For years, I've tried to find a way to illustrate the issues in the Pete Rose case so that fans can understand why the sport is so adamantly, and correctly, opposed to Rose being reinstated until he admits the acts that led to his banishment.
Maybe I've finally got it. I hope so, because Rose recently had a meeting with Commissioner Bud Selig to discuss getting back into the sport and the Hall of Fame, too.
Imagine that a star college athlete has been caught cheating repeatedly. The proper school authorities investigate his case. They conclude that there is plenty of evidence to warrant his expulsion. He isn't accused of any crime. But they believe he has violated the most basic rule of the institution: You can't cheat.
The case has caused a scandal and the school wants to bring the issue to closure. The student, who has even threatened to sue the school, doesn't want a formal finding on his record that he cheated. But he is willing to accept the expulsion.
On the day that the famous student-athlete leaves campus, the college president says publicly that he agrees with the school's lengthy report that the student cheated extensively and repeatedly. That 51-year-old college president, who presided over the investigation personally, dies of a heart attack the same week.
For the next 13 years, the student-athlete, call him Pete Rose, tells anyone who will listen that he never cheated, that he never admitted to cheating, that it was never "proved" that he cheated -- despite the college's 225-page report with seven volumes of added material -- and that he wants to be readmitted to school.
While pursuing image rehabilitation in the media, which further embarrasses the school, he pleads his case to one university president after another. He also says he wants to be eligible for the school's Hall of Fame. Whenever possible, he shows up at big sports events at the school and gets ovations.
The ex-student says he can't imagine why the school, after all these years, still stands by its exhaustive internal investigation of his behavior and still acts as though he was . . . well . . . a cheater. It's unfair, he says, that they won't let him back, or put him in their Hall of Fame, unless he admits that he was wrong.
The public has the Rose case backward. It is baseball that was damaged by Rose. It's baseball that went through proper, inescapable procedures to investigate Rose. It is baseball that, beyond a reasonable doubt (but not beyond a shadow of a doubt) is correct on the facts.
What's surprising is that all baseball asks of Rose -- in exchange for letting him scout, coach, be a general manager, for that matter -- is admit what he did. That seems to be it. Then the Prodigal Son can return.
Baseball has always had empathy for Rose, although his intransigence has often made sympathy impossible. During its seven-month investigation, baseball wanted Rose to confess and admit his gambling problems, so that the sport could, eventually, forgive him. Get kicked out for a while. Get yourself fixed. Get reinstated. Rose just couldn't or wouldn't do it.
The final act still seems stunning. Bart Giamatti was convinced that Rose's central character trait was denial of his gambling problem. And that Rose would agree to anything, as long as he didn't have to acknowledge it publicly. The truth, followed by the normal progression of punishment and rehabilitation, wasn't an option.
So, Giamatti offered Rose one of the oddest "compromises" on record. Perhaps only a Yale president would grasp that Pete would say "yes" to a deal any normal person would reject. If Rose would accept the maximum possible penalty for his misdeed -- lifetime banishment -- he would not have to admit that he had actually done the deed at all. That's like signing off on your own capital punishment, as long as your last words can be, "I didn't do it."
Giamatti knew his man. Or thought he did. He suspected Rose would never change. His denial might be permanent. So, baseball structured its agreement with Rose to reflect that probability.
"The banishment for life of Pete Rose from baseball is the sad end of a sorry episode," said Giamatti. "There is absolutely no deal for reinstatement. That is exactly what we did not agree to."
That is exactly what we did not agree to. How chilling. Giamatti concluded that Rose's denial -- of what the commissioner considered to be incontrovertible facts -- would never change.
To this day, that impasse remains.
Baseball shouldn't have a statute of limitations on the truth. Or, in the case of Rose, the truth as it can best be gleaned after months of investigation and enormous amounts of evidence. No other part of American life allows it. In 13 years, will executives from Enron or WorldCom, who are currently banned from boardrooms, be reinstated because, although they resigned in disgrace, they never actually admitted that they cooked the books?
Before Game 4 of the World Series, Rose received an ovation from the Giants crowd when he was among those honored for the game's greatest moments. It may even have been the biggest cheer. Americans love to forgive.
However, baseball and Rose have a problem that is never going to go away. Just as a school must enforce its rules against cheating, baseball must enforce its rules against gambling on the game. It's central. In almost any such case, if the person involved flatly denies his guilt, there will always be some tiny element of doubt. But the institution still has to stand by its best attempt at justice.
Rose's former teammate, Joe Morgan, said, "It all starts with Pete. He's got to come clean. He's got to make it right."
What is perhaps most remarkable about the Rose case is that, despite 13 years of pain, a powerful positive ending is still possible. But that solution must start with Rose. Not with baseball.