Charlie Hustle

Charlie Hustle

by Alan Swyer

Charlie Hustle

At a get acquainted lunch, which took place before I agreed to direct a baseball instructional video, I did a surreptitious check on what I termed attention span.

After countless hours with public figures—doing on-camera interviews with politicians, scientists, law enforcement officials, and athletes— I had learned the hard way that every person has a fixed period of time—a maximum—after which concentration shuts down. That means that at a certain point, shooting must be interrupted. Though for most people the window is roughly ten minutes before a break is required, there are those who are able to go five, ten, or even fifteen minutes longer. Others, however, reach their limit sooner—after eight, six, or in rare cases, only five minutes.

Pete Rose broke all land and sea records. His ceiling, I noted over tasteless pasta at a San Fernando Valley Italian restaurant, was two minutes maximum.

That translated into the same attention span as a two-year-old or a Labrador Retriever.

But given Pete Rose' singular place in American culture, that was no great surprise.

Pete was baseball's quintessential Bad Boy, a guy whose stats and accomplishments would have guaranteed a first-ballot entrance into the Hall of Fame had his behavior been anything less than deplorable. Mickey Mantle's alcoholism, Ty Cobb's racism, and Babe Ruth's carousing were more palatable to baseball's powers-that-be than Pete's glaring infraction: betting on his team's games. To make matters worse, he then spent years disputing and denying clear-cut evidence, only to do an about-face when money woes forced him to come clean in an As Told To autobiography calculated to bring in an influx of cash.

From a public relations standpoint, I was taking a risk in getting involved in such a project.

Factoring in Pete's attention span, the production itself could escalate from difficult to absurd.

But I was a lifelong sports nut. I'd done a film about a Harlem playground legend whose life went awry and would later do a documentary about an even more questionable world: boxing. The Pete Rose project seemed like my only chance at directing anything associated with baseball.

So rather than heed the all-too-present warning signs, I did my best to convince myself that the experience would be interesting. And grist for my memoirs, should I ever write them. And hopefully even fun.

Sporting hair a reddish color not found in nature or on his old baseball cards, with a fondness for warm-up suits usually seen on Russian mobsters, Pete, I sensed, was fighting desperately not to appear un-young. More ominous, there was something willfully coarse and abrasive about him. While those traits, coupled with his legendary aggressiveness, may have been virtues on baseball diamonds, they were hardly pluses on-screen.

The camera, I'd learned from experience, was not only unerring in capturing a person's true self—it somehow managed to exaggerate one's very essence. Someone naturally upbeat, on-screen seems positively ebullient, while someone taciturn becomes a total sourpuss.

What was needed to make the instructional video viewer friendly was a counterbalance for Pete—someone kids, parents, and grandparents would welcome on their TV screen. But that someone, I knew, couldn't in any way be threatening to Pete. That meant someone neither young nor good-looking.

The solution was an old-time scout named Doug Deutsch, who personified avuncular. Easy-going, with a twinkle in his eye, Doug would light up a screen darkened by Pete, while also serving another function as well. Since Pete's frame of reference was from once-upon-a-time, the names he mentioned would, to an aspiring ballplayer, seem prehistoric. But if Pete alluded to a long-retired lefty pitcher named Steve Carlton, Doug could state, Like Clayton Kershaw today. Or for Gary Carter, interject, Who today would be Buster Posey. Or for Mike Schmidt, add, Who played third-base like Justin Turner.

Vividly aware of the potential pitfalls, I hosted a series of bonding lunches with Pete and Doug, during which the two old-timers grew comfortable not merely with each other, but also with me.

As the rapport developed, so, too, did an interesting dynamic—that of two baseball lifers hanging out and telling stories while sharing insights about a game they loved.

Starting to feel more positive, I searched for a baseball diamond that was secluded enough to keep them relatively free of gawkers during production, then selected a racially mixed group of minor league and collegiate players for the drills to be shot.

For a technical crew, I was careful to hire people who knew something about baseball, making certain to avoid anyone who might in any way annoy or irritate Pete, even inadvertently. Then I picked an assistant director whose main task would be outside the usual job description: to monitor Pete's two-minute attention span. It was a strange task—one about which no other person, especially Pete—could be informed. But one minute and forty-five seconds into a take, Johnny Bennett was to signal me. And in non-filming moments, if someone else managed to commandeer Pete, it was up to Johnny to interrupt by explaining, as the two-minute mark neared, that the director needed him.

“So who's in charge of this circus?” Pete asked me one afternoon when we were alone.

“Yours truly.”

“And you know more than me?”

“About baseball? No. About filming? Absolutely.”

“Hold on—" Pete said, clearly irritated.

“No, you hold on and hear me out. When Tony LaRussa was managing you at Oakland, who was in charge?”

“Tony.”

“And if it's Scioscia? Or Maddon? Or Bochy? Who's running things?”

“He is,” Pete acknowledged with no great glee.

“Well, on this team I'm the manager.”

Pete eyed me carefully. “But what if—"

“Yeah?”

“There's something that bothers me.”

“Then pick a quiet moment, and we'll talk.”

“And then?”

“I'll decide what's best.”

“You?”

“Yup.”

Pete bristled. “You got some set of balls,” he grumbled.

“You can bet on it.”

“That supposed to be funny?” Pete snarled, sensitive about his reputation.

“It's a figure of speech.”

“Then listen up, Mr. Figure-of-Fuckin'-Speech!” Pete bellowed, jamming a finger into my chest. “That's someplace we don't go. You hear me? That's someplace we never fuckin' go!”

I stood my ground. “What's the first rule of baseball?”

“You fuckin' tell me!”

“Be a team player.”

Pete glared, searching for a response.

When none was forthcoming, I walked away.

As always on the night before actual production was to begin, I had a tough time sleeping. My mind raced not just with the customary obsessions—what I might have missed that still needed to be done; what contingencies perhaps had been overlooked; what, big or small, could possibly go wrong—but also with the X-factor provided by Pete.

Happily, Day One got underway without a hitch. No crew member called in sick, no piece of equipment malfunctioned.

Pete, who was known to surround himself with a posse, accepted my First Day of Shooting ban of onlookers, showing up at the ballpark on his own. Though ill at ease, he relaxed a bit when greeted by Doug Deutsch, who, per my suggestion, promptly led him toward the catering truck. There they were handed breakfast burritos topped with salsa, crema, and guacamole.

Only when they were seated and chomping did I approach. “Ready to play ball?” I asked.

“Put me in, coach,” Pete replied.

With non-pros, I try whenever possible to shoot in sequence, so that questions like Where are we? or Where does this fit in? become a non-factor. That meant starting production with what's known as a Cold Opening—a shot of Doug and Pete talking in the dugout—providing both an introduction and a statement of purpose.

“For years young players and their parents have been asking me for something that would teach baseball the right way,” Doug began once the camera was rolling. “Thanks to you, Pete, they'll have that opportunity.”

“We'll do our best,” Pete said.

“And know what?” Doug replied. “We're gonna have fun.”

“Played the right way, baseball is the most fun there is,” Pete added, relieved when I said, “Cut!”

Only then did Pete add what he hadn't said on camera. “Except getting laid!”

“I kinda remember what that's like,” Doug joked. As their laughter subsided, Pete grew serious.

“Did I do okay?”

“Academy Award,” Doug answered with a smile.

“I'll settle for a base hit,” Pete said. “So, Mr. Director, what do you say?

“Remember how you told me you've never done anything like this?” I replied.

Pete nodded.

“Now you have.”

“And lived to tell the tale,” Doug added.

“Which means,” said I, “we get what in filmmaking is known as the great reward.”

“Namely?” asked Pete.

“Another take for insurance.”

At eleven that morning, while Johnny Bennett was wrangling a wandering Pete Rose for the third time in less than an hour, Doug Deutsch got a call, then approached me with a troubled look. “One of my grandkids took a fall,” he began. “Okay if I sneak out at lunch for a half hour?”

“Take more than that if you need to.”

“Just want to poke in at the hospital and say hello.”

Always the good sport, Doug finished the next segment they were filming—Pete's approach to baserunning—then announced that he'd be back soon.

“What's up?” Pete asked.

“I figure it's a chance for you guys to get a word in without me monopolizing the conversation,” Doug joked.

“Lunch is on me,” I said, grabbing Pete's arm and leading him toward the catering truck so as not to lose the star to the calls to friends and bookies he would otherwise make.

“What are the three most important things in the world?” Pete asked as we put down our plates—mine salmon plus steamed veggies; Pete's a mountain of salmon, prime rib, and lasagna.

“I give up.”

“Think of the Three P's.”

“Still blanking.”

“Pussy, the ponies, and more pussy."

Again and again Pete tried to steer the conversation toward dive bars and massage parlors, though not in that order, but each time I did my best to return to baseball.

What surprised me, when I was able to get Pete to concentrate, was how fresh, intelligent, and iconoclastic his takes proved to be. “Why is it that people claim you need power at the corners?” Pete asked at one point, referring to third base and first. “What's to prevent you from having a power guy at short, like Ernie Banks? Or behind the plate like Piazza? Or at second, like Morgan?”

Seeing me smile, Pete continued. “And why in hell try to hide some lug with hands of stone at first? Dumbest thing I ever heard is to hide a guy like Dick Stuart—”

“Dr. Strangelove—” I interjected, drawing a fist bump.

“—In that position,” Pete continued. “Think what it means. The pitcher doesn't want to throw over. The catcher won't throw behind a runner. The shortstop and third baseman start to aim, which is bad news. And a ground ball or pop-up toward first with the game on the line? Nightmare! You want power over there? Give me Vic Power, who was the best fielding first baseman. Or a non-power guy like J.T. Snow, with great hands.”

With Doug Deutsch back as promised, filming went well that afternoon, giving everyone the sense that the rest of the three-day shoot might be trouble-free. Everyone, that is, but me, who knew that each day carries with it the potential for new and unforeseen problems. Which explains the saying: Never dare the movie gods.

What concerned me above and beyond the mercurial nature of the star, plus the less than likely chance of rain or a terrorist attack, was that to keep the investors from having coronaries, I had imposed only a one-day ban on visitors.

Friends, relatives, and hangers-on could have a disruptive effect, especially with someone as prickly and inconsistent as Pete.

So, it was with a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach that I saw Pete, on Day Two, arrive with a guy with gold chains and a ponytail of thinning gray hair.

“Come say hello to Mumbles,” Pete squawked, waving me over. “He's got a great idea.”

“Cups!” Mumbles offered as though proposing a path toward world peace. “We need a segment about the importance of cups.”

We?” I asked.

“You. Me. The video,” Pete interjected, gleefully grabbing his own crotch. “We don't want any sopranos. Right, Mumbles?”

“Fuckin'-A!” Mumbles answered.

“Let me think about it,” I said, signaling for Johnny Bennett to get Pete as far away from Mumbles as possible.

To the dismay of the crew members who had worked with me before—particularly the cinematographer and the sound man, who knew I never dawdled when there was work to be done—I ambled out toward the right field, then burst into laughter.

The laughter started slowly, then grew steadily until I was doubled up in stitches.

What they didn't know was that the laughter was based not on a joke or a funny piece of behavior, but rather on what I considered to be the absurdity of life—especially mine. Having come to LA from New Jersey with the hope of being the next Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, or Preston Sturges—someone who could magically combine art, entertainment, and social criticism—I was instead shooting at an off-the-beaten-track baseball diamond, worrying not about lenses or dialogue, but rather someone obsessing about protective cups.

Only with a superhuman effort was I ultimately able to stifle my guffaws.

A segment on bunting went fairly well, slowed down only by Pete mugging on a couple of occasions—once for a couple of the investors, then later when Mumbles pointed out a prime example of cleavage among the onlookers.

Not finding the distraction to be helpful or endearing, I wasn't overjoyed when Mumbles approached me once we took a break.

“So, we going forward with the cup idea?” Mumbles asked, with Pete standing nearby.

“Only if we get you on camera.”

“Doing what?”

“Grabbing crotches to see who's protected.”

While Mumbles sneered, Pete took a step forward. “That ain't helpful!” he growled.

“No shit."

Fortunately, there was little chance for an extended period of pouting, for the next segment was Pete's favorite part of the game: hitting.

With renewed zeal, he spoke incisively about what he considered to be the best approach— reminding potential viewers that the area next to home plate is called the batter's box, not the watcher's box. Then he put on a show that would have been impressive from someone in his prime but was awesome from a guy, years beyond his playing career.

First from the right side, then from the left, Pete demonstrated how best to swing the bat, then how to go the opposite way, and finally how to foul off pitches until the right one—the hitter's pitch—appeared.

For the onlookers, as well as for the minor leaguers and collegians—and even for me, who had been around future Hall of Famers at Spring Training in both Arizona and Florida—the demonstration was the highlight of the entire production.

It led to a standing ovation that caused Pete's chest to swell.

Hoping that the glow would carry through the rest of the shoot, I shook Pete's hand, then moved toward centerfield to set up a segment on outfield play.

Only when I was ready to shoot did I look for Pete, who was cornered by a white-haired woman and her cute granddaughters, ages ten and twelve.

With Johnny Bennett nowhere in sight, I sprinted toward them.

“Pete, I need you!”

“Duty calls,” Pete said apologetically to his well-wishers.

“One last question, Mr. Rose?” asked the younger of the girls.

“Sure, honey."

“During your playing days—” the young blonde began.

“Yeah?”

“Did you lift weights?”

“Only when I took a leak!” Pete stated proudly, leaving the grandmother and her granddaughters mortified.

Though everyone involved in the production—ballplayers, crew, investors, and even me— thought we were on to something special, by Day Three there was an increasing sense of restlessness. The source was Pete.

Like an unruly kid, he had gone from amusing to tiring, then simply tiresome. Everything was about him: his wants, needs, ego, mood swings, and unrelenting narcissism.

Even the most easy-going people—Doug Deutsch and Johnny Bennett—made it clear that their patience was wearing thin, though neither joined the ranks of those who grumbled openly.

Trying to keep a lid on an explosive situation, I defused a couple of near blow-ups, then put a last-second stop to what would have been a production-ending practical joke in which Pete's prized collection of gloves and bats were almost set on fire.

But once I had sufficient footage to cut together a video, I backed off as peacemaker.

It was then that Pete approached me once too often.

“I keep feeling there's something you've missed,” Pete said.

“What?”

“A way to end the video with a bang. That they'll really remember.”

“I got it,” I said as Doug Deutsch, Johnny Bennett, and others wandered up.

“Let's hear.”

“Doug'll say, Pete, I'm convinced that anyone who watches this video will be not just a better ballplayer, but a better person as well.”

“Not bad,” Pete responded. “And what do I say?

“Can't you guess?”

“Guess what?”

You can bet on it!

Pete refused to speak to me the rest of the day.

Pete's demand that I be banned from the editing room backfired due to a Directors Guild contract that gave me what's known as final cut.

Somehow, Doug Deutsch wound up with significantly more close-ups than was originally intended. That meant that the putative star, who wanted at all times to be featured, got far fewer than he hoped for or expected.

As is often said in baseball circles, payback is great.

About the Author

Alan Swyer

Website

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel 'The Beard' was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.