Twelve years after his final game as a baseball player, and a decade after he was banned from Major League Baseball, Pete Rose, appearing in a promotional event during the 1999 World Series, received the longest ovation of any man on the field.
When later that night an NBC sportscaster repeatedly asked Mr. Rose if he wanted to apologize to fans for having allegedly bet on baseball, the network was flooded with so many angry fan letters and denunciations from players and coaches that the announcer was soon forced to offer a contrite apology.
There is little question that as Pete Rose admits to having bet on baseball in a book released Thursday, most fans have already forgiven the game's all-time hit leader, a man whose unblinking and headlong passion for the game resonated with a public that has a proven love for working-class heroes. Even in Cincinnati, the city where as a manager-player Rose bet on baseball, and on his own team, fans want Rose back. According to one poll earlier this year, more than 50 percent want him to coach the Reds again.
Americans' loyalty to their sports heroes rivals that of canines to their owners. And the public characteristically holds athletes to a far lower standard of behavior than, say, US presidents or CEOs.
But even with athletics, the powers that be, say experts, will act to protect an ethical code that many fans might not take into account. "The one staple of the game is integrity," says Dan Doyle, executive director of the Institute for International Sport in Kingston, R.I. "The integrity of the game transcends even the wishes of the fans."
In his book "My Prison Without Bars," Rose describes a meeting last year with baseball commissioner Bud Selig during which he admitted to betting on baseball about five times a week between 1985 and 1987.
Since the league confronted Rose in 1989 with evidence of his gambling, the gritty 24-year veteran, who rounded the base pads with the abandon of a charging bull, stubbornly denied until this week any wrongdoing. "There hasn't been a day in my life when I didn't regret making those bets," says Rose in the book.
Rose's admission is widely viewed as part of a long-term gambit to get into the Hall of Fame. He will be eligible for acceptance by baseball writers for only two more years, at which point he must rely on Hall of Fame members' approval, which is far less certain.
Word that Selig is inclined to readmit Rose has been credited, in large part, to fan support. During a promotional event in San Francisco at the 2002 World Series, for example, Rose received a 70-second standing ovation and chants of "Hall of Fame!" An ESPN poll earlier this year found that more than 70 percent of respondents believe Rose should be reinstated into baseball.
The public's willingness to forgive Rose is rooted in fans' unique relationship with athletes, say experts. While baseball players are among the nation's wide cast of entertainers, they are also local heroes, taking the stage some 160 days a year on the household TV. "I think fans are more prone to emotional ties with brilliant athletes," says Mr. Doyle.
That hasn't always been the case. In the early 20th century, it was common for players to gamble on the games in which they played. Fans "connected professional sports with gambling and rowdiness," says Clifford Putney, author of "Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920."
The problem came to a head after the 1919 World Series, when eight Chicago White Sox players thrown out of baseball for allegedly throwing the games.
Fans' cynicism changed after World War I, as Americans' idealism waned and a new crop of charismatic, talented pro athletes took to America's pitches, fields, and boxing rings. One example: Babe Ruth, whose carousing only seemed to complement his fame. "Ruth was a womanizer during his entire career," says Charles Alexander, a history professor at Ohio University in Athens. "He was depicted in the press as a great big kid and fun loving guy."
Experts add that the relative social importance of athletics, compared with government and business, is certainly smaller. Because an athlete is counted on to defend a goal rather than the free world, personal integrity is less of an issue. "We don't expect an athlete to set a high moral standard," says Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College. "We do expect that from our generals and corporate leaders."
That could be one reason Mike Tyson, who has been convicted of rape and once bit the ear of an opponent, is still boxing, while Connecticut Gov. John Rowland (R), who admitted to accepting gifts for his summer cottage, could be forced to resign: Fifty-six percent of the registered voters surveyed for a new Quinnipiac University poll said he should, up from the 44 percent who said he should step down in a poll released Dec. 17.
If the avarice of Enron executives cost Americans millions in lost savings, and Bill Clinton's indiscretions monopolized the national agenda for months, corporate America and the US government were both likely to take steps toward recovery, say experts, largely because of the public necessity that they do so.
Because sports is not a necessary component of American life, it is more vulnerable to public disaffection. Doyle of the Institute for International Sport cites boxing, which has declined in popularity the past 50 years, in part because of the perception of corruption.
"If gambling were to become commonplace in pro sports," he says, "they [would be] over as we know them."