REMEMBER when President Nixon, with Watergate swirling up around him, emotionally told the American people: ``I am not a crook.'' Then Sen. Charles Percy sadly told a group of reporters the next day, ``What a thing for an American president to have to say!''
The public does not like to see heroes - whether they be politicians or sports figures - in compromising situations. People want perfection in the Oval Office and on the playing field. And many would prefer to rationalize innocence rather than assume feet of clay.
The fact is, however, that heroes often do have clay feet. They are politically and socially indiscreet. They are occasionally dishonest. And more important, they disappoint those who trust them and look up to them.
Take Pete Rose. For the uninitiated, he was the consummate baseball player. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs in 1927 and 714 in his career, but he is a legend of yesteryear. Roger Maris broke the first Ruth record, Henry Aaron the latter, but these guys are not Charlie Hustle, a nickname bestowed on Rose.
When high school coaches talk about heart and drive and sheer guts, they're talking Pete Rose. As a player, he ran out every ground ball from the plate and he dived after every grounder in the field. Rose is baseball's all-time leader in hits, with 4,256, and achieved a coveted .300 lifetime batting average.
Some felt he could be the first unanimous inductee into baseball's Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., when he first qualifies for this honor in 1991. That's when Rose's mandatory five-year retirement as a player will be fulfilled.
But this hero's legend is suddenly tarnished. Not only could he be barred from Cooperstown. He could also lose his status as manager of the Cincinnati Reds and even be suspended from baseball.
Why? He allegedly bet on sporting events. Though not illegal, this certainly represents bad judgment. The issue, which will have to be resolved by baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, is whether Rose bet on baseball games, and specifically whether he wagered against his own team. If he did the latter, the situation might approach the seriousness of the Black Sox scandal, when the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in 1919. This caused the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson to lose his place in the Hall of Fame, after a lifetime ban from the game for his involvement in the fix.
Rose, however, has not had his day in court. Presumably, Giamatti will sort the whole thing out at a hearing scheduled for June 26. The Cincinnati manager has proclaimed his innocence from the start.
Meanwhile, the side issues dominate the discussion. Is Giamatti handling the situation fairly? He is strongly criticized by one interested observer, Marvin Miller, former Major League Players Association executive director, who said that scholars knew as much about due process as ``Hottentots.'' Presumably, the allusion was more of a dig to the commissioner's academic background as president of Yale rather than an insult to Hottentots, a nomadic people of southwest Africa.
Giamatti reportedly responded in hallowed-hall fashion that ``Mr. Miller manages to insult or defame people of color, working women, teachers, and intellectuals - that is, core constituencies of today's labor movement.''
Baseball writers are less concerned with bias than with the Hall of Fame. They are engaged in ``what if'' surveys of whether Rose should be given this honor even if he is found guilty of betting on baseball.
Even politicians are involved in the controversy, with Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York suggesting that if the baseball hero were involved with drugs rather than gambling, he would be a candidate for rehabilitation rather than banishment.
The point is that all this is beside the point. Pete Rose, hero or no hero, deserves due process. He is innocent until proved guilty. That's the American way. It even works for ballplayers.
But if Charlie Hustle is completely exonerated (and let us hope he is innocent of these charges), the issues of gambling and drug use and alcohol addiction will still continue to plague the sports world as it does other segments of society. That is what must be addressed.