The Pete Principle
Warrick and Rose offer lesson for sports
By Randy Horick
NOVEMBER 1, 1999: After two games, the World Series had the makings of a yawner, but if we ever pitted Major League Baseball executives against NBC sports moguls in a dimrod contest, boys, you'd have a knockdown, dirt-scratching lollapaloozer.
In case you're among the few who haven't telephoned your local NBC affiliate in a blue-yodeling funk, NBC's Jim Gray created a national furor Sunday night; he sprang an ambush interview on Pete Rose that might have evoked a jealous hissyfit from even Geraldo.
Rose, who had been chosen by baseball fans as one of the century's greatest players, was being honored at Turner Field. For one night, and one night only, baseball's pecksniffs had lifted Petey's lifetime ban from the game. It was a gala return to the ballpark for Rose, who of all the old greats received the longest, most raucously enthusiastic ovation from the crowd.
Perhaps the unfamiliarity of Pete's presence disoriented Gray, who during his tenure with the peacock network has embraced the role of fawning, obsequious questioner with a toady gusto. Instead of his usual interrogative softballs, Gray fired a succession of high, hard ones at Charlie Hustle's head.
"Aren't you your own worst enemy?"
"Why don't you just admit that you bet on baseball?"
"People might be surprised you didn't take this opportunity to address this question."
Rose, who has never exactly made himself the poster boy for self-restraint, this time checked his swing. He seemed more stunned and wounded than irate.
But public opinion rounded quickly on Gray, who seemed like the guest who stands up during the ceremony and objects to the wedding. Clips of the offending interview made newscasts around the country, and NBC was so deluged with irate calls that it felt obliged to issue a statement defending their feckless man with the mic.
Meanwhile, baseball's officialdom--who wanted to flog Gray for disrupting their party--had no one to blame but their own bad-brained selves.
It was the commissioner's office, after all, that banished Rose in 1989 from the garden for gambling (and especially, the office alleged, for betting on the team he managed, the Cincinnati Reds). Ever since, the baseball geniuses have been unable to resolve one niggling problem: how to credibly maintain a pantheon of the game's greatest players while excluding a man who, statistically, was the most prolific hitter of all time.
Of course, baseball has maintained this same farce since Joe Jackson's name was declared unmentionable in Cooperstown. (It's a little like those folks who refer to the late unpleasantness as the War of Northern Aggression, and exclude Fort Sumter from Civil War histories because they'd rather not be reminded it was their side that started shooting first.)
Every so often, a grassroots campaign arises--as after the film "Field of Dreams"--to allow Shoeless Joe and Pete Rose into the Hall of Fame. Their on-the-field successes, advocates maintain, should count for more than personal failures.
After all, upright living was never a criterion for admission.
Otherwise, Ty Cobb--the mean old man Rose eclipsed, and whose style Rose most resembled--would never have reached first base. For that matter, neither would have Babe Ruth, who on a productive evening was likely to commit more than half of the seven deadly sins without much exertion.
Baseball might have been content to putt along with blinders had it not been for its own gnarly Y2K problem. Like everybody and his dog, baseball's overlords wanted to augment fan interest by allowing them to select an All-Century team. Unfortunately, short of declaring that the balloting would be Louisiana-style--that is, purely ceremonial--there was no very plausible way to keep the rabble from choosing Rose. Which they did, and which led sequentially to Pete's encounter with Mr. Gray, who some now may take for a particularly disagreeable reincarnation of Howard Cosell.
This brings us to the week's other Pete--Warrick of Florida State--whose case provides an object lesson that baseball's befuddled masters would have done well to have studied carefully.
Ah, you remember the Seminoles. Mark Twain was a few decades too early for them. Otherwise, he might have revised his claim that Congress was America's only native criminal class.
Like Pete Rose, the 'Noles, bless their hearts, seem always to be yoked to giant magnets aimed at T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
First, an agent's agents lead half the squad on a Viking-style raid of plunder on a local FootLocker (leading Florida coach Steve Spurrier to suggest that FSU stands for "Free Shoes University." Then, a couple of weeks ago, Warrick--this year's leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy--and another starting receiver get busted in cahoots with a clerk for trading $20 for more than $400 in clothes.
Nominally, Warrick's arrest might present a problem for Florida State, which adopted a bold rule barring athletes charged with felonies from playing until their cases are adjudicated.
But the folks at Free Shoes U.--recently voted the top party school in America--recognize that a little bit of lawbreaking shouldn't stand in the way of Heisman campaigns and national championship marches. Besides, Warrick by all accounts is a likeable fellow who's never been in trouble before.
Still, even in a time when the concept of personal responsibility seems as antiquated as zeppelin travel, it seemed a little unseemly that Warrick's grand theft case would be treated as if it were a mere annoyance, like a groin pull. Everyone, especially the media--who spent most of their time wondering how Warrick's absence would affect his Heisman chances--understood that Pete's lawyers would plead the charge down to a misdemeanor, and a misdemeanor charge won't stop you from starring on the field at Florida State.
The school's president had a few qualms, since Warrick's original plea bargain was to include future jail time. But you know how out of touch these school presidents are.
Anyhow, this minor obstacle was easily surmounted. The judge, an FSU grad, simply canceled Pete's hoosegow stint in favor of community service. Meanwhile, howls for the president's head from alums persuaded him that his misgivings were misguided.
Troubles behind him, Warrick was back in the lineup last weekend, helping the Seminoles nip Clemson, and the Media Geniuses had resumed their Heisman hype.
Maybe the baseball boys should apply the Peter Warrick principle to the case of Pete Rose. Even if they could justify excluding Rose from the Hall of Fame--and I think they can't--they gain nothing but the ire of fans and the baggage that accompanies yappers like Jim Gray. If no one objects when a plea turns a felony into a mere vice, then surely someone who was guilty of mere vice all along ought to have another chance.
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