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ESPN hustles to make original film pay off

Don't be surprised if you shed a tear or two toward the end of tomorrow night's premiere of the film "HU$TLE" (ESPN, 9).

It's a dramatization of the fall of Pete Rose, culminating in his banishment from baseball for gambling on the sport while he was player/manager of the Cincinnati Reds.

Trouble is, you're not likely to be shedding the tears for Rose. Instead, your heart will break for the game and for those who had to investigate and discipline one of its icons.

Of ESPN's three full-length movies -- the first was "A Season on the Brink," about Bobby Knight and Indiana basketball, and the second was "The Junction Boys," about Paul "Bear" Bryant and Texas A&M football -- this is the best.

The reason is simple: It's not a sports movie. It's a human drama that happens to revolve around a sports figure. ESPN determined the storyline would follow events as documented in The Dowd Report, baseball's official investigation.

Director Peter Bogdanovich invited a group of friends to a screening of "HU$TLE" at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York Sept. 8. "None of them were big sports fans," he said. "It was surprising to me how fascinated some of them, especially the women, were by it. They found the story riveting and moving."

That was music to the ears of Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive vice president for programming and production. "We're trying to broaden our audience to air programming that will appeal to the wider fan who consumes entertainment," he said. "Our search is for topics that will spark not only sports debate but also have some social and pop culture currency."

Both Shapiro and Bogdanovich credited screenplay writer Christian Darren "for getting it right on the first draft" and following his main guideline: "Remain true to The Dowd Report."

"I don't particularly like villains or heroes," said Bogdanovich. "There are all kinds of qualities mixed up in people."

That particularly applies to Paul Janszen, the steroid dealer who becomes a Rose "insider" and the middleman in making his bets. Bogdanovich treats him gently despite his despicable activities. "For him to have gotten involved so deeply, there was a certain amount of naivete and gullibility to him; otherwise, he couldn't possibly have gotten into the jam he did," said the director. "Life seemed to get away from all of these individuals, as it does sometimes."

The Rose saga likely would have taken longer to unfold if Janszen hadn't told his story to Sports Illustrated. Baseball, knowing the SI story was forthcoming, put lawyer John Dowd on the investigation even though Rose had convinced baseball's hierarchy that there was no way he'd bet on the game.

The adjustment in course that ESPN has made with "HU$TLE" bodes well for future movies in the company's pipeline. They include "3," the story of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt; "Four Minutes," the story of Roger Bannister's breaking of the 4-minute-mile barrier; and "The Long Count," the saga of the second Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney heavyweight bout in 1927.

Shapiro noted that Rose annually rekindles the debate over whether he should be in Baseball's Hall of Fame, usually by showing up at Cooperstown to sign autographs during enshrinement weekend. ESPN's made-for-TV "Pete Rose on Trial," shot at Harvard Law School last summer, resulted in an 11-1 jury decision that he belongs in the Hall, a position Shapiro once shared. "I'd always been a big Pete Rose fan and looked at him as a sympathetic figure," he said. "When I read this script, it certainly opened my eyes and sparked a different perspective in my mind."

Invitation declined

Rose made an appearance at West Farms Mall in West Hartford, Conn., last weekend, just down the road from ESPN's Bristol headquarters. "We made inquiries about whether he wanted to speak to us," said Shapiro. "He declined to be interviewed." . . . ESPN will air "Hustle: The Pete Rose Debate" right after the movie tomorrow night. Host Jeremy Schaap will be joined by ESPN Radio's Rob Dibble (who played for Rose with the Reds); Hal McCoy, a journalist who covered him; Bogdanovich; and, in a taped interview, Dowd, author of The Dowd Report. In addition, ESPN's "Outside the Lines," which airs nightly at midnight, last night examined how Rose's admission of gambling hasn't helped get him nearer to reinstatement.

Unrivaled feeling

CBS analyst Phil Simms wrote the following for NFL.com about the Giants-Redskins rivalry, but it applies to Red Sox-Yankees, too: "In 1986, we were in Washington for a critical game . . . Coach [Bill] Parcells is standing next to me, and I say, `Man, the fans are gonna let us have it when we get out there.' To which Parcells says, `Yeah, isn't it great?' . . . Then Parcells looks at me and says, `Simms, they hate us so much they like us.' " . . . Why isn't Sox-Yankees on Fox tomorrow? Simple. The network has used up its allotment of Sox games for national telecasts, so the Sox-Yankees games this weekend will be seen only locally: tonight, Channel 38 at 7; tomorrow (7 p.m.) and Sunday (2 p.m.) on NESN . . . Todd Bloniarz, one of last year's two Sam Adams "Announcer for an Inning" winners, is back doing Tufts football with Steve Clay on www.jumbocast.com. The first football webcast is tomorrow's Tufts-Wesleyan game at 1 p.m. . . . Speaking of Sam Adams winners, this year's winner, Ken McGlothin, did a fine job in his stint at the NESN mike Tuesday night. Only trouble, it was an uneventful inning . . . Not so the game, with Curt Schilling throwing eight shutout innings and Mark Bellhorn getting the winning hit in the ninth. The game did a 14.8 rating, NESN's secondbest ever, and had a rating over 20 for the final three quarters of an hour . . . "Sportsplus" on NESN, at 11:30 last night and tonight, has the video version of Patriot Matt Light's "makeover" from mountain man to metrosexual. Melana Scantlin talks with the "made(over) man" and previews Light's charity poker tournament scheduled for next week on "Patriots All-Access," which airs on Channel 5 tomorrow at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Late shifts

Here's an event for late-night sports viewers: Speed Channel will have Formula One Grand Prix of China qualifying at 2 a.m. tomorrow morning and the race at 2 a.m. Sunday . . . Revolution broadcaster Brad Feldman will be joined by former MLS goalkeeper Garth Lagerwey for tomorrow night's Revolution-Fire match at Chicago's Soldier Field (9, FSN; WRKO 680) . . . ESPN's Shapiro calls ESPN Classic "the curator of sports history." CBS's "60 Minutes," with 4,000-plus segments in its 36 years, has a lot of sports stories in its files. Thus it was a natural when the networks announced "60 Minutes on Classic," a two-season collaboration, with 13 episodes each year. It will debut in late October and air Tuesdays at 8 p.m. . . . The WNBA playoffs (LA Sparks vs. Sacramento Monarchs) are on ESPN2 tonight at 10:30 and on ABC Sunday (Channel 5, 4 p.m.) . . . Former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak is doing analysis on tomorrow's Delaware-Massachusetts football telecast (CN8, 1 p.m.) . . .

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is griffith@globe.com 

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