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A boy with dreams, a tarnished idol

The series 'Clubhouse' on CBS and ESPN's Pete Rose bio 'Hustle' delve into baseball and its various scandals.

September 25, 2004|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

A major league clubhouse, Reggie Jackson once observed, is "one of the seductions of baseball; it is a place where you don't have to grow up."

As someone who spent 21 years not growing up inside major league clubhouses, Jackson knew what he was talking about. To walk the tunnel that connects the clubhouse, a baseball team's inner sanctum, to the dugout is to time-travel between adolescence and adulthood.

Signs should be posted.

Alongside the playing field, where players conduct their business and put multimillion-dollar careers on the line every day: Men at Work.

Inside the clubhouse, where players let off steam engaging in horsing-around rituals that have sustained them since T-ball: Children at Play.

A place where you don't have to grow up sounds like a place television might want to explore. Not surprisingly, ESPN has decided to have a swing at it, but so has CBS -- taking the concept so literally it cast Jeremy Sumpter, the kid who played the lead in the movie "Peter Pan," in its new dramatic series "Clubhouse," which premieres Sunday. Sumpter plays a big-league batboy with some teenage issues.

Tonight, ESPN trots out its much-hyped "Hustle," which involves Tom Sizemore tarnishing his career by attempting to portray Pete Rose tarnishing his career by betting on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds during the 1980s.

Hey, no one ever said it was always safe inside the clubhouse.

Both shows present themselves as morality plays in cleats, beating the same theme to a pulp with a Louisville Slugger: Yes, there is lying in baseball, and lying in baseball can lead to grave consequences.

Such as getting banned from the game for life, being barred from the Hall of Fame, ruining friendships, straining family relationships -- and landing a pretty cool job as batboy for the New York Empires.

"Clubhouse" features Sumpter as 16-year-old Pete Young, who dreams of becoming a batboy for the Empires, a fictionalized replica of the New York Yankees. Pete lives on Staten Island and still pines for the father he remembers going to baseball games with, who left the family when Pete was 6. He gets the batboy gig by lying to his mother and high school principal, keeps it by lying to cover up an Empire player's steroid stash and gets in trouble only when he starts telling the truth.

That sounds like a script written by Rose, who spent 15 years denying he ever bet on baseball while managing the Reds, even after agreeing to a lifetime ban from the game in 1989 for gambling on sports. Rose, who always figured he was bigger than the game, given his all-time big-league hits record and icon status as "Charlie Hustle," took "lifetime" to mean in his case "a year, maybe two, max."

"Everybody loves a winner," Sizemore's Rose says in the opening minutes of "Hustle." In Rose's mind, how could a winner as popular as he not be reinstated within a couple dozen months? Baseball without Rose was unimaginable to Rose. Baseball had a different view.

The stubborn streak that served Rose so well as a player betrayed him as he waited for a reprieve that never came. When a few months turned into 15 years, Rose finally acknowledged his baseball gambling, which included betting on the Reds. In classic "Charlie Hustle" form, Rose decided to make his confession in a book, "Pete Rose: My Prison Without Bars," and maybe rake in some bucks in the process.

Released earlier this year, the book was more alibi than apology. Public reaction was cold. Rose couldn't believe it. He came clean, and still he remains in exile? See what telling the truth gets you.

Beyond that, the book inspired ESPN, forever seeking fodder for its "original entertainment" division, to take a closer look at Rose's fall from grace. "Hustle" is essentially the counterargument to Rose's book.

Rose's reputation gets dragged around the infield for a couple of hours, but he's not alone. Sizemore, a veteran of such critically praised films as "Saving Private Ryan" and "Black Hawk Down," is dealt the no-win assignment of trying to give extra dimensions to a character equipped with only one. Worse for Sizemore, he's also handed what appears to be a very bad Beatles wig. The bookies might have taken Rose for a stooge, but that didn't mean Sizemore had to play him looking like Moe Howard.

You would have thought ESPN had learned its lesson with Brian Dennehy, woefully miscast as basketball coach Bob Knight in the farcical "Season on the Brink." But "Hustle's" credibility is similarly strained when the actor playing Rose doesn't look like Rose, doesn't talk like Rose, doesn't do much of anything like Rose.

"Hustle" is directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who pops up from time to time as a psychiatrist on "The Sopranos." Sizemore plays Rose like one of the losers who gets in over his head with Tony Soprano's gang, all twitchy and eager to please, slapping high-fives with Janszen (played by Dash Mihok) and rallying his reluctant cohort with cries of "Who's better than us?"

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