The People v. Charlie Hustle 

There are few choir boys in the Hall of Fame, so why pick on Petey?

There are few choir boys in the Hall of Fame, so why pick on Petey?

Pete Rose is starting to look a little like Larry Flynt to me. It’s not just the puffiness and bad hair. It’s not even the combative-beyond-the-point-of-respectability nature Charlie Hustle and the publisher of Hustler share. It’s that both can make a serious point, even though it’s difficult to take either of them seriously.

Whenever people used to castigate Flynt’s little mag for publishing pictures whose raunchiness made Penthouse’s Bob Guccione look classy by comparison, Flynt would ferret out a few extra-gruesome war photos of corpses gutted by shrapnel, or a heinous close-up of the victim of a shotgun blast. Then, in the accompanying text, he would ask which image was truly obscene: decomposing flesh or fleshy thighs. Flynt’s argument never made him a particularly sympathetic character, and on his best days he never got closer than three bubbles to plumb, but he did have a point.

Similarly, Petey Rose defiantly held out for all these years, faithfully and falsely maintaining that he had never bet on major league baseball. Finally, last week, he managed to concede the truth that everyone already knew, without really acknowledging that his detractors had been right all these years.

It’s hard to muster much sympathy for Rose, who has all the charm of a Tunica pit boss and the suaveness of Jethro Bodine. He probably would’ve made a terrific aluminum siding salesman had it not been for his baseball gifts. And yet Rose has a point in insisting that he meant (and did) no harm to the game. As much in denial as the hypocritical critics may be who want to preserve the purity of the Hall of Fame by keeping it Rose-free, it would be well beyond Pete’s formidable capabilities to damage baseball’s credibility more than its nominal champions already have.

Pete’s sin, other than being a congenital pain in the hiney, was to bet on baseball games while he managed the Cincinnati Reds. In his own wacked way, his behavior followed certain ethical standards. He never bet on his own team, for example (and even if he did, he would only bet on them to win). So, in his mind, if he wasn’t fixing games, how could he harm baseball? And why shouldn’t he use his commanding knowledge of the players to gain a little extra sump’n-sump’n?

Pete’s antennae apparently weren’t sensitive enough to clue him that baseball, the only big-league sport whose championships were ever fixed by gamblers, reserves its version of the death penalty almost exclusively for betting men. Or maybe Rose’s compulsions overwhelmed him.

Either way, a significant number of Baseball and Media Geniuses insist that, while Rose’s confession was cleansing, it can never remove enough of the stain for him to be enshrined at Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame, they sniff, should be the exclusive domain of those of good character.

And this is where the Larry Flynt “what’s the real obscenity?” argument starts to attain a certain weird credibility. If we start making moral character a criterion for admission, baseball not only would save a lot of money on future busts in the museum, it would have to posthumously de-induct a whole bunch of our heroes.

Babe Ruth would be out right away. In his case, we wouldn’t even need a hearing. For the Bambino—who on a long train trip reportedly once announced that any women remaining in a particular coach after five minutes would be raped—going for the cycle could have easily meant committing four of the seven deadly sins in one day.

Likewise with Joe DiMaggio, the elegant slugger whose reputation has been badly tarnished by revelations of his brutal treatment of wife Marilyn Monroe. Ty Cobb’s offenses, none of which included gambling, are too numerous to list here; but entering the stands to beat up a crippled old man would be enough to disqualify him on the moral virtue front.

Mickey Mantle would be removed, though his hard drinking might earn him a consolation spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Willie Mays? Fuhgeddaboudit. He once associated with a casino. Even the great Ted Williams would be borderline, depending on how much a pleasant disposition counts.

Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner who excommunicated Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven Black Sox of 1919, would be out, too, since his virulent racism helped keep baseball segregated for years. Nor would there be a place for the current commissioner, Bud Selig. When he wheedled Milwaukeeans into building a lavish new stadium for his team, Bud promised an improved product on the field. Not only have the Brewers been less successful in every succeeding year, they have continued to reduce their payroll; as an organization, they’re barely even trying.

And we’re not even counting the players’ union, whose stubborn, separate pursuits of avarice have done more to undermine the game than Pete Rose could have managed with Bill Gates’ fortune as his gambling budget.

Fortunately for everyone, baseball is the game where greatness has always been measured by statistics. In the end, that should be the overwhelming measure for Cooperstown, too. Rose, as the hustler with more base hits than anyone who ever played, even Cobb, should be a cinch. Besides, if we limited admission to the saints, the Hall would have hardly anyone but Christy Mathewson, Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente. That would get pretty boring (not to mention downright un-American).

So I say Rose gets in the Hall, and we leave God to decide whether he gets into the Iowa cornfield. Shoeless Joe gets in, too. And when they do, Larry Flynt gets to read the introductions.

Remembering the Titans

In losing four straight Super Bowls, the Buffalo Bills pulled off the most amazing accomplishment in NFL history. That’s worth remembering in light of the Titans’ 17-14 loss at New England.

Over the past five seasons, the Titans own the best cumulative record in the league. In four of those years, they’ve been good enough to reach the Super Bowl. But they have played in only one.

To get there, you have to be exceptional and more than a little lucky. The Titans were neither on Saturday. Though they dominated after the first period, penalties twice moved them out of good field-goal position. Though Drew Bennett played brilliantly, the one pass he dropped would have put the Titans in chip-shot range for a tying field goal. And though Steve McNair played well—and despite injury—Pats QB Tom Brady played even better. Meanwhile, two unlucky, highly questionable penalties on their final drive pushed the Titans back and made the last desperate pass necessary.

Fans in Nashville spent the week talking about coulda/woulda/shoulda. But they are fast learning a difficult lesson about life in the NFL: By itself, being good enough usually isn’t good enough.

How It Looks from the La-Z-Boy

Patriots 27, Colts 24

Eagles 20, Panthers 16

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