Published January 21. 2013 4:00AM
Baseball legend Pete Rose was such a relentless competitor on the field that he earned the nickname "Charlie Hustle." Now the former star is hustling into a whole new ballgame - the reality show.
Rose, the all-time hits leader who has been banned from baseball and, so far, the baseball Hall of Fame for gambling on games while a major league manager, is hoping TLC's "Pete Rose: Hits and Mrs." will help clean up his tarnished image. The six-part series, which premiered to a small audience over the weekend, is centered on the 71-year-old's engagement to former Playboy model Kiana Kim, who is about four decades younger than Rose.
"I want people to see a different side of me," Rose said last week while appearing with Kim before a group of reporters at Sisley Italian Kitchen, a restaurant in Encino, Calif., to promote the series.
"You will see a different perspective of what people think I am," he said. "I'm not going around knocking people over - I'm very fan-friendly." He smiled and added, "I only knocked people over if they're blocking second base or trying to make a double play."
Rose is the latest in a string of disgraced athletes who have turned to the reality genre to soften or entirely remake their personas. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick starred in a BET reality series with his family after being convicted for heading up a dog-fighting ring. Boxer Mike Tyson, once one of sport's most controversial and volatile figures, starred in a 2011 Animal Planet series that showed him entering the world of competitive pigeon racing.
Whether the series can help restore the divisive athlete to glory - or get him into the Hall of Fame - remains to be seen. Though legions of supporters contend Rose's on-field performance should determine his legacy, critics counter that his gambling threatened the game's integrity and should never be forgotten, or forgiven.
"Pete Rose is arguably one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball," said Todd Boyd, a professor of sports and popular culture at USC. "But he's also not someone you describe as classy. He's never done anything in a rational fashion. This looks like a desperate attempt to get into the Hall of Fame, as if his accomplishments transcend his transgressions. It's possible, though, public support from a show like this could cause baseball to reconsider."
A sneak preview last week of the first two episodes opened to fairly low ratings, averaging roughly a combined 650,000 viewers. Last fall, for instance, TLC's hit show "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" drew about 2.8 million viewers for its season finale.
The series premiered just days after the Baseball Writers' Assn. of America declined to select a single player for baseball's highest honor. The snubs were attributed to the game's steroid era.
"I knew ... it was going to happen," said Rose about the snubbing of several top players, including Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. "They're all friends of mine."
He said he felt particularly bad for Clemens, Mike Piazza and Houston Astros catcher-second baseman Craig Biggio. "There were just a whole lot of perceptions" about Clemens, said Rose, adding that he felt Clemens was really hurt by those suspicions. He said he also felt sorry for many merchants in Cooperstown, N.Y., who would be hurt by the expected reduced crowds for the ceremonies.
Not surprisingly, the series' opening episodes focus on Rose's ban from baseball, and how he delicately gives Kim's kids details about what he calls "his big mistake."
The family makes a trip to Cooperstown to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and he escorts them to the entrance, but refuses to go inside.
"I'll go in when I'm invited," he tells them, and walks away, alone.
Rose and his representatives have reached out to baseball Commissioner Bud Selig about reinstating Rose. But he said he doesn't feel the reality show will influence Selig one way or the other.
"He's got a lot more on his plate than a reality show, and whether I'm in baseball or not," he said.
The series is more than just about baseball and features many familiar reality-show elements. Parenting challenges. Family disagreements, in this case over whether the May-December couple should even marry. (A wedding date is still up in the air.)
Rose and Kim live in her Valencia, Calif., home with her two children from a previous marriage - Cassie, 14 and Ashton, 11. Rose, who has been married twice and has four grown children, spends much of his time away from his new family in Las Vegas. There, at the Art of Music store at Mandalay Bay, he signs autographs for money. (He'll pose for photos with visitors for free.)
Kim, who usually looks as if she's ready for a photo shoot in the series, describes herself as "30-ish." (Even Rose maintains he does not know how old she is.) Another issue between the couple is her breasts - she had them enlarged years ago and she wants them reduced, a decision the ex-big leaguer does not support.
Still, he wants viewers to see beyond the stereotype that he's just an old man "with a girlfriend that's got big boobs. We want to show that we're just ordinary, true people and that we really do get along. We laugh."
"Pete Rose: Hits and Mrs." airs on TLC at 10 and 10:30 p.m. Monday.