Pete Rose, Meet Junipero Serra

by Ken Briggs

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Junipero Serra and Pete Rose have become fellow brinksmen on a still shaky threshold of glory.

Serra is back in the running for sainthood after being tarnished by earlier outcries against his treatment of Native Americans. Rose, as most of the world knows, was banned from baseball for gambling on games while manager of the Reds, but this week a new major league commissioner opened the door for him to gain eligibility for baseball's canonization into the Hall of Fame.

The stains on both of their backgrounds testify to the impossibility of matching the ideals we concoct to imagine the existence of superior beings who lack ordinary perfidy.

Serra's record of alleged human rights violations were played down or obscured by the Vatican even as John Paul II announced that he would beatify the founder of a string of missions in Southern California in a grand public ceremony during his visit to the U.S. in 1987. Due to the indignation that then arose from historians and descendants of Serra's victims, however, the celebration was canceled. John Paul quietly did the deed the next year but for decades Serra's cause was placed out of sight presumably until the storm blew over and it was prudent again to elevate him. Pope Francis says he plans to follow through during his American tour later this year, installing Serra in the sainthood class of '15. A new round of protests has begun, fueled further by appeals to Francis' oft-stated advocacy for the poor and marginalized, but it would seem likely that the Vatican has anticipated the push-back and intends to install Serra despite the claims of injustice.

Rose, the greatest hit machine in baseball history, has been shut out of the game's eternal pantheon for 25 years on far lesser charges. He was always displayed the character of a mischievous boy whose instincts led him to scrapes with the law, but they appear harmless compared to the accusations against Serra. In fact, the rationale used to justify Serra, that he was simply reflecting the values and practices of his time, could be applied to Rose on a minor scale. Rose was wrong to bet on games and to get himself into barroom tangles, but before the advent of casinos which actually promoted gambling, betting and playing numbers were concessions to relatively small infractions. The excuse used for Serra involved conformity with such morally accepted practices as forced labor, coerced conversion and torture. 

So Serra and Rose wait in the wings for the big prizes. Rose's statistics make him flatly deserving; he seeks forgiveness for bad choices of personal scope. In Serra's case, even the "accomplishments" appear to be tainted.        


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