Commentary: Phillies didn’t have to bring back Pete Rose, but they could make things easier on themselves
The best thing that the Phillies can say about their 2022 Alumni Weekend is that they probably won’t have to go through that again. After Pete Rose spent Sunday reconfirming that, at age 81, he possesses the same Neanderthalic qualities that he had at 31 — and 41, and 51, and on and on — the Phillies’ decision-makers could at least take heart that the 50th anniversary of the franchise’s 1980 World Series team was eight years away. There’s no need to invite Rose back to Citizens Bank Park between now and then, and come 2030, there presumably will be fewer people around who remember Rose and, assuming he is alive and available, would want to see him return. Pete Rose? Eh. No thanks. Besides, that championship was a half-century ago, babe.
Of course, anyone with a passing familiarity with Rose knew or should have known that his presence threatened to ruin the event. That was true in 2017, when the Phillies rescinded plans to induct him into their Wall of Fame after a woman accused him in a lawsuit of having a sexual relationship with her in the 1970s before she had turned 16, and it was true Sunday. As it turned out, Rose’s presence also drew people’s attention away from the team’s dominance of the lowly Washington Nationals — the Phillies outscored them 36-12 over a four-game sweep — and the club’s recent excellent performance. The Phillies are 60-48, 20 games over .500 since June 1, and have inched ahead of the go-big-or-go-to-the-beach San Diego Padres for the National League’s second wild-card spot.
Considering the relative weakness of their remaining schedule, the moves that general manager Dave Dombrowski made at the trade deadline, and the impending return of Bryce Harper, the Phillies should keep up this high level of play. If they do, they would qualify for the postseason for the first since 2011, ending the second-longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball. But there would be another, longer-lasting benefit for the franchise, too, one that helps address the question that defined Sunday’s controversy:
If the Phillies know Pete Rose is such a jerk, if they understand he’s likely to say or do something to embarrass himself and them, why do they keep bringing him back?
That question, at first glance, has an obvious answer: The Phillies brought Rose back because people wanted them to bring him back. Those people, in the main, can be separated into two core constituencies: Phillies fans, many of whom gave Rose a standing ovation when he was introduced before Sunday’s game, and the other members of the 1980 team who apparently lobbied for Rose to be included in the festivities.
Ideally, managing partner John Middleton would have told all those people that Rose wasn’t welcome. He could have told them that, and he should have told them that; Rose is that much of a blight. But it would be easier for Middleton and the Phillies to sustain a hit at the ticket office and withstand the anger of Rose’s teammates if, when the time came to honor the franchise’s history, the pickings weren’t so slim.
Consider last weekend: The Phillies inducted two players from the ‘80 team into their Wall of Fame, and apart from their connection to half the world championships the Phillies have won in their 139-year history, those players had pretty thin resumés. Bake McBride played roughly four full seasons here without making an All-Star team. He was a pro, an excellent contact hitter with some pop, hardly a superstar. Ron Reed was a solid relief pitcher over his eight years with the Phillies but never saved more than 17 games in a season for them and, like McBride, was never an All-Star here.
But then, that’s the point, and that’s the problem that the Phillies face in these situations. This is a franchise that needs to win five more games to reach 10,000 victories but that reached 10,000 losses in 2007 ... 15 years ago. This is a franchise that reached the postseason just once in a 23-year period (1984 to 2006) and now is trying to end a 10-year streak without October baseball. This is a franchise that has only so many wells of great teams and players from which to draw, and those wells are only so deep.
There are the late 1970s-early 1980s clubs. There is the Macho Row team that won the 1993 NL pennant. There is the mini-dynasty of 2007-11. Yes, in the years ahead, a host of certain inductees will become eligible for the Wall: Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, more. It has been a struggle for the Phillies to get to those more deserving stars, though. Before McBride and Reed, the team’s most recent Wall of Fame inductee was Manny Trillo, also a standout on the ‘80 team, also here just four years. Jim Thome, inducted in 2016, had a great-but-brief tenure with the Phillies: three years. If the Phillies make the playoffs this season, the pool of Wall of Fame candidates and popular Alumni Weekend attendees would immediately double. Hell, Kyle Schwarber might be inducted next year.
What happens when you have as few options for paying tribute as the Phillies do? The standard for immortality gets stretched, and you rely on the sure things. You tap into your only sources of nostalgia. The faces who have attracted the most interest and enthusiasm in the past are counted on again to attract the longtime devotees who have aged along with them. Steve Carlton shuffles out of the dugout. Larry Bowa heads up to the TV booth. Greg Luzinski talks barbecue. So the Phillies cast their principles aside, call up Charlie Hustle, and cross their fingers, hoping that the cheers drown out the criticism and the memories of a long-ago World Series make everyone feel a little less icky.
And then someone sticks a microphone in front of Pete Rose’s face.