Thursday, October 28, 1999

Why did fans jump to defend Pete Rose?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The barrage of political ads has begun. What will galvanize citizens? What will bring us to our feet? What will get us out of the chat rooms and into the voting booth? What will make us spring out of our Barcaloungers, ready to take sides?

        Diane Goldsmith has a nearly silent TV ad, underscoring her willingness to think before she talks if she's elected to Cincinnati City Council. Phil Heimlich's yard signs promise safer neighborhoods, better schools. School district officials are threatening cuts and begging for help.

        They are making things far too complicated.

Winning photo op
        They should simply have their pictures taken with Pete Rose. Or they should call a news conference in his support. Maybe they could call for a resolution to ban Jim Gray from Hamilton County. Or Ohio. Or the United States of America. Suggest a suitable punishment for blow-dried TV weasels, such as three days in the electric chair.

        We will put up with plaster falling on the heads of children in the classroom before we will allow somebody to tromp on one of our sports heroes. The last time I remember such a spirited public debate is when Roberto Alomar spit on an umpire in 1996.

        As you know, unless you have been in a very deep coma, Pete Rose was interviewed by NBC's Jim Gray on the occasion of Pete's appearance with the All-Century Team. The reporter asked Pete to apologize for betting on baseball. Pete said he wasn't going to admit to “something that didn't happen.”

        No blows were exchanged. The interview took a little less than three minutes and consisted of 541 words. Almost immediately, the outrage began. The Enquirer's editorial department received 349 e-mails the first day. They continue to come in by the dozens. Phones at WLW-TV (Channel 5) rang non-stop for two hours after the interview aired on that station Sunday night.

        And it's not just in Cincinnati, where Pete collected most of his 4,256 hits. The Denver Post reported that “everyone had an opinion Monday morning. Did Gray learn to be rude in Denver? He grew up here.”

Universal outrage
        In Atlanta, where the interview took place, the Constitution reported, “Out of 1,000 e-mail letters and telephone calls, only a handful supported Gray.”

        The volume and velocity is baffling. At least to me.

        So, I asked Barbara Pinzka, who was Pete's publicist from 1989 to 1990, ringmaster of the media circus after Pete was kicked out of baseball. She is, not incidentally, a disaster relief specialist.

        She says she's not surprised. “After the warmth and sentimentality of the All-Century Team ceremony, it was like watching your child get whacked in front of the class at the end of honors assembly.”

        We like Pete. He has been around for a while. A friend of mine says Pete signed a baseball for him in 1963. “I still remember what he said to me.”

        Which was?

        “Go to the bathroom, kid, and get some paper towels to wrap around this. So you won't get your greasy fingers all over it.”

        That sounds just like Pete, doesn't it? Rough around the edges. Good-hearted. Not to mention talented. An incredibly hard worker. And, above all, a jock.

        So people sprang from their easy chairs and went to the trouble of finding the area code for New York. They pulled up MSNBC on their computers. They wrote letters sticking up for somebody they know, somebody who is really good at hitting baseballs. They raged at their familiar enemy — the media.

        The gallons of ink expended on this matter, the thousands of letters and messages and phone calls probably has shed more heat than light. It's doubtful that we learned anything new about Pete Rose. Or sports reporting. Or gambling.

        But maybe we learned something about ourselves.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears regularly on WVXU radio and Insight's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

Gray saves face, thanks to Steinbrenner