Look Who Made the List

   He was my favorite player on my most hated team.  “Charlie Hustle,” the papers called him. Pete Rose was the heart and soul of the Big Red Machine, the Cincinnati Reds. He personified baseball. His uniform was only clean during the National Anthem. He ran to first base, even if he was walked. He would bowl over the catcher blocking the plate in an inconsequential All Star game. He would mash a second baseman breaking up an attempted double play. He never trotted out routine grounders, but blitzed first base in the event the fielder bobbled the ball.

   Charlie Hustle was a clutch pressure player. He put pressure on pitchers—he was one of baseball’s greatest hitters. He put pressure on catchers—even with average speed, he would steal if given half a chance. He put pressure on the corners, the first and third baseman—he was one of the games best bunters. He put pressure on himself and he delivered. His slap hitting got him on base at clutch times in the games—Pete Rose was an extremely hard out during crunch time. He would sacrifice to advance a runner to second or third in the late innings of the game. An excellent contact hitter, he was perfect for hit and run situations. He was a superb fielder, making the All Star team at several infield and outfield positions.

   Peter Rose didn’t leave anything to chance. He carefully studied opposing pitchers and hitters. He was a baseball stat junkie. He studied tendencies and probabilities. He studied where hitters hit the ball. He knew if batters bunted. He knew all the pitchers pick off moves. He always knew when a catcher was hurt and could be beat on the base paths. Charlie Hustle knew the game. He studied, he worked hard, he played above his ability, and he won!

   As a league MVP and a star player, Pete helped lead the Reds to several world championships. Along with Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, and Joe Morgan, he was part of one of the most dangerous batting line ups ever to play the game. They were the Big Red Machine and he was their chief cog. For a time, Charlie Hustle was baseball.

   His was the dream scenario. He was a superstar on a team beloved by its fans. Pete was glorified as everything good in baseball by the media. He retired a conquering hero. Charlie Hustle ended his career with more hits than anyone who ever played the game. But Pete Rose didn’t leave the game or the Reds. Pete Rose, Charlie Hustle, Mr. Cincinnati Red, was hired to manager the team he loved. They named a street near the stadium in his honor. He was living his own dream. He was just passing time doing what he loved, waiting until the sports writers voted him into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The only other place Pete Rose cared about was Cooperstown—heaven’s reward to baseball’s best.

   Then the bubble burst and the dream began to crumble. His team played poorly as the starting line up was depleted with injuries. The Big Red Machine was a dilapidated wreck. To make matters worse, rumors flit about linking Pete to inappropriate contacts with   “undesirables” and   “reputed gamblers.” Family problems and criticism from his ex–wife and his children made headlines. Everything in Charlie Hustle’s life was comingapart at the seams.

   The sport reporters who once pedestalized him, now vilified him. They hounded him. They circled the Cincinnati Reds locker room like buzzards waiting to claim a carcass. Fans turned on him. As the pressure intensified, Pete’s demeanor grew more and more explosive. What his poor choices hadn’t destroyed, his defensiveness, explosive temper, and tirades directed at reporters completed. Charlie Hustle was no longer a nickname for a superstar but a pejorative title for a low life.

   The rumors weren’t rumors, they were facts: gambling, income tax evasion, and financial mismanagement. The consequences soon followed. Pete Rose was banned for life from baseball. For Charlie Hustle, there would be no old timer games, no more managing professional teams, no more uniforms, no more warm Florida springs, no more smell of the grass, and no more the crack of the bat. To top it all off, the commissioner who banned him from baseball died suddenly of a heart attack. The pressure, stress and disappointment of the whole Pete Rose affair was the considered cause of the heart attack.

   Mr. Baseball, Charlie Hustle, was sentenced for income tax evasion and sent to prison. The headlines battered his image just as they once bannered his exploits. Pete Rose was reduced to a baseball card signing , fallen Achilles. He would do almost anything to raise money for his legal expenses. Ultimately the great American baseball hero had become a con, a pariah banished to prison and barred from baseball.

   For awhile, the   “moral icons” of the media debated whether he should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. How could such an important role model who failed so miserably be allowed into baseball’s hallowed hall? How could someone so disgraced make baseball immortality? How could we reward the moral failure of such a public person? After a while, the media assumed it was a dead issue. Charlie Hustle was finished with baseball.

   Somewhere along the way, we all forgot baseball was just a game. Big boys playing little kids’ game. Often the difference between the two is skill and size, not maturity. We forgot the pro games provided us a place to go and see big kids playing a game we loved while we ate peanuts and hot dogs, spilled cokes, booed the villains, applauded our heroes, and dreamed it was us.

   Charlie Hustle’s sin arose from his greatest virtue. He had captured the dreams of the average Joe. He was a blue collar player in a blue collar town. He was   “perfect proof” that an average talent with a big heart, who worked hard, hustled consistently and played smart could make it in the big leagues. The vicarious dreams of all of us average athletes clung to him like his sweaty t-shirts. We didn’t love him, we idolized him. He was an average guy baseball god! When he gave up the straight and narrow for an obsession with the dark side, we couldn’t stand it. He reminded us that average guys are just that, average guys. We do some things well, but deep down, we all have our Achilles heel. Sooner or later, life finds it and we fall, too. How dare Pete Rose be like us, much less, worse than us!

   Will Pete Rose make the Hall of Fame? I don’t know. My gut tells me that he probably will not in his lifetime. When heroes fall, it’s usually up to a later generation to provide for them a field of dreams to relive their glory.

   Thank God he is more forgiving with us than we are with our fallen heroes. When we open up our Bibles there is a bald honesty about our Bible heroes. Look at the lists of glory and then go read their stories. They are honored for their faith, but that faith is portrayed honestly. Perfection was had by only one, Jesus. If you check out his family tree, you will find several women of ill repute, an adulterous king, and all sorts of morally questionable relatives. Even the King of Kings had some serious skeletons in his family tree!

   Each of us has our own weakness, our own Achilles heel. After having tempted us with sin specifically tailored for our weakness, Satan then tries to make us feel unforgivable when we succumb. He wants us to believe our failure, our hidden thoughts, our secret sins can ban us from God’s grace.   “No one’s sin is quite like mine,” he wants us to think. He is right. Each of us is different—a designer original. So our sin is in this sense is   “original sin.”

   Scripture’s honesty is our salvation. God’s righteousness is triumphant over our weakness. As individual and unique as our struggle with holiness is, so also is God’s grace individual, unique and specific for our sin. Even our own   “original sin!” God can and will pardon the truly penitent. If we are truly convicted of the wrong of our sin and genuinely turn away from it, God banishes our sin, not us!

   I don’t know about you, but that’s good news to me. I’m not perfect. But I don’t have to be perfect to make God’s list! That doesn’t mean I’m going to slack off on my commitment to him. It just means I’m not going to give up in despair when I’ve blown it. If I renew my journey toward him and his character, if confess my sins when I've blown it, he will not see my failure but my faithfulness and keep me on his list.

   Pete Rose may never make the Hall of Fame. If he is truly repentant of his excesses, if he is willing to take responsibility for his wrong behavior, then I personally believe he should be seen for accomplishments on the field and not just his failures off it. If that seems too generous, let’s not forget where we would be without that kind of grace given to us.

   As for personal sentiment, I would love to go see an ol’ timers’ game with my wife and my kids. Charlie Hustle would lace one into the right field gap and slide head first into third base with a triple. Then Johnny Bench would hit a high fly ball to left field, Pete would tag up and beat the throw home, being declared safe at home on his way to Cooperstown.

   We would eat hot dogs, sing   “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and Donna and I could tell our kids what it was like in the old days with the Big Red Machine. Then we could use Charlie Hustle’s failure to warn our kids about the dangers of the dark side and its power to ruin us. Then we could remind them of the redeeming power of God available for all who truly turn away from sin and seek to return to him.

  “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” —1 John 1:7

—Phil Ware
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