WHY DO YOU THINK THEY CALL HIM CHARLIE HUSTLE?

FUNNY THING about America. You do something wrong, people scream. They want your head. Then you disappear, other people do other wrong things, people scream for their heads. And one day, you’re back in the spotlight and –ta-da
— you’re forgiven.

I don’t know what you call this. The Forgiveness Of Fatigue? Whatever it is, Pete Rose is benefiting from it right now. Ten years ago, when Rose was banned for life from baseball, when a special investigator complied a 225-page report
— complete with gambling slips and bank records — suggesting Rose bet on his own Cincinnati Reds more than 50 times, he was an outcast. A scoundrel. People called him “an embarrassment to the game.”

Now, a decade later, here was a chilly Sunday night in Atlanta, before Game 2 of the World Series. And for the first time since his banishment, Rose was allowed on a major league diamond.

The occasion was a ceremony for something called the All-Century team. Didn’t matter. It could have been the 10 Worst Haircuts in Sports. Rose was in a big-league park. It was an “event,” the way we like events in America, with stirring music and the voice of a kindly announcer, Vin Scully. When Scully boomed, “Pete Rose,” there was thunderous applause. Rose smiled.

True, many of those clapping were, a decade ago, the same fans who wanted Rose dropped in the ocean. But that was then, this is now. Rose is suddenly a nostalgic figure who doesn’t look so bad compared to the wife-beaters, drug-users and rich autograph refuseniks in baseball today.

Besides, America just found someone new to call “an embarrassment to the game.”

The man who had the audacity to ask Pete Rose a tough question.

And for his next trick . . .

Let’s get something straight. Athletes play games. Fans cheer. And journalists inquire.

Jim Gray, who works for NBC, is a journalist. Not the way a former jock like Ahmad Rashad is a journalist — which to him means having dinner with Michael Jordan the night before and all but polishing his shoes when he “interviews” him the next day. No, Gray, who never played the pro game and doesn’t seem worried about which designer suit he is wearing, approaches his job the old-fashioned way: with a responsibility toward probing the issues, no matter how uncomfortable.

Gray tried this Sunday with Rose — and fans want him tarred and feathered. They say he was out of line. It wasn’t the time. Wasn’t the place.

Why not? This “ceremony” wasn’t a solemn occasion demanding special sensitivity, as certain fans suggest. Dramatic music and footage aside, this whole thing was just another “best of the century” concoction to help TV get ratings and MasterCard to sell its product.

The only newsworthy aspect was that Rose was allowed to attend it.

Did this signal an olive branch by commissioner Bud Selig? Was there an opening for Rose to end his exile, and perhaps achieve his most obsessive goal, getting in the Hall of Fame?

Gray took that mentality into his interview. After a brief congratulations he quickly asked Rose if he were “willing to show contrition, admit you bet on baseball and make some sort of apology to that effect?” — which is what most experts feel is necessary for Rose’s ban to be lifted.

Rose responded, “Not at all, Jim. I’m not going to admit to something that didn’t happen.”

Gray pressed on. “With the overwhelming evidence in that report, why not make that step?”

Rose: “No …I don’t know what evidence you’re talking about. I mean, show it to me.”

Gray: “The report says …but we don’t want to debate that, Pete.”

Rose: “Well, why not?”

Now, at this point, Gray was trapped in a familiar Rose conversation. Pete wants to debate, but he wants to deny everything, too. He’ll go on forever. And if you are a TV interviewer, there simply isn’t time. Gray stumbled with more questions, mistakenly got defensive, and — despite a fair question about why Rose agreed to the ban if he were so innocent — adopted a tone of voice that Americans despise, that of a know-it-all.

Then Rose delivered the whammy.

“I’m surprised you’re bombarding me like this,” he said. “I mean, I’m doing an interview with you on a great night …and you’re bringing up something that happened 10 years ago.”

Pete Rose, victim.

Houdini couldn’t have pulled off a better escape.

…Pete will play the victim

Never mind that it was Rose, not Gray, who may have blatantly violated the rules of his sport. Never mind that despite Rose’s “surprise,” he had earlier in the day done a 45-minute press conference on similar issues — after appearing at a casino, of all places, to sign autographs for money.

Never mind. Rose played hurt in front of the whole world. And the world bought it.

By Monday morning, angry viewers around the country were demanding Gray’s dismissal. MasterCard wanted an apology. (Great. Now a sponsor gets to tell the interviewer what questions to ask.) There were even Web sites on the Internet calling for a ban on NBC until Gray was punished.

What exactly was his crime?

I’ll tell you. He was mean.

He was mean, and dogged, and he symbolized the negative image of journalists in our paparazzi/Monica Lewinsky/Inside Edition world.

And because our society has grown so shallow, so moved by looks or tone of voice, rather than substance, we feel sorry for Rose and take his side.

Should Gray have been less abrasive? Sure. Should he perhaps have ended the interview after two questions, when he saw it going nowhere? Yes.

But to brand him evil for not lobbing mushball questions at Rose — a guy who may have managed a major league team he had just laid a bet on — is far more damaging. It suggests we shoot the messenger rather than hear bad news.

And it puts a star athlete above the rules.

Which, come to think of it, may have been Pete Rose’s problem all along.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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