George Will

Hustle verb. to work or act rapidly or energetically.
-- Webster's New World Dictionary

WASHINGTON -- But ``hustle'' also is a noun: ``A way of making money, esp. a dishonest way.''

Pete Rose, who walked 1,566 times in his major league career but never walked to first base, always sprinting, was called Charlie Hustle. His new hustle is his book, for which he reportedly received a $1 million advance, in anticipation of sales generated by his coming clean about having bet on baseball, which no one seriously interested in the subject doubted. No one, that is, other than professional contrarians, or commentators emancipated from facts by not having read the 1989 report that caused Rose to accept ``permanent'' banishment from baseball.

Rose's coming clean is the most soiled conversion of convenience since ... well, Aug. 17, 1998, when DNA evidence caused Bill Clinton to undergo a memory clarification. On the diamond, no one ever wrung more success from less natural talent than Rose did. But his second autobiography -- which refutes the first -- makes worse the mess he has made.

The supposedly truth-telling book contains this patent lie: ``During the times I gambled as a manager, I never took an unfair advantage. I never bet more or less based on injuries or inside information.'' But he also says -- does he even read his autobiographies?--``I began betting regularly on the sport I knew best -- baseball.'' Managing the Reds, he knew -- he decided -- when a tired or injured star would be played or rested. And the network of bookies handling his bets knew that he knew.

While saying ``it's time to take responsibility,'' he cunningly exploits the Zeitgeist of today's therapeutic society. He is, he insists, a victim.

A victim of an addiction -- gambling while managing the Reds substituted for the ``high'' he had gotten when competing as a player. And he is a victim of a double standard: He would have been treated more leniently -- more therapeutically -- had his problem been drugs rather than gambling. But baseball has especially severe sanctions about gambling because competitive integrity is baseball's raison d'etre.

Americans, a forgiving people, are forever refuting the proposition that there are no second acts in American life. Almost anyone can recover from almost anything by convincingly saying ``I'm sorry.''

Rose lied -- and charmed the gullible -- for 14 years. Now, with the clock running out on his eligibility to election by baseball writers to the Hall of Fame, he pugnaciously says: I lied but ``I'm just not built'' to ``act all sorry or sad or guilty'' about it. ``Act''?

Rose's critics have said that repentance is a necessary -- not a sufficient -- prerequisite for restoring his eligibility to the Hall of Fame. Many, probably most, of Rose's critics are revolted by the moral obtuseness of his synthetic repentance.

His dwindling band of defenders responds that it is unfair to judge Rose not by what he does but by the way he does it. Yet regarding repentance, the way you do it is what you do.

Cooperstown primarily honors players for, in players' parlance, the ``numbers they put up.'' Hence it is widely believed that selection to the Hall is exclusively about the statistical residue of players' careers and should not involve a ``morals clause'' -- consideration of character.

But the rules for election by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America include: ``Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.'' The rules for voting by the veterans committee similarly mention ``integrity, sportsmanship, character.''

Some will say that if admittance to the Hall were limited by a strict calculus of character, the Hall would be much smaller. Yes, Babe Ruth might have hit even more home runs if he had gone to bed earlier, and more often with Mrs. Ruth. But not all character issues are equally pertinent to the proper criteria for honoring athletes' achievements. The crucial criteria concern the integrity of the competition.

Rose has said, ``I was raised, but I never did grow up.'' He is not the only ballplayer who will be forever a boy. But what distinguishes him is not mere boyish roguishness but a hard, calculating adult amorality. There is a constancy to it that goes beyond recidivism, which implies episodes of recovery between relapses.

On the evidence of his book, he should never be back in a major league uniform as a manager or coach. And he should not be admitted to the Hall of Fame unless its character criterion is declared irrelevant, which is not what the nation needs from the national pastime.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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