Tons of money or lots of talent can lead to an intoxicating sense of luck or invulnerability. Often that's just one step from losing touch with reality. In the end, gravity usually wins. The fall back to earth, without that parachute of power, can be brutal. As Pete Rose and George Steinbrenner are learning.

"Your honor, I would like to say I'm very sorry. I'm very shameful to be here today in front of you," said Rose, minutes before being sentenced to five months in prison yesterday. "I have no excuse because it's all my fault. . . .

"I hope no one has to go through what I went through the last year and a half. I lost my dignity, lost my self-respect . . . and almost lost some very dear friends," added Rose, who must also spend three months in a halfway house, perform 1,000 hours of community service and pay a $50,000 fine.

At least Rose now knows his fate. His worst moment, perhaps, was when he overheard his 5-year-old son telling his wife that, "Daddy is a jailbird." Rose's best moment undoubtedly was when he said: "I accept my punishment. I will serve my sentence, pay my debt to society and go on with my life."

A little white-collar jail time may be a tonic for Rose's battered relations with the public. When he gets out, he'll still be banned from baseball, but he may be amazed at the number of hands extended to help him. If he'd beaten the rap, how many would there have been?

Now, we can call him Maximum Pete. A lifetime ban from baseball. A jail term with some teeth. How much harder could this man have been hit? And the worst that's ever been said of him is that he bet on his own team to win.

In handing down his no-special-treatment sentence, Judge S. Arthur Spiegel said he hoped Rose would be "a more humble and better person for the experience." If the "more humble" part isn't taken care of by now, it never will be.

When Rose is released from the prison farm in Ashland, Ky., it wouldn't hurt if we cut him a little slack. Put him in the Hall of Fame. Say, "How's it goin', Pete?" if we see him. Root for him to beat his gambling habit. And, maybe, even wish that his lifetime ban be lifted -- in the next century.

As for George Steinbrenner, he may also be on the road to becoming "a humbler and better person" -- the hard way, of course. George still has a way to go, but turning his Yankees franchise into a joke and giving $40,000 to Howard Spira was, you have to admit, a good start.

By next week, Steinbrenner may not have to spend much time worrying about fixing the worst team in baseball. Why? Because Steinbrenner probably won't be allowed to have any contact with his Yankees at all -- maybe for a couple of years.

Who dreamed Stump Merrill might be so lucky?

When Steinbrenner was convicted of making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for two years, forbidding any contact with his club (though it didn't last the full term).

Steinbrenner's felony then -- for which Ronald Reagan granted a pardon on his last day in office -- had nothing to do with baseball. Yet George got the boot. That gives Commissioner Fay Vincent latitude, and precedent, as he deliberates on the Spira payoff.

If Vincent sends Steinbrenner to the sidelines for a couple of years -- and he should -- the commissioner would be on safe ground if Steinbrenner takes the sport to court. Associating with a known gambler, paying that gambler's debts and failing to have a credible explanation for that payment should be plenty to justify a long suspension.

In a perfect world, of course, Vincent would ban Steinbrenner from the game for life and force him to sell the Yankees. Could any fan imagine an act that would more perfectly fulfill the meaning of the phrase "in the best interests of baseball?"

However, that's daydreaming.

Steinbrenner, proving once again he is ambidextrous where the truth is concerned, has swamped Vincent with unconvincing accounts of why he got Spira out of hock.

At first, Steinbrenner said he did it "out of the goodness of his heart."

Fearing perhaps this could be proven medically impossible, George has since changed his story. The Boss now says he did it for several reasons. (Think of this as multiple choice.) Because Spira's mother had cancer. "I felt for his family. . . . as I do for my own family," Steinbrenner told Vincent in testimony that was leaked to the National Sports Daily this week. Because Spira "scared me" and "really scared my children." He was really just buying Spira's silence because Spira was threatening to say bad things about some Yankees employees. For instance, that Lou Piniella went to the race track.

Apparently Vincent has been able to imagine an alternative scenario. One in which Steinbrenner is neither a friend to sick mothers, a protector of his family nor a paternal employer.

It seems Vincent can, by concentrating very hard, imagine the Yankees owner calling an indebted gambler who had once worked for the David M. Winfield Foundation and offering to square him with the leg-breakers if he would say bad things about Winfield.

Dave Winfield? You know, the $26 million former Yankees outfielder who's been feuding with Steinbrenner -- in and out of court -- for years.

According to published transcripts, Vincent said: "Didn't it occur to your advisers? Weren't they saying to you: 'George, look, when this is all over and you pay him $40,000, it's going to look as if we bought this information about Winfield?' "

Vincent is left to contemplate an ugly picture. If Steinbrenner's motives were noble, why didn't he call the police or the commissioner? Why, in fact, did he pay Spira, as Vincent put it, "through a law firm with a bunch of steps -- I'm being a critic here -- that were not straightforward."

At the moment, Steinbrenner's movements are comparable to Rose's just a year ago. Sensing that the evidence, or the commissioner's disposition, is against him, Steinbrenner may be positioning himself for a legal battle in hopes of negotiating better surrender conditions.

Yesterday, in the wake of the leaked hearing transcripts that some suspect came from him, Steinbrenner was proclaiming himself innocent. "I don't believe I did anything wrong," he said. He also appeared to be laying the groundwork for a legal challenge to Vincent's authority. "How do you define 'best interests of the game?' " he asked.

Since the Black Sox scandal 71 years ago, who has done the most to give baseball a bad name?

The semifinalists, please.

Why if it isn't Pete and George.

Rose did his damage in a short time. Steinbrenner, who's been reprimanded nine times by commissioners, is more in the Lifetime Achievement category.

Yesterday, Rose had his most painful comeuppance. A harsh but fair one.

Hopefully, Commissioner Vincent will soon offer George Steinbrenner the same tough-love opportunities for personal growth Judge Spiegel yesterday afforded to Pete Rose.