Hustle (2004)

I understand that I made a mistake. And there’s not a damn thing I can do about that mistake.
— Pete Rose, ABC Primetime Live, January 2004

It’s hard to believe Pete Rose in this interview, when he finally confesses to betting on baseball and on his own team, the Cincinnati Reds. He calls it wrong and says he’d never do it again. And with that, he thinks he should be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Sincere as the onetime baseball great might sound here, his 14 years of lying about betting during the 1987-1988 baseball season don’t help his case.

Neither, really, does ESPN’s Hustle, documenting the years in question. Now out on DVD, the film makes a clear case that Rose screwed up. The DVD includes interviews with Rose’s associates, including Paul Janszen, who turned him in, and John Dowd, who investigated allegations against him. These interviews point out that Rose was “out of control” with his gambling and his deceit. The interviews with Rose himself show just how convincing he can be, whether he’s telling the truth, as in the ABC piece, or flat out making stuff up, as in an SportsCentury interview where he makes every excuse under the sun for why what he apparently didn’t do wasn’t so bad in the first place.

The film is just as damaging. With an opening montage of career peaks under Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” Rose is introduced as a sporting legend who, in his heyday, was respected as an athlete and a decent human being (he’s also shown shaking hands with kids). But as soon as this highlights package ends, we see a different side of Pete Rose, as Reds manager, wholly wrapped up in his own popularity.

Played by Tom Sizemore, this Rose is so easily distracted by betting that he neglects his family, his friends, and most importantly, the sport that made his name. What this version of Rose does, too, is dupe devoted fan Janszen with a promise of enduring mateship. He gives Janszen access to restricted areas of the Reds clubhouse, thus securing his loyalty. Caught cheating on his wife, he buys her off with gifts of cash, and repeatedly manipulates friends and colleagues. The film notes in an opening disclaimer that it’s based on the 1989 Down Report to the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Though the piece dramatizes actual events, the disclaimer continuers, “certain names, incidents, order of events and dialogue have been fictionalized.” If so much is altered or, at best, guesswork, one wonders what the point of the film might be.

That said, Hustle is often quite compelling, owing mostly to first-rate performances from Sizemore and Dash Mihok as Janszen. Entranced by the idea of working so closely with his idol, Janszen eventually realizes he’s nothing but a lackey. Mihok’s transformation from a wide-eyed fanboy to a pissed off, paranoid wreck, making bets for Rose and finding himself personally liable when Rose refuses to pay his bookie, is remarkably convincing and often makes for tense viewing.

The film hardly shows Janszen in a good light. Desperate to be Rose’s friend, he only turns on his hero when he can’t pay his rent. It’s fascinating, really, to watch just how Janszen continues to excuse Rose’s actions, risking his own marriage and damaging his own integrity because he feels it’s his job to “look after” Rose. The crux of the story is how Rose inspires such devotion. He thrives on his own celebrity, often referring to himself as “Pete Rose” or “Number 14.” The film makes a clear distinction between the public Rose, always ready with a quip or a compliment, and the private man, intense, brooding, and lonely.

This split is mirrored in the DVD interviews with Rose. He so badly wants people to think he’s a good guy that he presents Rose the legend, never Rose the man. Even when he confesses to his improprieties, he’s still making excuses. In the ABC interview, when Charlie Gibson reads the rule he broke (concerning betting on “baseball games in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform”), Rose asserts that, even though it’s posted in every baseball clubhouse, it’s “not as big a deal as [Gibson] makes out it is.” Even after he confesses, he’s still trying to save face, apparently unaware of how outrageous he sounds.