Friday, January 09, 2004

All that build-up, then two months go by with no posts. Hey, it's a New Year, and guess what one of my resolutions is?

CHARLIE HUSTLE: When I was eight I signed up for Little League Baseball, my first experience in organized sports. I was randomly assigned to a team called the Rebels, and randomly issued jersey number 14. There is no big-league team called the Rebels, but in my mind I identified us with the Cincinnati Reds: our colors were red on white, and the names were similar. And thanks to my number I secretly identified myself with Pete Rose.

I don’t know that Rose was my favorite player, exactly. He was more like my patron saint. Other players were more graceful, more powerful, more handsome. But you had to admire the Reds of the ‘70s, and they were on TV all the time, and Rose was one of the most vivid characters in baseball in that period. My father was preaching hustle to me as the cardinal virtue in athletics—Run everything out!—and I was saying Amen, since eight-year-olds make quite a few errors, so it obviously paid to run hard down the line on every batted ball. But more than a clever tactic, hustle was a moral imperative. It was a tribute you paid to the game. And as every fan knows, Pete Rose was Charlie Hustle himself. Diving for extra bases, backing up plays in the field. Sprinting down to first after a base on balls!

Earlier this week the news broke: Pete Rose admits he placed bets on major league baseball games while he was managing the Reds in the late ‘80s. For 14 years Rose had been denying this allegation. During that time I didn’t believe Pete Rose, and I didn’t disbelieve Pete Rose, but I did take his side in my small way (like, in about a dozen arguments on Internet discussion boards). Because official baseball had violated his due process.

But now he cops to it. After 14 years of stonewalling, Rose suddenly caves. And he hasn’t had a change of heart; I don’t even think he had a failure of will after 14 years. No, what Pete did this week was like a judo move: with skill and deliberation, he switched from resisting the attack against him, to yielding and trying to use the attacker’s inertia to his own advantage.

I still believe Rose’s due process was violated back in ’89. But I can’t suspend judgment anymore. Now I think the case of Pete Rose is something like the case of O.J. Simpson: Each time, they framed a guilty man. I feel foolish and betrayed, a little bit, but mostly I feel sad for what Pete Rose has become: a mean little man, hawking memorabilia on cable TV, flogging his quickie as-told-to book, collecting appearance fees to sign autographs at little ag expo halls.

I don’t have the heart to weigh in on the Hall of Fame debate, or the ethics of gambling by an employee of a major league ballclub. Let us stipulate that I am, a priori, a schmuck for viewing big-time sports as any kind of moral arena or crucible of character. But to see the guy whom I remember so well in his prime, and who seemed the very epitome of proper sporting ethics—to see him end up this way smarts a little.

A hundred other writers have beaten me to the play on the word “hustle.” Far from paying tribute to the game, Pete Rose was exacting tribute from it. He was doing this all along.

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