Sun, Sep 26, 2004 - Page 22 News List

ESPN in US gets dramatic with fall baseball offerings

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Baseball bright and baseball dark each make appearances this weekend in the US -- in Clubhouse, CBS' new fall drama, and Hustle, an ESPN biopic. Clubhouse is about a sad-eyed, fatherless teenager looking for meaning and valor as a major league bat boy. "Hustle" is about Pete Rose. I'll leave you to guess which story is heartwarming and which is warped and pathetic.

Clubhouse opens to whistley morning music as the camera takes in a dresser jammed with baseball artifacts: trophies, balls and at least one bobblehead doll. A kid, Pete (Jeremy Sumpter), is putting on a tie, and when his mother, Lynne -- the exquisitely long-suffering Mare Winningham in the deserted-wife role she's made for -- asks him what he's up to, he says, "Scrabble club." Soon Pete has broken out: he's on the Staten Island ferry and the F train to the fictional Empire Stadium. City buffs should enjoy this, as there have been few such footloose teenage dramas set in New York City -- usually kids are cooped up in apartments or dorms.

The Empires wear white uniforms striped with blue; their logo brings to mind that of an American League team that plays in the Bronx. Christopher Lloyd, as Lou the equipment manager, is instantly winning. The Empires' golden-boy captain, Conrad Dean (Dean Cain, whose name and demeanor can hardly be improved on for baseball) sends Pete looking for a "bat stretcher." This is an old bat boy gag, but one that works here. Pete also encounters Jose (J.D. Pardo), the bullying head bat boy and C.T. (John Ortiz), a rookie. Soon there's a girl, too, Jessie (Leah Pipes), who though she has a 718 phone number sounds a little bit Spence or Dalton -- or at least like Paris on Gilmore Girls. By the episode's end we learn that she likes Pete and she's in therapy.

Pete, whose accent runs unaccountably to Southern, attends a nun-run school, where he's closely attended by Mike (Dan Byrd), a pal with the air of a miniature Oliver Platt. It's remarkable how some types of actors just keep on coming. Pete also has a sister, the mean older variety. But Betsy (Kirsten Storms) doesn't just tease; she has a genuinely predatory streak. I hope she's not redeemed too hastily.

With engaging characters in place, Clubhouse might be expected to stint on plot, but Sunday night's episode brims with it. Pete, whose nerves on his first day with the Empires make his tasks seem almost holy -- the way work at a longed-for job can seem, at first -- bumbles into a scandal involving steroids. Steroids, and their place in sports, turn out to be an excellent shadow element in a boy-to-man drama: they're the "bad" path to virility and strength. This promising show might just reveal the good path.

And then there is Pete Rose. Hustle, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, appears to have Raging Bull-style ambitions. Characters have small minds, cadaverous complexions and greasy hair. It's dark, and everything is rigged. The simean gait Bogdanovich has encouraged in Tom Sizemore, who plays Rose, is almost cruel: waddle, waddle, galumph, galumph.

And yet: this is potent drama, quiet horror. Set in Ohio in the 1980s, the whole world of the movie -- the metasticized suburban mansions, the Corvette, the baseball kitsch, the Reds' cloying cinnamon color - presents a new palette for American despair. Working from the 1989 Dowd Report to the baseball commissioner regarding Rose's gambling, and focusing on Rose's hapless lackey, Paul Janszen (Dash Mihok), Christian Darren has written a script true to the dismal facts of Rose's fall from record-breaking hitter to chronic gambler and liar who, in an act so low that the words sound funereal, bet on baseball. His own sport.

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