THE BLOG
09/07/2010 01:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Pete Rose's Crown of Thorns

"Let the punishment fit the crime" is more than a legal maxim. It explains why in Western culture we do not chop off a man's hands when he steals a loaf of bread and why we do not stone a woman to death for committing adultery.

The notion that the punishment should fit the crime requires a form of psychological maturity that has evolved comparatively late in the human mind. It is more firmly rooted in some cultures than in others, but it is tenuous in all.

Letting the punishment fit the crime requires our mind to exercise dispassionate judgment when, at the same time, it is juggling a counterforce of resentment and rage we feel toward wrongdoers.
It also demands that we not use our license to punish someone as an excuse to indulge our own self-righteousness.

These are not easy tasks for the human mind.

September 11 will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the night baseball's Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb's longstanding career record for hits. In a rare reprieve from baseball's longstanding shunning of Rose, baseball commissioner Bud Selig has given the Cincinnati Reds permission to honor Pete Rose in person that night. His predecessor Fay Vincent has protested the decision.

Rose is guilty of betting on baseball and received a lifetime ban from baseball, the most severe punishment the game can mete out. As a culture that prides itself on administering justice from a more civilized perspective than we see in other parts of the world, America has much at stake in the way we treat Pete Rose. This is not because Pete Rose is innocent, but because he is guilty. In this respect, we are on trial, not Pete Rose.

Does Rose's punishment fit the crime?

Pete Rose received the same punishment as eight members of the Chicago White Sox who took money from gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. Baseball has given Pete Rose a lifetime ban from the game. It is by far the most severe punishment handed out by baseball in my lifetime.

Viewed in the context of the other baseball "crimes" of our times, baseball has a hideously warped sense of justice. By punishing Rose in such a harsh and public way, baseball can avoid appearing morally lax and unwilling to confront the serious problem steroids have created for baseball.

Rose broke an important rule, and he deserves punishment. The excess nature of Pete Rose's punishment, however, makes Pete Rose more of a scapegoat for baseball's own moral drift.

To understand the full extent of this injustice we must appreciate who Pete Rose was and what he did. Pete Rose was a blue-collar kid who grew up in a blue-collar town that loves baseball and gave birth to the first professional baseball team. He did not have great talent. By today's standards, he had average speed, an average arm, and below average power.

Only his ability to get on base was above average. Even that felt more attributable to personal grit than athletic talent as Rose sprinted to first base after every walk in a mix of celebration and defiant determination.

That defiance at times took on absurd proportions, for example, when Rose slid into second base only to come up fighting with the Mets Bud Harrelson in the 1973 national league playoff series or when he crashed into Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse in a relatively meaningless all-star game in 1971. Commissioner Bart Giamatti seriously misinterpreted that defiance as a lack of respect for the game.

Rose's most famous image was his patented race from first base to third on a routine single that always seemed to culminate in a flying, headfirst slide into third base. As he explosively launched his body into the air toward third his hat came off and his shaggy mane flopped freely in the air.

His animalistic determination made him the consummate "throwback" to other famous baseball eras like the St. Louis Cardinal's "Gashouse Gang" of the 1930's. Rose connected Ty Cobb, Pepper Martin, and the present. More than anyone of our lifetime, he was the thread that stitched together and held, via his style and attitude, the timelessness that we all feel so deeply when we seek refuge in baseball.

However, Rose's true greatness was that he really did not have the talent to do what he did. For those of us growing up in Southwest Ohio at the time, his success meant that our own limitations were of little importance. We could go as far in life as our will power would take us.

There have been few, if any, other athletes who were so uplifting. Unlike Michael Jordan, Rose's importance, ironically, was that he seemed almost as limited as we were. There are few who have made so much out of so little as Pete Rose did.

For that inspiration, as a nation, we are very indebted to him

So why did Pete Rose do what he did and subject himself to a lifetime of shunning from the game to which he gave so much?

I do not say what follows as an excuse. Instead, I offer it as a very likely explanation.

At the time of events in question, Pete Rose was an aging player-manager for the Cincinnati Reds. Unnoticed by most, in the middle of the season, Rose simply stopped writing his name into the lineup. Unacknowledged, possibly even to himself, he quietly retired.

What must it have been like inside the deepest layers of Rose's psyche as he was left to surrender the psychological high that accompanies life as an exalted self-made immortal in America of the 1980's and 1990's?

It would hardly be surprising if he relied heavily on an illegal "substance"--gambling--to help him obscure, especially to himself, the despondent psychological effects of his inability to overcome the obstacle of Father Time.

We have lived in a drug culture for decades now. We do not actively come to grips with our despair by talking about it and grieving. Instead, we try to numb ourselves to it. There is nothing about Rose to suggest he would be any different.

Ironically, had Rose been a player trying to compromise the integrity of the game with steroids, had he compromised his abilities by using cocaine like many players in the 70's and 80's, or had he gone onto the field high on LSD as a Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher did, Pete Rose would have been just fine now. A slight frown of disapproval and he could have continued his walk to his rightful place in the annals of baseball immortality where players' accomplishments dwarf their often times less than stellar behaviors.

Instead, however, as people who played with Rose in Cincinnati report, Pete Rose never abused his body. He played baseball with his body, and he took care of it. Gambling was his drug of choice.

Gambling is wrong. It is a threat to the integrity of the game, although certainly far less so now than it was in 1919. Pretense is also wrong, however. What Rose did was bad. So is stealing and so is adultery. The real question is what is the appropriate punishment for what Rose did and the context in which he did it.

What light can precedent shed on the issue? How has baseball responded to other such wrongdoings?

In 1919, eight members of the Chicago White Sox took money from gamblers to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. At the time, Black Sox players like Shoeless Joe Jackson were the anvils on which young people's characters were forged. A young boy outside the courtroom in Chicago illustrated the pathos of Jackson's fall from grace with his now famous plea, "Say it ain't so, Joe."

Understandably, the Black Sox scandal shook confidence in the game. The viability of baseball itself was even in question. It was a monstrous crime, and it required a severe and absolute punishment.

However, had Shoeless Joe and the other Black Sox players been found to have bet on their team to win, it is hard imagine it would even have raised any eyebrows much less incurred the wrath of then-commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis.

In another relevant case, in 1947, baseball suspended Leo Durocher for a year for "associating" with gamblers. The public viewed this as an extremely severe punishment at the time.

Rose clearly associated with gamblers, and he bet on baseball. There has never been an allegation that Rose threw a game or bet against his team.

These are the "sentencing guidelines" we have in the Rose matter. He bet on baseball but never bet against his team or tried to throw a game.

What light does "legislative intent" shed on the matter? Baseball wrote the gambling rule with the Black Sox scandal in mind, not the facts of the Pete Rose case. Baseball should have tempered its treatment of Rose with that in mind. Clearly, it has not done so. Instead, it administered justice with an absolutist standard that makes a mockery of the legal maxim that the punishment should fit the crime.

Baseball's failure in this regard is a case study in the psychological reasons it is so difficult to let the punishment fit the crime. Primitive thinking plays a role in the human mind under stress. Being able to stone a woman to death for committing adultery can provide both explanatory fortification and emotional discharge for a badly sagging mind overwhelmed by challenges both from its environment and from its own unstable inner emotional state.

Baseball's steroid problem was complex, and baseball, understandably, did not know what to do with it. Even George Mitchell, one of the truly great conflict resolution artists of our time, had little to contribute.

When baseball did try to address it, it was a vague response so nuanced that it evaporated almost upon utterance. Today, the policy rears its head, for the most part, with a periodic four- line announcement that an obscure class A minor league player was suspended for fifty games as a result of drug testing.

(In fairness, Manny Ramirez suspension last year was a noteworthy exception, but that, of course, was just "Manny being Manny" and nothing that merited systemic concerns for baseball.)

What is very clear is that baseball has not addressed the impact of drugs on the integrity of the game in a meaningful way. Even when the steroid scandal did hit, it went unacknowledged until it became so large it threatened to make the very structure of baseball seem deformed both physically and morally.

Baseball is in a state of moral drift with respect to the most fundamental threat to the integrity of the game in our era. The players who have used steroids are the Black Sox of today.

In contrast, the punishment of Pete Rose serves as a diversionary fig leaf showing how "seriously" baseball takes its rules and the "integrity of the game." Even a giant like Pete Rose is subject to the rules.

Yet at the same time, baseball sweeps under the rug the fact that illicit substances have ruined baseball's hallowed record book and certainly altered hundreds of games.

Baseball must punish Pete Rose severely to protect baseball from its own sins.

The excessive punishment of Pete Rose is a beacon to warn us all how quickly we can compromise that veneer of civilization reflected in the maxim "Let the punishment fit the crime" when we are under psychological pressure to do so.

We have given Pete Rose a crown of thorns.

After all these years, it is time Pete Rose's debt to society is marked "paid in full" so baseball fans can begin to pay their debt to Pete Rose by honoring him while he is still alive.

It is time we let Pete Rose's punishment fit his crime and set him free.


Bryant Welch is a clinical psychologist and attorney. He is the author of State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (St. Martin's Press, 2008). He can be reached directly at welchfirm@aol.com.