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It's Time to Forgive Pete Rose

By Jimmy Carter

This article appeared in the Oct. 30, 1995, edition of USA Today.

It's October again, and despite the Million Man March, peace talks in Bosnia, O.J.'s future, hurricanes and train wrecks, our family's passion has been focused on baseball and the World Series that ended Saturday.

There was a vast abyss last fall with no World Series, and still a diminished luster on the game as players and owners prepare to resume their endless contract disputes.

But there was something else amiss, underscored by the heroic achievements of Cal Ripken Jr. and Greg Maddux. An equally remarkable player--Pete Rose--is barred from recognition in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Election to the Hall of Fame has never been an affirmation of impeccable character, but rather a recognition of extraordinary achievements on the diamond. This is what makes the case of Pete Rose, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, so agonizing.

One of society's most difficult decisions is whether to extend forgiveness to someone who has committed a crime or made a serious mistake. In international diplomacy, it is often necessary to grant amnesty to former oppressors and corrupt officials in order to reconcile antagonists and bring peace, justice, and respect for human rights to a troubled nation. U.S. presidents are responsible for the ultimate decisions about pardons and paroles for convicted criminals who have served a portion of their sentences.

A most difficult decision for me was amnesty for draft avoiders to help heal the trauma of Vietnam. President Gerald Ford made the politically costly choice of pardoning President Nixon to address the national wounds of Watergate.

In every case, it is necessary to assess the offense, extenuating circumstances, evidence of reform or restitution, and the willingness of victims to forego continuing punishment of the guilty.

For at least five generations, our family members have been avid baseball fans. We were particularly proud of Ty Cobb, a fellow Georgian, and simply let the negative aspects of his character fade into relative unimportance when compared to his achievements on the diamond. It was with mixed emotions that we observed Pete Rose getting his 4,192nd hit on Sept. 11, 1985, breaking one of Cobb's seemingly invulnerable records. But we recognized Rose's extraordinary spirit and determination. Few players ever made greater use of their natural talents or brought more enthusiasm to the game.

Rose gambled on sporting events and was convicted of tax evasion. We shared America's disillusionment when we learned that he had brought disgrace and punishment on himself and on the game he had previously honored. Although he served his prison sentence for the federal crime, he is still banned from baseball's eligible list and therefore cannot be elected to the Hall of Fame.

Recently, I have reread the May 9, 1989, investigative findings of John Dowd in "the matter of Peter Edward Rose," a report requested by the respected baseball commissioner, Bart Giamatti. Dowd held a high career position in my administration, and his credentials are impeccable. I find the testimony (mostly from convicted felons) about Pete Rose's betting on sports events to be convincing and disheartening, but evidence about specifically betting on baseball is less than compelling.

There is substantial indication that Commissioner Giamatti also had some reasonable doubts. When the commissioner announced their mutual understanding that Rose would be banished from the game, there was no finding that he had bet on baseball. However, in answer to a reporter's question, Giamatti expressed his opinion that Rose had committed this crucial act. Although admitting the other charges, Rose has vigorously denied this allegation.

All this is a matter of record, and we cannot minimize the seriousness of the proven offenses. However, in a careful but determined manner, it is now time to explore an act of amnesty or parole. This would only involve the placing of Pete Rose back on the baseball eligibility list, and need not now include any immediate decision on his election to the Hall of Fame.

Let us consider the four key factors mentioned above:

  • Rose's offense: It is fruitless to rehash the already belabored facts. A major degree of guilt has been conceded.
  • Extenuating circumstances: The most important are the marvelous (not just superior) achievements of Pete Rose as a player during his long career, aside from his subsequent service as a manager. No player has over-hustled more, or been more committed to the game of baseball. After breaking Ty Cobb's record, Rose went on to a total of 4,256 hits in an unequaled 3,562 games and 14,053 times at bat, for a lifetime batting average of .303. He also held 31 other major and National League records.
  • Reform or restitution: Pete Rose served his prison time as required, and has subsequently led the life of a proper and law-abiding citizen. He is gainfully employed, and has complied with the special restraints placed on him by Commissioner Giamatti. In painful dignity, he has suffered many other actual and indirect punishments.
  • Victims' forgiveness: The primary victims of the crime are the millions of dedicated fans who support baseball and are very protective of the game's reputation and integrity. A 1994 article in Sports Illustrated reported a telephone poll of Americans in which 97% of respondents said that Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame. I have found virtually no fans who disagree.

This ultimate question can be answered at a later time, either by a vote of the Baseball Writers Association of America or by members of the Baseball Hall of Fame Committee on Baseball Veterans. Now, even in the confused environment of major league baseball, Pete Rose should at least be declared eligible for later consideration. Then, his own attitude and performance can shape the final decision.

I have never met or communicated with Pete Rose, but would like to join with other Americans to help give him--and the game of baseball--this opportunity for redemption.

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