Monday, April 6, 2009 | 2:10 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Two men in their mid-20s stand at the entrance of the Planet Hollywood restaurant inside Caesars Palace. With big eyes and boyish enthusiasm, they whisper back and forth before one musters the courage to approach the familiar face.
“Mr. Rose, can I get a picture with you?” one of them asks.
Pete Rose obliges.
A faint smile crosses his face as he poses for the photo. He shakes the men’s hands and starts toward his seat before one of them insists, “Pete, you should be in the Hall.”
With a subtle nod, Rose thanks the men and goes about his business.
He has heard the words thousands of times. They serve as a reminder of what should have been for one of the game’s greatest players.
But 22 years ago, Rose broke baseball’s holiest commandment: betting on baseball.
Now, Rose lives with the reality that he may never see his induction into Cooperstown. He remains an outcast — barred from the game that made him famous, divorced from the sport he loves.
“Time eliminates a lot of problems,” Rose says. “Unless you’re me.”
'If you don’t have fans, you don’t have nothing'
Wearing a striped blue dress shirt with “Hit King” stitched into the collar and a sweat-stained hat pulled down low on his head, Rose relaxes behind a desk in the Field of Dreams memorabilia shop inside the The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace.
Fans flock around the store just to get a glimpse of “Charlie Hustle,” the nickname Rose made famous. Some shake his hand. Some snap photos. Others just stand in awe as Rose signs autographs.
“It’s the price you pay for doing well,” Rose said.
Today, the man who filled stadiums and tormented opponents makes his living with his signature. Rose lives in Los Angeles, but spends about 15 days a month in Las Vegas signing autographs at Field of Dreams.
Business is good, with autograph packages from $69 to $399, and the job allows Rose to connect with the people he always valued: his fans.
“If you don’t have fans, you don’t have nothing,” Rose says.
Rose has plenty of fans. He always has.
They fell in love with him as a player and have stuck by his side, easily forgiving his past transgressions.
“Pete’s our star,” says Belinda Colon, who works at Field of Dreams. “No one I’ve ever seen brings people in like him consistently. Everybody loves him, and nobody cares he bet on baseball. I’ve had grown men cry in front of me when they meet him. They’re overwhelmed.”
Rose doesn’t mind the attention. The handshakes, high-fives and tears all prove his relevance, even after 20 years outside the game.
“This is fun here,” Rose says. “I get to interact with my fans.”
In his hometown of Cincinnati, Rose is close to a god.
Ever since Rose helped build his boyhood team into the “Big Red Machine,” the dominant baseball power in the mid-1970s, Cincinnati has adored him. He adores the city, which he calls the birthplace of baseball.
But even in the Queen City, where people call Rose by his first name like he’s a neighbor down the street, Rose isn’t always welcomed.
When his son, Pete Jr., had a September call-up to play for the Reds in 1997, Pete Sr. went to see him play.
“They wouldn’t even put me on the pass list,” Rose says. “I had to buy a ticket when my boy made it to the major leagues.”
At the closing of Riverfront Stadium (Cinergy Field) in 2002, Rose’s ban kept him from participating in the stadium’s final ceremonies. The man who made history in a Reds uniform was kept at a distance from his team, from his stadium and from his city.
The next day Rose had the final word.
Rose hosted a celebrity softball game at the stadium, bringing together the all-time Reds greats for a curtain call. The event sold more than 40,000 tickets in two hours, and it allowed Rose to stand at the plate one last time. With the crowd chanting, “Pete-Pete-Pete,” from the grandstands, he batted before the stadium was turned to dust.
“I had my own last event at Riverfront,” he said
The waitress at Planet Hollywood takes orders for lunch, and Rose asks for a cup of chili, a staple for anybody from Cincinnati. She tells Rose that chili isn’t on the menu.
“You sure?” he asks playfully. “I was here before and the cook said they had some.”
She says she’ll check.
Nowadays, Pete Rose is used to getting a little special treatment. He is a fascinating personality, one of the most idolized and controversial figures in sports.
As a player, few could match his prowess on the diamond and, today, even fewer rival his persona. Whether it’s the way he wears his shirts with “Hit King” emblazoned on the collar, or how he played the game with unparalleled intensity, Rose has an aura about him.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Rose came into the big leagues with modest potential, a local kid without much raw talent. But what he lacked in ability, he compensated for with effort; playing so hard he earned the nickname Charlie Hustle.
He sprinted out walks to first base and would barrel over a catcher in an All-Star game if it meant he could help his team win.
In everything he still does, Rose has one speed: full throttle.
“It’s dedication,” Rose says. “You need to have dedication. Whether I’m playing baseball or signing autographs, I’m going to give people their money's worth.”
This same mentality that turned Rose into a baseball hero also got him into trouble. When he started betting on the game, he got in deep, betting on the Reds to win every night as a manager in 1987-88.
Then for nearly 15 years, he adamantly denied accusations of gambling, went to jail for tax evasion in 1990 and finally came clean about gambling in his 2004 autobiography "My Prison Without Bars."
“It was wrong,” Rose says. “Why’d I do what I did? I don’t know. Hindsight is easier.”
After a few minutes of talking about his past, Rose sees the waitress returning to the table, bowl of chili in hand.
“I thought you said you didn’t have any?” Rose jokingly said, flashing his signature smile.
She laughs, putting the chili on the table.
“For you Mr. Rose,” she says, “ we do.”
'Baseball don’t owe anybody'
From the time Rose was a child, baseball has been part of his life. But for Rose, baseball was more than simply a game.
In many ways, baseball became his life. His religion.
“My whole life has been baseball,” he says.
He speaks with a devout respect about the sport’s history, reverent toward the records and players of old. Baseball is a sport where the numbers mean something, and Rose knows all of them. He is an old ballplayer with the knowledge of a historian.
Even if he disgraced the game by betting on it, Rose loves the sport, and always will, regardless of if it loves him back.
“It’s our No. 1 pastime,” Rose says. “I watch three games a day. I watch the Reds at four, then usually the Yankees and then a West Coast game.”
For years, Rose was the constant aggravation to baseball’s leadership. He was too big to fade away, but too stubborn to admit wrongdoing and seek forgiveness.
Then steroids entered the picture, and baseball had to deal with a whole new breed of cheaters. As the names of modern greats — A-Rod, Clemens, Bonds, Sosa, McGwire — became linked to performance-enhancing drugs, people started to question Rose’s transgressions.
Watching as juiced-up sluggers broke home-run records, only to receive a spanking, Rose has difficulty justifying his permanent expulsion.
“If you’re going to cheat and alter the records of the game, that’s worse than betting on your team to win,” Rose says. “They’re both bad.”
As one of the few people (Rose is the only living member of the permanently ineligible list) who understand the feeling of getting kicked out of the game, Rose doesn’t wish his fate on the players caught with steroids.
“I’m willing to give them a second chance and forgive them,” Rose says. “But that’s something I didn’t get.”
A second chance.
For years, it’s all Rose has wanted.
He never expected to be out of the game for as long as he has, and even his lifetime ban included a clause that he could apply for reinstatement after a year. At the time, Rose expected to go away for a year, and then return to baseball, likely managing again.
“That’s not baseball’s fault,” Rose says. “Baseball don’t owe anybody anything.”
Sure, Rose would love to get reinstated, perhaps creating an opening for his induction into Cooperstown. But more than anything, he wants to manage again.
His passion for baseball pours from his heart, and his knowledge about the game is unrivaled. But years of lying put Rose in a situation where he can now do nothing but wait — and hope.
“(Managing) is the only reason I’d want to get reinstated,” Rose said. “I’m a teacher. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I believe baseball is a better game if I’m in it because I have passion for the game.”
At this point, 20 years into a lifetime ban, Rose isn’t picky. He wants total reinstatement, which would allow him to manage, but says, “I’ll take anything I can get.”
People can’t take the records away
On a September night in 1985, baseball was the talk of the town in Cincinnati. The stadium was packed to see the Reds play the San Diego Padres, and the fans rose to their feet as No. 14 dug in at home plate.
Batting from the left side, in his customary crouch, the working man’s ballplayer became a king.
On a 2-1 pitch, flashbulbs filled the stadium as the hometown hero laced a single into left-center. Fireworks went off, and jubilation ensued.
For seven minutes the fans applauded.
Pete Jr., 15 at the time, ran from the dugout to greet his dad on first base. For one time on the baseball field, Charlie Hustle broke down and cried.
Pete Rose was baseball’s all-time hit king, passing Ty Cobb with 4,192 hits.
Four years later, he was banned from the game.
“People can’t take my records away from me,” Rose says, slurping down his bowl of chili. His records provide some form of vindication, a permanent stamp on the game.
The records Rose collected in his 24 years as a player — and he has plenty of them — are examples of his determination. They are also a reminder of the glaring hole in his resume.
He has the most career hits (4,256), three World Series titles, three batting titles, two Gold Gloves, one Most Valuable Player award, 17 All-Star selections from five different positions, a Rookie of the Year Award, a 44-game hitting streak and more wins (1,972) than any player in history.
“The record I’m most proud of is the 1,972 wins,” he says. “That makes me the biggest winner in the history of sports. It’s a credit to my teammates.”
Rose has all of the records, the championships and the fans, but no plaque in the Hall of Fame.
“I don’t go to bed every night and pray to get into the Hall of Fame,” Rose says. “I go to bed every night and pray I get up in the morning.”
To some, Rose is an icon of baseball, a man who played the game hard every time he took the field. A hero who can bring grown men to tears with a simple handshake. Rose is a throwback, a reminder of baseball in an era where hits, hustle and manufacturing runs were the pedigree of a good ballplayer.
To others, he disgraced baseball, disregarded the game’s holiest rule and deserves his lifetime banishment.
For Pete Rose, he’s just a man who played the game hard, always, and would give almost anything to return to it.
Rose says he never thought about his legacy or worried how people would remember him. He acknowledges that his lifetime ban may well last his lifetime, but he still holds out hope it won’t.
“For people who think I haven’t been punished, I’ve been out of the game 20 years,” he says. “Twenty years, that’s a pretty long suspension.”