The righteous lynching, with the townsfolk taking justice into their own hands, is an American tradition as old as the frontier and as fresh as Pete Rose's banishment from the Hall of Fame ballot yesterday.

Rose was strung up by the most distinguished men in the game -- including past and present league presidents and a former commissioner. Fair play was ignored. But vengeance was served. In a vigilante act, both passionate in motive and arrogant in execution, the friends of the late commissioner, Bart Giamatti, and current commissioner, Fay Vincent, lashed out at Rose in the fiercest and most final way they could manage. In effect, they probably barred Rose from the Hall of Fame for life. No doubt, they feel they've acted for the ends of justice and the good of the game, though their means may have stunk.

The 12-0 vote by the Hall of Fame board to "exclude players on the permanently ineligible list from the ballot" was a personal act of revenge by the sport's hierarchy against Rose -- a man whom the game's establishment reviles for the pain and embarrassment he brought them. For the record, there is only one living human on the permanently ineligible list: Rose.

Heretofore, every member of the Hall of Fame has been elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America or the Old-Timers Committee. Some great players, like Shoeless Joe Jackson, have been left out of the Hall because of the "morals" clause in the voting instructions. The Rose issue, however, was seen as too vital to entrust to anyone outside the sport's inner sanctum. So, with Rose eligible for the ballot this December, due process and precedent were ignored so the game's most powerful men could do what they pleased.

In an attempt to rationalize what was probably an emotion-driven decision, Hall of Fame President Ed Stack said: "The directors felt that it would be incongruous to have a person who has been declared ineligible by baseball to be eligible for baseball's highest honor. . . . If such individual is reinstated by baseball, then such individual would be a candidate for election."

Why would such leaders of the sport as Bobby Brown, Lee MacPhail, Bowie Kuhn, Bill White and Chub Feeney stoop to such bareknuckles tactics? Nobody knows or, at least, can prove what they suspect. But many in baseball think they know what this is really about.

It's about Fay Vincent -- Bart Giamatti's best friend -- shaking hands with Pete Rose on the backporch of the Hall of Fame at his induction ceremony. A lot of people in baseball -- good people -- just don't have the stomach to allow this Vincent-Rose moment to occur. If they have to abuse their power, tarnish their reputations and embarrass themselves to prevent it, they'll do it. And, they did it yesterday.

Everyone knows that Giamatti, who died at age 51, ate too much, smoked too much, worked too hard and worried too much.

But if you were one of the dozen men who voted in New York yesterday -- if you knew Giamatti, the former Yale president who brought prestige, affection and competence to the sport -- how would you have felt about the raw undeniable fact that he died one week after barring Rose for life? In the crunch, would you stick to proper procedure or would you stick it to Rose?

Within the baseball establishment, Rose is held in contempt on three levels. First, according to the Dowd Report, for betting on baseball, including his own team's games. Second, for dragging the sport through the mud after he was caught red-handed, rather than throwing himself on the mercy of the court. And, third, for refusing -- to this day -- to admit that he bet on baseball. To these men, Rose is as unrepentant and destructive as he ever was.

To many on the Hall board, such as former Expos president John McHale, Brewers owner Bud Selig and Tigers chairman John Campbell, Giamatti and Vincent are a modern Damon and Pythias. They are heroic figures -- one the stout, earthy charismatic intellectual; the other, the brilliant businessman and gentle compromiser. To the members of the board, Giamatti's death, and Vincent's pain over it -- not to mention the suffering of Giamatti's family -- are everyday facts.

On top of all that, the Hall of Fame board had every reason to suspect that, eventually, the baseball writers might have voted Rose into the Hall. The writers never had a better friend, a better source, a richer continuing story -- right to the ugly end -- than Rose. Journalists see lots of human foibles. For some reason, they tend to be quick to judge but also prone to forgive.

It's easy to see why baseball's wise men orchestrated this charade in recent weeks -- pretending that Operation Get Pete was never on their agenda. The Hall even went to the dissembling length of stacking a "study committee" against Rose, then inviting two members of the BBWAA to join that committee to lend it credibility. The two writers, Jack Lang and Phil Pepe, reported back that the committee meeting on Rose was totally cordial and totally a sham.

Some still hold out hope for a bizarre "happy" ending to this saga. In fact, the wording of Stack's statement implies it. Let's say that the game's old guard breaks Rose's resistance with this Hall blackball and, in time, gets a bet-on-baseball confession out of him. Then, maybe, someday, Vincent or another commissioner might take him off the permanently ineligible list. Theoretically, Rose could then be voted into the Hall of Fame -- the sinner chastened, the prodigal son returned home at last.

Maybe. But don't bet on it. When the words "Rose" and "Hall of Fame" are mentioned in the same sentence, many of the most powerful men in the sport have the same gut-level response: not in my lifetime..