Baseball's Celebration of Its Public Enemy Number One Is Incredibly Awkward

Banned for life for gambling, Pete Rose is nonetheless the guest of honor at the All-Star Game. In a sense, he's baseball's Richard Nixon.

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Manager Pete Rose #14 of the Cincinnati Reds sits in the dugout during the game against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park during the 1989 MLB season in San Francisco, California.

Photo by Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

This story has been updated.

In 1999, the beleaguered, oft-criticized, still-the-only-All-Star-Game-anyone-cares-about Major League Baseball All-Star Game had one of the greatest moments in its 82-year history. Fenway Park, perhaps the game’s most hallowed stadium, hosted for the first time in 38 seasons. The irony of the game being at Fenway is that when Boston was awarded the event a few years earlier, it was with the understanding that it would be at a theoretical “New” Fenway Park, one Boston’s owners were unable to construct in time for the game (and ultimately never ended up constructing at all).

The event, always considered MLB’s Christmas, the one day of the sports calendar the sport has all to itself, had something special planned. MLB had announced its All-Century team earlier that season, and many of the game’s most prominent players were on hand at Fenway. But the big star was the man most considered the greatest living baseball player, and the best hitter who ever lived. In front of his hometown fans (whom he feuded with throughout his career, but no matter), Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter. Williams, 80 years old at the time and quite feeble (he was being tended to by his notoriously shady son, who had his dad wear a hat and T-shirt of a business he was trying to get off the ground and would famously attempt to have his head cryogenically frozen when Williams died three years later), was carted out from the right field exitway to roars from the Fenway faithful. In a game specifically constructed to honor its best, no one was more revered than the ornery Williams. The most moving moment was when the current All-Stars, all-timers like Tony Gwynn, Ken Griffey, Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, and Mark McGwire, surrounded Williams at the mound and, one by one, shook his hand, taking so long that the start of the game was delayed. It was the ultimate tribute to the ultimate baseball player, and no one who was there will ever forget it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fku5SkZq6tI

This has since become an honorary obligation for baseball's all-timers when the All-Star Game hits their city. In 2007, Willie Mays got the San Francisco tribute; in 2009, President Barack Obama was in St. Louis to bow to civic icon Stan Musial. This year’s All-Star Game, however, has a bit of a wrinkle: It’s going to honor someone who has been banned from the game for life and might be baseball’s most lasting pariah. Pete Rose is about to get the Ted Williams treatment.

The minute it was announced that Cincinnati would be hosting the All-Star Game at its Great American Ballpark, the question arose: How big a part would Rose play? Famously banned from baseball for life by commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti back in 1989 (just eight days before Giamatti, father of Paul, died of a heart attack) for gambling on baseball while he was manager of the

Cincinnati Reds, Rose has been the ghost haunting the game for 25 years now. He has become a cause celebre for a certain type of baseball fan, particularly in a PED age, who loved Rose as a player for his hustle and grit and who believes that Rose’s crimes were done more out of a desire to win than any sort of gambling addiction or disrespect of the game. And, as you might suspect for a guy who played 19 of his 24 years in the game there (along with seven fateful years as a manager), a large number of those fans are in Cincinnati.

It has put Major League Baseball in a strange, uncomfortable spot. On one hand, it doesn’t want Cincinnati to have to pretend its most famous, beloved player isn’t a part of the city’s grand showcase. On the other, Rose has a tendency to take over whatever event he’s at, and new commissioner Rob Manfred, who has come under extra pressure to reconsider Rose’s reinstatement to the game in his first year on the job, doesn’t want this to become The Pete Rose Game.

Rose will be on the field before the game Tuesday, honored as part of this year’s MLB Franchise Four, run by MLB.com, in which fans vote on the four players who best represent the team. For Cincinatti, Rose is joined by Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, and Barry Larkin. (It is thought by some that the promotion was conceived specifically with the idea of figuring out a way to have Rose be a part of the ceremony in a harmless, easily controlled way.) But Rose has said that he hopes the game will be a springboard to potentially being allowed back into the sport, or, perhaps more urgently for the 74-year-old, into the Hall of Fame, from which he’s currently banned.

There was a time when some considered this a possibility under Manfred, who has hinted at being more open to Rose’s annual reinstatement application than predecessor Bud Selig. (One potential compromise would have been to allow him back in the game—where he’s essentially unemployable anyway—but still let the Hall of Fame keep him out.) That Fox Sports 1, a financial partner of MLB, hired Rose as an analyst this year was thought to crack open the door a bit too; if he could show that he could behave himself—never an easy thing for a rogue like Rose—the MLB brass could be more sympathetic.

That all went out the window last month, when ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported that not only had Rose bet on baseball as a manager (which he had admitted), he had also done so as a player—and on Reds games to boot. Rose had denied this fact for years, but, as John Dowd (the author of the Dowd report that got Rose banned in the first place) put it, “This does it. This closes the door.” For those who believe Rose shouldn’t have been allowed back in the game in the first place—here is where I admit to being one of those—the report was a relief: The goodwill that would have been generated by a Rose appearance at the ASG couldn’t sweep away that hard evidence.

But it won’t stop Rose from actually being there on Tuesday, and the Cincinnati fans screaming their lungs out for him. It’s going to lead to quite the odd scene. Baseball’s biggest event, its holiday to shine, being taken over by a man who was banned by baseball for its most heinous, unforgivable crime. (There’s a lot of definitive “why Pete Rose’s crime was so wretched” pieces out there, but I’d recommend Joe Sheehan’s and, yes, mine.) When Rose gets the Williams treatment—and considering this will be that last real time in his life he will be honored like this, he will—it will feel like the sports equivalent of a sitting president honoring, say, President Nixon not just with a citation, but by letting him speak at the State of the Union. Rose broke the signature rule of baseball, the one that absolutely cannot be broken, by punishment of lifetime banishment. But then again, Nixon had his backers to the end too. When Williams was honored, everyone even slightly associated with baseball rushed to get their picture with him. On Tuesday, with Rose getting his one last moment to shine, one suspects there will be no commissioner, no luminaries, no public figures in sight. He accepts one final ovation. But like Nixon, he will do so alone.

In the sixth paragraph, the story has been updated to reflect the fact that Jim Gray's interview with Pete Rose took place at the 2002 World Series, not the All Star Game. 

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