Pete Rose is baseball’s all-time hits leader, but not according to this year’s collection of Topps baseball cards.
Rose, who was declared permanently ineligible from baseball for allegedly betting on games, has had his name wiped from the back of this year’s cards.
Clay Luraschi, a spokesman for Topps, called the omission of Rose “a simple decision” but declined to elaborate. When pressed, he repeated that it was “plain and simple” that Rose’s name should not appear on cards.
But there’s nothing plain and simple about it all — not for fans and card collectors like me. When I was a kid, baseball cards were at the heart of my love for the game. I learned much of what I knew about baseball by reading the backs of cards. The cards measured success and failure. They taught history. If studied long and hard enough, they revealed secrets. A collection of Topps cards, to me, was like an encyclopedia. You could trust it.
Now, of course, there’s the Internet. Fans don’t need cards to learn how many hits Derek Jeter had in 1999. But I still collect them, even though I’m 44 years old now. For me, they’re like a time machine, taking me back not only to my youth, but to a time before steroids and greed complicated the game’s meaning.
That’s why the snub of Rose came as such a shock. I purchased a few packs of the new 2013 Topps set two weeks ago and excitedly unwrapped them. As I did, I noticed something different. On the back of each card, wedged between each player’s personal information and his “Complete Major and Minor League Batting Record,” there’s a little line labeled “Career Chase.” On every card, whether the player is a living legend or a rookie, there is a sentence indicating how close that player is to reaching one of the game’s big records.
For Paul Konerko, the Career Chase line indicates that his 422 career home runs are 340 shy of Barry Bonds’ career record of 762. Konerko — who is knocking on the door of 37 years of age — has an outside chance at 500 career home runs, but he certainly won’t approach Barry Bonds’ record. The Career Chase line isn’t meant to suggest he’s closing in, but it helps put his accomplishments in perspective.
Another example, courtesy of Topps: John Danks has 57 career wins, which puts him 454 behind career leader Cy Young.
OK, I get it.
But then I flip the card Starlin Castro, whose solid start as the shortstop for the Cubs has him sitting at 529 hits, which is—as Career Chase points out—a mere 3,727 away from the all-time record of 4,256 held by…. Wait a second. Topps doesn’t say who holds the record. Every other record has a name attached, but not where the hits record is concerned.
I thought maybe it was an accident. I checked another a card. On A.J. Pierzynski’s card, I learn that he’s 2,611 hits away from the all time leader. Again, there’s no name listed.
Am I the only one who finds this absurd?
Sure, Rose is permanently ineligible from playing, coaching, or managing in baseball, and that ineligibility means he’s also excluded from the Hall of Fame. But is Topps trying to wipe away our memory of him altogether? Would they like for fans to be in awe of his record 4,256 hits, but unaware of the man who struck them?
The decision to ignore Rose is particularly questionable given the ongoing furor over performance enhancing drugs. Barry Bonds and other suspected steroid cheats have so far been denied entry to the Hall of Fame. Yet Topps has chosen to take the bloom only off of Rose. Why? Do they deem his crimes more serious? Is their standard that permanently ineligible players should be denied recognition? They’re not saying.
But wouldn’t it have been a more courageous and meaningful gesture to erase Bonds’ record? After all, “the cream and the clear” undoubtedly helped him overtake Hank Aaron’s record. Whatever Rose’s wagering activities were, they didn’t add a single hit to his career total.
And if the company intends to make subjective judgments about players, what’s next? Should the achievements of Denny McLain be taken away for his crimes? What about Mark Grace and his second DUI conviction? Maybe Todd Helton needs to be banned for his DUI arrest? Ty Cobb went into the stands and nearly beat a fan to death back in 1912, but the fine print on every Topps wrapper informs us that the name “Ty Cobb” is a trademark of the Estate of Ty Cobb. So betting on games gets you banned, but attacking a fan gets a pass. I don’t understand that one at all.
The point is, baseball cards are not supposed to pass judgment. The game is complicated enough these days. Baseball cards should be simple, beautiful, and true. They should tell us who played the game and how they played it.
Plain and simple.