the summer, he admitted he still bets on baseball. He's free to do so at this point, of course, but it doesn't seem like the most prudent move for a man apparently so desperate to be welcomed back to the game. For as long as he needed to tell the baseball world the truth and would not, it's ironic that telling the truth on this occasion would work against however Manfred may have chosen to weigh Rose's character. The fact that he told the truth isn't the crux of the issue, though: it's that even after all this time, Pete Rose is still addicted to gambling.
Earlier this week it was finally time for the decision from Rob Manfred. We all knew what the Baseball Commissioner was going to say before he said it. Perhaps that's why the announcement was so formal, so businesslike, so matter-of-fact. The Commissioner's decision was fait accompli.
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If you're wondering about the distinction between a permanent ban from baseball, and being ineligible for the Hall of Fame, that, too, goes back to Rose. In 1991, the year that Rose would be eligible to be voted into baseball's Hall of Fame, the Hall voted to make ineligible any player who was on the permanently ineligible list.
That left two routes for Rose to get through the doors of the Hall. He either had to be reinstated by having his name removed from the permanently ineligible list, thereby making him eligible for the Hall of Fame, or the Hall had to eliminate the rule from 1991, meaning he would be eligible for enshrinement even though he was still banned from baseball itself.
Rose's ban from baseball won't be lifted. It doesn't seem likely that the Hall of Fame will reverse its own rule and allow banned players. The Veteran's Committee added a similar rule in 2007, and that won't be changing either.
It's not like Pete Rose's name will be forgotten when it comes to the annals of baseball history. It'll be tarnished, but he'll always be the Hit King. He has jerseys, bats, and spikes in the Hall of Fame, commemorating different milestones and uniforms. But no, it seems that his likeness will never have a bust.
I do think it's sad. Not for any sentimental reason, although those things will naturally pull at you, but because Rose is so clearly qualified - by his records, by those 4,256 career hits - to be among the Hall of Fame's most elite members. It's one of the few untouchable records. Who on earth will ever average 200 hits per season for 21 years?
Nobody. No one will ever do it, and that's why it's sad that Rose will never be in the Hall of Fame. But it's exactly how it should be.