A funny thing happened during one of the early stages of the Tour de France last week. The regular commentators on NBC Sports Network went live to a guest analyst for his view of how the race was shaping up and what surprises might be on the horizon.
It was a guest with some knowledge of such things – and a pretty fair grasp of the Tour de France – but it was still shocking to see Lance Armstrong in a role that suggested full rehabilitation in that little broadcast corner of the cycling world.
One of the hosts, Phil Liggett, a diminutive Englishman who is covering his 45th Tour, was a steadfast defender of Armstrong when doping allegations against the rider first surfaced, and was among the last to admit he had been betrayed by Armstrong’s lies.
If there were hard feelings, they weren’t apparent. Liggett and Bob Roll conducted the interview, heard Armstrong’s opinions, and if you didn’t know the guest had very nearly ruined the entire sport of professional cycling, particularly American professional cycling, well, you wouldn’t have been tipped off by the cordial exchange.
It was a reminder that forever isn’t what it used to be, and the unforgivable scandal of today can lose its shock value by tomorrow afternoon. There was no way that Lance Armstrong would ever be let back into the mainstream of cycling, just as there was no way baseball would have a place for Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire, and just as Tiger Woods had no hope of returning to the public eye after his wife put a seven-iron through the car window as he tried to escape the self-inflicted unraveling of his personal life.
Apparently, however, those assumptions were incorrect. Every misstep is survivable after time. Players come back from recreational drug arrests, acts of violent crime, domestic abuse charges, and cheating scandals.
Michael Vick was able to come back after going to prison for running a dog-fighting ring that killed the losers. Armstrong cheated and lied for 20 years before coming clean to Oprah. Everyone knows you can’t lie to Oprah.
Every transgression is survivable… except one.
You can’t be involved in baseball and place a bet on a game.
This isn’t going to be a plea for Pete Rose to be reinstated to baseball. That ship left port a long time ago. Rose probably doesn’t realize it, but to Major League Baseball, he is a handy exception that proves the rule.
The game is criticized for doing a lot of dumb stuff aimed only at the bottom line, and most of the criticism is fair. If interest appears to be waning, the rules can be altered to speed play, and the ball can be juiced to stir excitement, and, uh, the All-Star Game can be used to decide World Series home-field advantage (thankfully, they stopped that), and whatever other stupid idea comes into their heads.
And, certainly, having Rose, the game’s all-time hit leader, around at the Hall of Fame or the World Series or in-stadium for any number of events, would move the needle on fan interest, even if just incrementally.
But that’s where baseball draws the line. You can’t criticize us for having no moral compass when it comes to protecting the game because we won’t let Pete Rose back into the club. Ain’t we special?
Rose has been his own worst enemy over the years. He was cravenly driven to be reinstated so he could cash in on a Hall of Fame induction. He hawked autographs on the shady side of Cooperstown every year, and took part in various money grabs that didn’t burnish his image.
His denials regarding betting on games when he managed the Reds – which he finally recanted in a book, My Prison Without Bars, that sold poorly – were unbelievable in the face of evidence from the Dowd Report. But he pushed them just as hard as he pushed “Hit King” hats. Charlie Hustle had made his transformation into Charlie Hustler and no one listened seriously to a word he had to say. (He would probably even lie to Oprah.)
The truth, however, is that even if Rose had been a model citizen after getting tagged; even if he admitted his wrongdoing and asked for forgiveness and mercy, even if he dedicated himself to a life of humanitarianism, he would still be on the permanently ineligible list.
Maybe this is still the echo of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Baseball likes the tale of its unbending dedication to honest competition as personified by a ramrod straight commissioner. The succeeding commissioners have sure liked it. Or maybe keeping Pete Rose at arms-length is just a habit too ingrained to be broken now.
Either way, it is interesting to note that there is only one comeback that can’t be achieved. Everything else is on the table. Tiger Woods can win golf tournaments again and be cheered by adoring crowds. Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire can get jobs in uniform. Lance Armstrong can appear on national television dissecting a race he conspired to cheat every time he entered.
All is forgiven. Except what Pete Rose did. And you can bet on that.
Get insights on the Phillies delivered straight to your inbox with Extra Innings, our newsletter for Phillies fans by Matt Breen, Bob Brookover and Scott Lauber. Click here to sign up.