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Hold a Spot for Pete's Plaque at Cooperstown

I LIVE in a town that views the baseball world through Rose-colored glasses. Pete Rose was Cincinnati's favorite son way back when he wore a crewcut, and he reached the level of superhero long ago. Rose grew up on the gritty side of the city, playing in the Ohio River and tagging along with his father from sandlot football fields to sandlot softball fields. He was not the best baseball prospect on his high school team - and even when he became a big-league batting champion, he was not an uncommonly swift or picturesque player. His techniques at the plate were stubbornness and will. Rose was the spear-carrier for the Big Red Machine teams that won world championships in the 1970s and two decades la ter still occupy a sacred place in Cincinnati's psyche. He became the all-time hit leader because he set his mind to it. When he stopped playing and started managing the Reds full-time in 1986, he stood a good chance of becoming the first player elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame.

Of course, that won't happen.

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Now we know that Pete Rose gambled; baseball officialdom believes that he even bet on games. Although Rose still denies it, the evidence was sufficient for then-commissioner Bart Giamatti to place Rose on baseball's ``permanently ineligible'' list.

Then, having kicked Charlie Hustle out of the house, baseball last month tossed his photographs into the fireplace. For the first time in its 55-year history, the Hall of Fame determined that persons on baseball's permanently ineligible list (read: Rose) would be prohibited from induction into the shrine.

It is apparent that the men of baseball's highest offices wish never again to see Pete Rose's chiseled face. It is apparent, also, that they won't get rid of him as easily as that.

There is the matter of reinstatement. The permanent suspension can be rescinded, and if it is, Rose would become eligible for the Hall of Fame. It is not likely, though, that Rose will apply soon for reinstatement. The timing is not right. It was just a few weeks ago that Rose got out of federal prison, where he served five months for tax violations.

BUT the Hall of Fame action has raised noisy issues that will rattle around for a long time before Rose applies for reinstatement, if he ever does.

Included among these is the matter of baseball's autocratic administration in the Rose case. Baseball's unitarian leadership has simultaneously assumed all of the pertinent legislative, judicial, and executive authority. And it has done so in a flagrantly injudicious manner - imposing an ex post facto regulation that wasn't necessary for more than half a century.

The indiscretions for which Rose is being held accountable were committed after his playing days were over. No one has suggested that Rose ever gave less than his wonderful best on the playing field, which is the arena in which he should be judged as a Hall of Fame candidate.

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It is ironic that baseball's harsh action against Rose comes almost simultaneously with the Hall of Fame elections of pitchers Ferguson Jenkins and Gaylord Perry. Jenkins is a former drug offender, and Perry is widely suspected to have been a confirmed practitioner of the illegal spitball.

And it was only a quirk of timing that brought Rose's illicit activities to light prior to eligibility for the Hall of Fame, which would have arrived next winter. If the same scenario had occurred 10 years down the road, it is doubtful that Rose would have been expelled from the shrine. When Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were on baseball's ineligible list - although not permanently - because of their associations with casinos, there was never a hint of their removal from the Hall of Fame.

In a more parallel case, Paul Hornung is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite having been suspended for betting on a game in which he played. And while baseball cannot countenance any internal link with gambling, it has never tied a player's legacy to his moral stature.

Rose's prison sentence formalized the general knowledge that the all-time hit leader isn't a choir boy. In fact, in matters of social decorum, he has always been closer to, say, Ty Cobb. Or Babe Ruth. Cobb, the highest vote getter in baseball's first Hall of Fame election, was a ruthless competitor who once boasted of killing a man on the streets of Detroit. Ruth, second to Cobb in the charter vote of 1936, was an infamous debauchee. Yet we remember them for their marvelous baseball achievements.

So be it with Rose.

Here in Cincinnati, one runs the risk of being blinded by the local color while attempting to reach impartial opinions regarding Pete Rose. There is still a street named for him here.

Naturally, there has been some discomfort in Cincinnati over the notion of a thoroughfare named for a felon. But while that is a legitimate concern, Pete Rose Way seems no less appropriate - and more innocently conceived - than the roadblock put up in his name last month by the baseball burghers of Cooperstown, N.Y.

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