Every year within the Phillies organization, as the Wall of Fame Committee convened to select the honoree for the coming season, the same question would undoubtedly always come up.
“What about Pete?”
It wasn’t a tangled question based on whether Pete Rose, the baseball player, deserved a spot on the list of those who are enshrined with Ashburn Alley plaques in Citizens Bank Park. Of course, he did.
The problem was whether celebrating Pete Rose, the human being, would represent an embarrassment for the franchise. When he was judged to have bet on baseball, denied it in the face of damning evidence, and was banished from the game, Rose was clearly too toxic a figure to honor. Combine that with his perpetual, unsavory hucksterism and it was a lot easier to give Mike Lieberthal a plaque, for heaven’s sake.
Mike Lieberthal? Sure. Pete Rose? Not yet.
At some point, and it was just this April, the Phillies decided that Rose, like nuclear waste that has finally lost its radioactivity, was a safe inductee. He’d sell out the park — perhaps for two days, with a Pete bobblehead giveaway on Friday, Aug. 11 and then the Saturday induction — and enough time would have passed that a guy who committed baseball’s most egregious sin could receive whatever absolution a plaque in South Philly might offer.
The Phils like to claim the honorees are selected annually by the fans, but that isn’t exactly accurate. Fan voting gives the “special Wall of Fame Committee” a five-person ballot, but even within that framework there is great leeway for the organization to carefully choose the winner. Don’t let anyone tell you the fans messed up this year. It was the Phillies. They trusted Pete Rose, and that’s a dangerous game.
The team announced Wednesday that “due to recent events,” Rose would not get his spot on the wall, and 2017 would be left blank on the list of inductees. In fact, the events that caught up with Rose are far from recent. The allegation that he had a continuing sexual relationship with an underage female referred to events that began more than 40 years ago. Rose didn’t deny the relationship. His defense was he thought the girl was 16.
If the Phillies aren’t appalled at what he did, only that “recent events” made it public, there is a bigger problem here. To take their side, this wasn’t an easy one to handle when it blew up on Monday. They did the right thing by canceling the induction — as if they had a real choice — but there is an opportunity to make a bigger statement. Don’t just cover the hole with a tribute to former inductees, which is now the Saturday centerpiece. Use some of the weekend proceeds to support programs that help rape victims and that encourage prevention and education regarding rape. Do something more than pretend the schedule has been altered due to “recent events.”
It is ironic that Rose brought this further shame on himself, as has been the case with all of his problems. He sued investigator John Dowd for defamation last year after Dowd went on a West Chester radio station in 2015 and accused Rose of being a serial statutory rapist. That lawsuit, with Dowd as the defendant, is why the woman’s testimony was filed in federal court here in Philadelphia. Hey, he thought she was 16.
This lawsuit was in the works well before the Phillies selected Rose as the 2017 Wall of Fame honoree. The organization should have been more diligent in its own investigation of what might arise from it. The Phils dropped the ball.
If Rose were just the baseball player, he’d have been on the wall a long time ago (and in the Hall of Fame, of course). Rose played his last major-league game in 1986. The Phillies put Steve Carlton on the wall in 1989, the season after he retired. They put Mike Schmidt on the wall in 1990, the season after he retired. Who did the Phillies honor in 1987, the season after Rose stopped playing? Granny Hamner.
After Rose went nuclear in August of 1989, the Phillies waited for him to cool. Up on the wall in the interim went Bob Boone, John Vukovich, Juan Samuel, John Kruk, Pat Burrell, Jim Thome, Lieberthal, and others. All great contributors to the organization, all worthy of being remembered. But none were Rose.
It was a cynical wait, and an annual question. What about Pete?
Everyone knew it would be a risk, no matter when. Everyone knew that it could never be just Pete Rose, the baseball player. That would have made the decision easy. Instead, the Phillies got a week that has been very hard.
Next year, though, the same question won’t come up. Rose has answered it himself for many years to come.