Gray's feat: turning Rose into victim

October 28, 1999|By Bill Reynolds | Bill Reynolds,PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

"Curse of the Bambino" is not the only ghost that never seems to go away.

There's also the ghost of Pete Rose.

It's been 10 years since Rose was banned from baseball, but the issue still seems to float over the game like a blimp. You would think by now that the issue would be the very definition of yesterday's news, but it's seemingly got more staying power than a kid hustling candy on Halloween night.

We can thank Jim Gray for the latest example.

Gray, of course, is the NBC sideline reporter who, in the midst of baseball's honoring the greatest players of the century Sunday night in Atlanta, tried to get Rose to admit that he had actually bet on baseball.

Forget for a moment that the entire concept of sideline reporter is the journalistic equivalent of a fly at a barbecue. Or that, by their very definition, sideline reporters are superfluous, rarely asking any question anyone really wants to hear.

All Gray did was make Rose more of a martyr, a role he so obviously relishes. By choosing the wrong time to ask Rose the question, Gray became the skunk at the garden party. Ironically, Rose became the victim.

Just how, 10 years later, Rose has become perceived as the victim in this sorry little scenario is a little difficult to understand. But we live in a forgive-and-forget culture, one that has little memory of past sins. Maybe that's understandable given today's anything-goes climate, where the president gets impeached, assorted felons are given second chances and gambling is presented as family entertainment.

Pete Rose? Hasn't the statue of limitations run out on that by now, regardless of what he did?

That seems to be the current perception, judging by the swell of public opinion that's rained down heavy on Gray. Even before Sunday the prevailing opinion seemed to be that Rose already had paid his dues, and that baseball is now simply carrying a grudge.

Sunday's incident has only seemed to make Rose more popular. To the point that Gray felt the need to apologize on national television Tuesday night before the Yankees-Braves game.

Gray's timing aside, however, the incident -- and the fallout from it -- raises another issue: namely, how many athletes want it both ways. On one hand, they want to use the media as just another public-relations vehicle; on the other, they want to avoid any difficult questions. In short, they want it on their own terms.

Rose is Exhibit A.

In the decade since he was banned from baseball, Rose has shown little remorse for tarnishing the game that's not only defined his life, but also made him rich and famous. He has done a zillion card shows. He has hosted a talk show. He has lived off his celebrity. He has been very much in the public eye, spinning his situation wherever and whenever he could.

Then he gets asked an obvious question, and he responds as though he's been asked whether or not he beats his wife.

Please.

Don't be fooled.

By any standard of measure, Rose has benefited greatly from the media. It was the media, after all, that perpetuated the "Charlie Hustle" mystique, the perception of Rose as a throwback to some better baseball era. It was the media who helped him to become an America icon.

Let's face it: Without the media, these are just games played in vacuums, pictures on the inside of caves. The media is the greatest myth-maker there is, shaping opinions, creating perceptions, coloring the way we view the world. It's the media that's made the Pete Roses of the world famous.

Don't believe me?

Then why did all the old Hollywood studios have publicists?

The moguls knew what fueled the industry.

Sports is no different, and Rose is certainly savvy enough to know this. He no doubt understands that an athlete's relationship to the media is a symbiotic one. Rest assured, he's also savvy enough to know that when he steps in front of someone with a microphone it's all fair game -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Which is why his new role of victim is a little hard to swallow.

Rose is not the only athlete who wants it both ways.

We see this all the time.

Athletes live more and more in cocoons: Lionized by fans, who mostly treat them as if they were descended from royalty. Watched over by agents. Marketed by companies who shape their image. Paid enormous amounts of money to play games kids play for free.

Is it any wonder many of them don't like it when someone asks them a hard question?

Any wonder why they seem to think it's unfair?

Case in point: the Yankees agreeing to shun Gray Tuesday night in protest of Sunday night.

It all seemed rather juvenile, also short-sighted. Or have the players forgotten it's NBC that's paying the freight for the series, the principle reason why they make the money they do? Are the players so clueless as to what drives the sports business in this country? Or do they simply not care, their megasalaries making them immune?

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