Gambling is baseball’s Original Sin, the greatest possible transgression in a 150-year-old sport. You gamble on a game as a member of a team — player, coach or executive — you’re gone, no second chances.
Where, then, does sign-stealing fit in?
Pete Rose hurled himself back into the national baseball conversation Wednesday when he applied once again for reinstatement, seeking an end to his 31-years-and-counting ban from the game. Rose’s reasoning? His ban is “disproportionate” compared to the punishments levied against guilty parties in the far-reaching Astros-Red Sox sign-stealing scandal.
Rose laid out his rationale in a 20-page document first obtained by ESPN. “In recent years, intentional and covert acts by current and past owners, managers, coaches, and players altered the outcomes of numerous games, including the World Series, and illegally enhanced both team and player performance,” the petition reads. “It has never been suggested, let alone established, that any of Mr. Rose’s actions influenced the outcome of any game or the performance of any player. Yet for the thirty-first year and counting, he continues to suffer a punishment vastly disproportionate to those who have done just that.”
Strangely enough, Rose is exactly the guy to make this argument, even if he doesn’t deserve to benefit from it. Rose isn’t just banned from baseball for gambling; he had opportunities decades ago to get himself reinstated. He’s out because he’s lied, he’s deceived, he’s changed his story to fit a given moment’s circumstances.
But that doesn’t mean he’s in the wrong here. And since he’s got nothing to lose, he’s got no reason to obey the clubhouse omertà that conceals so much of what goes on beneath baseball’s surface.
The hardline penalties for gambling on baseball have been in place for nearly a century, ever since former commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis rained fire on the White Sox conspirators who threw the 1919 World Series. A sign on every clubhouse in every stadium reads:
"Any player, umpire, or club official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has no duty to perform shall be declared ineligible for one year. 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."
That’s it. No wiggle room, no second or third strike. In banning eight White Sox players, Landis threw down some vintage thunder in 1921: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball again.”
The precedent, then, is bedrock-thick: You sabotage the competitive balance of the game, you’re gone. But here’s where it gets murky. There’s certainly a moral difference between throwing a game — i.e., giving the other team an unfair edge — and stealing signs — i.e., giving your own team an unfair edge. But is there a philosophical difference? You’re still altering the fabric of the game, still ending up with an altered result.
Rose is right: The punishments don’t line up. The managers and front-office officials involved in the sign-stealing scandal lost their jobs and, in some cases, the right to work in baseball for a year. He’s going on three decades out of the game, and many others from baseball’s earlier days died without ever winning reinstatement.
Why the difference? Probably, to start, because there’s no gray area in gambling — you either lay down your money or you don’t — but there’s a difference between “fair” and “unfair” sign-stealing. Picking up a pitcher’s tells? Perfectly fine. Watching the catcher when you’re a runner on second base? Sneaky but allowed. It’s when you start filming the catcher, then relaying that info to the batter in real time, that you start crossing lines.
Another reason why, up to now, sign-stealers have averted gambling-esque bans is because baseball wasn’t quite prepared for this, the same way it wasn’t quite prepared for the breadth of the Black Sox scandal in 1919. Technology has, for the moment, outstripped the sport’s ability to regulate itself. The punishments levied against the Astros are the first — and it’s possible to make the argument that while the Black Sox bans were too severe, these are too light.
Rose gets at the heart of the discrepancy in his petition. “In 1989, Mr. Rose’s misconduct could reasonably have been perceived as a uniquely egregious threat to the integrity of baseball, with the Black Sox as the only comparable historical analogy,” the petition reads. "But more recent misconduct has equally, or likely more egregiously, undermined the integrity of baseball and the fundamental fairness of the game.”
(Also worth noting: baseball and gambling are now intertwined in a way that would have sent old Judge Landis into an apoplectic fit. Baseball and MGM are in the early years of a multiyear partnership — full disclosure, MGM and Yahoo Sports are also in a separate partnership — and baseball’s logos and statistics have an active presence at MGM’s casinos. It’s a high, thin wire baseball’s walking here.)
Fifteen years ago, Jose Canseco tore the lid off baseball’s steroid industry when he named names — including his own — in an impossible-to-ignore autobiography. The resulting scandal roiled the game for a decade, leaving careers and reputations in ruins. It’s entirely possible this could end the same way, and the questions Rose is asking deserve fair answers.
Rose, as he’s done so often before, has created another mess for baseball to sort through. But this time, he might be justified in doing so.
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