The big gamble: How MLB's Pete Rose decision could reshape its thinking on betting

Gambling is omnipresent in sports these days, the god that silently drives so much of its interest. It’s no longer the harmless NCAA office pool or the three-team teaser on a boys’ weekend in Vegas. It’s the NBA commissioner touting its legalization in The New York Times and the governor of New Jersey pushing for the same in his state and daily fantasy leagues raking in hundreds of millions of dollars from venture-capital speculators and the subculture that lives for the sort of gossip that percolated late Tuesday night.

A Twitter account posted screenshots that were allegedly direct messages from Miami Marlins starter Jarred Cosart with allusions to gambling. Cosart’s account was then nuked. Another account purported to be from Cosart sprung up, said his original one was hacked, then disappeared itself. Major League Baseball said it was investigating.

MLB is investigating an alleged link to Jarred Cosart and gambling. (AP)
MLB is investigating an alleged link to Jarred Cosart and gambling. (AP)

The entire thing is an ugly mess, not just because of how the 24-year-old Cosart seemingly panicked and drew more attention to himself in the process but how baseball finds itself facing a difficult moral quandary. As gambling pervades the sporting landscape and slithers its tentacles into leagues with waning concern about its effect on outcomes, baseball remains the moral authority on the subject, casting gambling as its most grievous sin.

All of this is of particular relevance as new commissioner Rob Manfred weighs the reinstatement petition of Pete Rose, who signed a deal that banned him from the sport forever because he wagered on baseball, and as the Cincinnati Reds’ manager no less. Baseball’s position on gambling is perfectly logical; no other sport has seen its nadir come via gambling, as baseball’s did with the throwing of the 1919 World Series. At the same time, the position runs in contrast with relaxed modern attitudes of gambling, putting baseball in yet another position in which it runs the risk of looking like a sport for fuddy-duddies instead of one embracing modern society.

Looking into Cosart’s activities is a no-brainer. MLB did the same when word circulated of Alex Rodriguez dabbling in underground poker games. Any connection to gamblers or gambling stokes baseball’s fear that it could leak into bets on baseball games. Non-baseball betting, of course, can be perfectly legal in certain circumstances, and considering MLB didn’t discipline Rodriguez for the poker games, the worst-case scenario for it would be a slap on the wrist.

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Rose’s case, on the other hand, merits long and complex consideration. Baseball’s position on gambling hasn’t changed because nothing exists to override the truth that actively fixing the outcome of an actual game represents the apex of sporting wrong. Take every PED imaginable and you’re still cleaner than if you make one bad pitch intentionally. Steal a sign, slide spikes up, rub some pine tar on a ball – nothing compares. Nothing is even close.

Not only did Rose gamble on baseball, he gambled on the team he managed. The excuse that he bet only on the Reds rings hollow; he didn’t do it for every game, which might as well have meant he was against his own team on those days. The fact that he lied about it for 15 years before coming clean only reinforced Rose’s lack of contrition. His source of employment these days – signing autographs on the Vegas Strip – reinforces Rose’s stubbornness and inability to play this game like it’s supposed to be played.

And that – staying true to himself, no matter how unseemly himself may be – deserves acknowledgement. Rose could fake playing model citizen. He could join an anti-gambling advocacy group and claim he’s cured and reformed and worthy of re-entry to the sport at which he excelled. Scrub him from the permanently ineligible list, let him into the Hall of Fame where he belongs and be over with it.

“There’s not a lot of precedent for this,” Manfred told Yahoo Sports earlier this month. “What I intend to do is get a hold of his representative and talk about what I need, what they think they want and just lay out on a piece of paper, ‘Here’s how we’re going to proceed.’ And proceed, hopefully, in as collegial a way as possible.”

In 1989, Pete Rose signed a deal that banned him from baseball because he wagered on the sport. (AP)
In 1989, Pete Rose signed a deal that banned him from baseball because he wagered on the sport. (AP)

Never before have Pete Rose and collegial shared the same paragraph, because for the many things Rose may be, collegial is not one of them. He’s combative, he’s stubborn, he’s short-sighted, he’s difficult – he’s the person who in 1989 signed his own death sentence and five times now has asked for parole anyway. And now he’s asking baseball to neuter Rule 21(d), which reads: “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.”

This seems rather straightforward. So, too, does the second paragraph of the report written by John Dowd, whose expose on Rose’s gambling was the basis for his ban: “Betting on baseball by a participant of the game is corrupt because it erodes and destroys the integrity of the game of baseball. Betting also exposes the game to the influence of forces who seek to control the game to their own ends. Betting on one’s own team gives rise to the ultimate conflict of interest in which the individual player/bettor places his personal financial interest above the interest of the game.”

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Certainly Rose has paid a severe penalty: more than a quarter-century away from the place he felt most comfortable. And that seems to be the thesis for those preaching leniency: He did the time for his crime. Why the arbitrary number of 25 years is suddenly considered enough makes little sense. Why not 20 years? Or 30? Rose does not exactly qualify under any good-behavior statute, and even if he did, would his reinstatement warrant reconsideration of Shoeless Joe Jackson and others whose posthumous reinstatement could too change the halls of the Hall?

Ultimately, Rose’s best hope is not from baseball but the world that surrounds it. The pervasiveness of gambling has changed enough attitudes in other sports. MLB.com’s partnership with DraftKings, a daily-fantasy site not technically considered gambling because of a legal loophole, highlights the rockiness of baseball’s foundation. Railing on gambling while running a baseball-based game for money on the league’s official website ambles into the land of hypocrisy. (Full disclosure: DraftKings also is a partner with Yahoo Sports.)

NBA commissioner Adam Silver showed just how powerful the lobby is when he pushed for legalization less than a decade after one of his referees copped to gambling on games. Balancing modern gambling morés with a fair consideration for Rose and the future credibility of his game is an awfully heady task for Manfred.

The god is everywhere, begging for him to kneel, knowing it takes a stronger man not to than one who does.

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