John McGrath: Pete Rose is lucky he still has 2 good knees

In a news development worthy of a two-word headline — “No Duh” — ESPN last week obtained evidence that Pete Rose gambled on baseball in 1986, notable because he still was playing baseball in 1986.

Rose’s apologists insist the career hits leader is the victim of a witch hunt. He has paid his dues, done his time, enough already with the Hall of Fame voters who see him as a scoundrel while disregarding the foibles of such enshrined legends as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle.

Stereotyping baseball writers with a Hall of Fame vote as hypocritical prigs is easy and inevitable, but in Rose’s case, the premise is moot. No writer has returned a ballot without a check marked next to Rose’s name. For that matter, no writer has returned a ballot with a check marked next to Rose’s name.

When the late commissioner Bart Giamatti banished Rose from Major League Baseball in 1989, the Hall of Fame made the corresponding move to banish Rose as a candidate. You can argue that no writer is qualified to serve as the ultimate judge of a player’s career, but that’s another debate for another day.

For now, as it has been for almost three decades, the debate is whether Rose’s gambling on baseball while wearing a Cincinnati Reds uniform demands a penalty severe enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

Those eager to forgive Rose will point out that because he never bet against the Reds, he never was tempted to throw a game, as eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of doing in the 1919 World Series. Rose’s desire to win was fierce — even his staunchest critics will give him that — and putting down money on the Reds merely strengthened an already considerable motivation.

Those eager to forgive Rose also will point out that while he broke an MLB rule without ambiguity — no gambling on baseball by anybody in uniform, period, end of discussion; those found in violation of the rule shall face a lifetime ban — his transgressions were more about the letter of the law than its spirit.

He put his money where his mouth is, so what’s the big deal? Who was hurt?

Pete Rose wasn’t hurt, at least not in the literal sense of suffering a debilitating knee injury or having 10 knuckles broken, but this is where Rose’s gambling habit crosses the line from troubling to, like, scary.

Rose was a terrific ballplayer but, as ESPN’s report verified, terrible at betting on sports. After dropping more than $20,000 on the 1986 NCAA Tournament, he tried to make up for his losses by gambling on something more positioned in his wheelhouse.

Between April 9 and July 9 of 1986, the Reds player-manager wagered on at least one baseball game a day. On 21 of those days, he put down wagers on his own team.

Of the 69 baseball games Rose bet at least $2,500 on through 1988, he lost 64. You’d think a guy working on a 5-64 record would conclude that baseball betting maybe isn’t the best way to invest his hard-earned cash, but Rose is nothing if not a dim light.

As for the mob-connected bookmakers Rose owed night after night, they were described by this priceless observation of ex-commissioner Fay Vincent:

“We are not dealing with the front row of the Episcopal Church.”

John Dowd, the former federal prosecutor who oversaw the Rose investigation, put it another way.

“They had a mortgage on Pete when he was player-manager,” Dowd said the other day. “The boys in New York are about broken arms with these things. The implications for baseball are terrible.”

In other words, just because Rose never bet against the Reds doesn’t mean every Reds victory was in his best interest. You owe some boys in New York whose collection technique is to break an arm, you might have to swing and intentionally miss a pitch delivered with two outs and the tying run at second base in the eighth inning.

I have no reason to believe Rose’s gambling addiction cost the Cincinnati Reds a chance to win a game in 1986, but here’s the rub: I have no reason to believe it didn’t.

Rose’s history of denial matters no more. He lied about betting on baseball, then lied about betting on the Reds as a manager. As recently as a month ago, he told ESPN radio that he never bet on games as a player.

“That’s a fact,” he said.

A fact? When Rose is speaking, a fact has the integrity of a puffed-wheat cereal flake.

The facts are these: Pete Rose retired with 4,256 hits, 17 All-Star Game appearances, three World Series championship rings and a daily dalliance with mob-connected bookmakers.

And while his reinstatement to baseball and Hall of Fame hopes have taken a nose dive, Rose should recall Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech as he’s signing “Hit King” autographs without pain.

He’s the luckiest man on the face of this earth.