Coach's Corner

No sympathy for Pete Rose

Over the long haul -- in a big picture focus -- Pete Rose doesn't get much sympathy from me. As a player he was everything baseball could ask its players to be. He played with fire, verve, skill and guts. His record (as the cliché goes) speaks for itself. But this isn't about Rose -- I'll get to him later -- but about NBC reporter Jim Gray. Gray is being called by some, in the wake of his electronic ambush of Rose, the best interviewer on television. If this is true, consider it the most backhanded of compliments. It's not a real tough field -- tantamount, perhaps, to holding the title of Washington's most honest politician. Gray specializes in the ambush interview, a 90-second set-up where the subject of the interview is taken totally off guard, usually in the immediate wake of a big victory or defeat. He did exactly this to Phil Jackson in the moments after the Bulls won their last title, asking what passed for provocative questions about the team's break-up, that he knew damn well weren't going to be answered by Jackson but would, for sure, embarrass him.

But then Gray, who obviously has as large an ego as the athletes he interviews, didn't really expect an honest answer. He only covets the undeserved reputation of a "hard-hitting TV journalist." Find me one insightful comment he's ever pulled from an interview. I'm all for tough questions. Rose has plenty to answer for. The questions should be asked and answered -- but in an honest environment where the athlete understands what's going on and a dialogue can emerge. To grab Rose by the balls, on what was otherwise a wonderful night, right after a ceremony that brought tears even to my eyes, is a little like snatching a bride right off the altar and grilling her, in front of the wedding party, on past sexual transgressions. It stinks. I had little respect for Gray's work before, none now. His tabloid-style, arrogant, sound-bite interviews are an embarrassment to non-print guys like Jim Rome and Bob Costas, who will ask the tough question, but pull it off with some journalistic integrity.

This is no defense of Pete Rose. Rose isn't any kind of anti-hero. He's certainly not a victim. He was willing to accept a humiliating lifetime ban from the game he played so well -- the only thing he knew -- rather than face the apparently well-documented, highly incriminating charges that he bet on baseball, specifically on his own team, the Cincinnati Reds. Some, who should know better, now want to minimize this, saying it's no big deal, everybody bets on sports. They wonder why this little thing should keep Rose out of the Hall of Fame. Cobb was a racist. Babe was a womanizer. Lots of guys were drunks. Hey, it's being said, nobody's perfect. Indeed.

However, the game has no rules against racists, bad guys, drinking, or infidelity. It does have, posted in every clubhouse in the league, strict rules about gambling, particularly on your own sport. This all stems from baseball's darkest moment, the Black Sox scandal in 1919, an ugly event where a syndicate of professional gamblers succeeded in fixing the World Series. It shouldn't take a brain surgeon to understand some potential ramifications involved when participants of a sport are wagering on the games they play.

At the very least, the most benign possible picture of Rose is this: He had access to and used the most inside of insider information. He knew if a pitcher was hurt but pitching, or if a player thought to be injured was really healthy. These kind of tiny edges are invaluable to a gambler. Or maybe Rose, with $50,000 bet on a Reds game, took liberties with a tired or injured player for his own hidden agenda. And far darker pictures can be envisioned. A manager, deep in debt to fellows who desire repayment right now, could lose a close game all by himself and never be noticed.

I'm not suggesting that this happened. But it could. Easily. The rules concerning gambling protect the heart of the sport. The public must be convinced an honest contest is taking place, or you're left with wrestling.

Rose was a great player and was an outstanding ambassador for the game. But his weasel-like actions in this long-running matter, regrettably, have shamed him, staining a noteworthy career. Pete Rose is no victim. He committed the #1 sin in baseball, but has never shown the slightest contrition. He's banking on the short-term memory of the American public just forgetting about the whole thing. Gray's bogus, self-serving interview, far from drawing any kind of revealing response from Rose, is having the unintended effect of making a sympathetic martyr of the man.

Ten years ago, my nine-year-old son was flying -- alone -- to visit his grandparents in Chicago for the Christmas holidays. Somewhere over Arkansas the flight attendant came over to Adam and told him a man up front wanted to talk to him. The man claimed my son was wearing his shirt. He wanted to speak to Adam about how this theft took place. My befuddled son, wearing his official Chicago Bear jersey with a 34 on the back and the name Payton stenciled above, took the stewardess' hand and was led up to the first class section. He was soon standing before a glowering man who said, "Son, what are you doing wearing my shirt?" Even a nine-year-old understood the man, now grinning ear-to-ear, was kidding. The man was, of course, Walter Payton, who gave Adam an autographed football he just happened to have and signed the guilty jersey. "Sweetness" was about as appropriate a nickname as anyone ever had. Walter Payton, dead far too young at 45.

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