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Rose flap raises thorny social issue

AS A NATIVE Baltimorean, I have absolutely no reason to look forward to the World Series each year. In fact, I usually stop paying attention to baseball-related press coverage around the fifth game of the season, when the Orioles' incurable "losing streak" effectively takes Baltimore out of the running.

Recent media debate surrounding one particular baseball legend, however, had me glued to Game Two of the 1999 World Series between Atlanta and New York. The controversy extends beyond baseball and says something about our society.

During the game, Atlanta welcomed living members of the Major League Baseball All-Century Team to Turner Field. Over the summer, fans picked the past century's most legendary players for this honor. Among the famous names to grace the list was that of baseball's fallen angel, former Cincinnati Reds player and manager Pete Rose.

As Rose took a bow on the field, the stands erupted into a 55-second ovation that must have been heard around the world - or at least around the baseball's upper echelons. In 1989, the late Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti banned Rose from attending all official baseball functions. The lifetime sanction came in response to allegations that Rose had placed illegal bets on professional baseball games. Rose also was barred from election into baseball's revered Hall of Fame.

Although Rose had 4,256 career hits - more than any other major league player - he is not even allowed to enter a ballpark unless he has paid for a ticket like everyone else. In 1997, Rose appealed to major league baseball's present commissioner, Bud Selig, for formal reinstatement to the game. In the nearly three years since, Selig has handed down no official decision, but has commented to the press that he will not lift Giamatti's ban. Selig allowed Rose to attend this year's All-Century Team event simply because fans voted him onto the list of legendary figures, not because he'd undergone a change of heart.

Public opinion, however, has shifted. As Rose left the playing field, NBC Sports reporter Jim Gray caught up with him for an impromptu interview that sparked outrage from baseball fans everywhere. During the brief Q & A session, Gray tried to coax Rose into admitting that he had gambled on professional baseball. Interestingly, Rose seemed taken aback by the journalist's needling. Stalking away from Gray, the former ballplayer angrily remarked, "I'm surprised you're bombarding me like this on such a festive occasion."

The incident elicited angry responses from fans and commentators alike. MSNBC's Frank Staludis defended the athlete in his column, saying, "Pete Rose ... has become a sympathetic figure. He has a Clintonian quality to him. While we know he's flawed, we still forgive him."

Hold on a sec. Clintonian quality? I'm not so sure about that, Frank. While Rose may have been an excellent ball player, his possible illegal dealings make me reluctant to "forgive" all his flaws. Let's not forget that in 1990, Rose pleaded guilty to federal income tax evasion and served five months in jail. He's no martyr to the baseball gods. Why shouldn't Gray have felt justified in asking him hard questions?

An in-studio interview would have been more appropriate, but Rose is a big boy. He's been answering these questions for 10 years. The public allowed him the chance to receive official accolades in Atlanta despite the ban. All athletes have a responsibility to their fans. For this reason, Gray's line of questioning was fair game, and Rose should have been prepared to encounter the issue at the ceremony.

Instead, he looked at Gray as if he'd suddenly sprouted an extra head. Were the questions so irrelevant? Or are critics more concerned that Gray offended an aging sports figure who, in a decade, has graduated from corrupt to "colorful?"

This incident highlights yet another flaw in Americans' inconsistency when it comes to celebrities. Remember when British actor Hugh Grant was caught soliciting a prostitute? Plenty of people derided him for his "immoral" behavior then. After appearing on a late-night talk-show, however, and referring to himself as "a bad boy who did a bad thing," the nation forgave him. Maybe the accent won us over.

In any case, society's message is clear: You can be as corrupt as you want now, as long as you charm us later. What a credo. Journalists like Jim Gray have nothing to fear from peevish celebrities - it's the public that will silence any integrity still remaining in the news-gathering profession.

(Kiki Petrosino's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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