By Jon Saraceno, USA TODAY
LAS VEGAS Baseball's infamous outcast sits behind a table in front of a memorabilia store in an upscale mall. Pete Rose's full-time job these days is hustling his signature, and he is paid more than a million dollars to do it. Two young women wearing Cincinnati Reds jerseys hoist "Pete Rose Here Today" signs. The banished "Hit King" sports a doughy face and paunch and the glum look of a boy kicked out of a ballpark because he was bad.
"Why doesn't baseball ever do what the public wants?" says Rose, 64, a tape-measure homer from reinstatement after he disgraced the game by breaching its most sacrosanct rule betting on it.
Baseball's moral gatekeepers in essence, three commissioners have refused to unlock the front gate to their fraternity and welcome back one of the most popular, decorated and, yes, tainted players. On Tuesday, the 2006 Hall of Fame class is announced and, once again, Peter Edward Rose is left standing in the corner.
Baseball writers no longer can consider the aging Rose for the Hall because his 15-year eligibility period expired in 2005, although in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY he muses, "I don't know how my eligibility lapsed when I've never been eligible."
The player revered as "Charlie Hustle" for his peerless drive and determination only can be considered for admission by the Veterans Committee beginning in 2009, but baseball first must pardon him. So Rose markets the only thing left to peddle: his name golden to some, tarnished for others. He views himself as baseball's finest ambassador. Although he is well compensated for the memorabilia gig, his permanent ban prevents the stained superstar from the vocation he most desires. At this juncture, bronzed-plaque recognition is secondary to Rose's goal: managing.
"Don't take this wrong or get on my case, because it's the truth," he says. "Every player would love to go to the Hall of Fame. ... My ambition because of who I am and what I can contribute is to get back in the game. Not as a coach or an announcer but (as a manager).
"I'm a teacher. I'm a leader; I'm not a follower. I watch two or three games every day during the baseball season. It drives me crazy when I turn on the TV and see some of these cities, see the empty seats. Every seat at a ballpark is for (a body) every night. That's why they make 'em."
If a Japanese team is paying Bobby Valentine $4 million a season, what is Rose worth in America?
"I don't know," he says, "but you'd have to think that I'm young enough to get a four- or five-year contract. Obviously, I could make more in some cities. ... I don't want to be arrogant, but if you own a baseball team and you don't want to win or put people in the seats, don't call me."
Letting people down
Peter Ueberroth, Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent have come and gone as commissioners since baseball began investigating Rose's gambling 16 years ago. Rose's deal with Giamatti placed him on baseball's ineligible list that is, a permanent ban. The agreement was signed after an exhaustive report by special investigator John Dowd. He concluded that while Rose managed Cincinnati in 1987 he bet a minimum of $10,000 a day on at least 52 Reds games.
The Rose-Giamatti compromise included that MLB would agree to stop investigating Rose, would not issue a formal finding of guilt and would permit him to seek reinstatement in a year. That appeased Rose, who said he spent more than $1 million defending against allegations that turned out to be true.
Rose says he assumed that if he never admitted to betting on baseball he would be welcomed back expeditiously. "I thought it was for a year it was in the contract that I could apply for reinstatement in a year," says Rose, who served five months in prison in 1990 for income tax evasion, which included revenue from selling memorabilia. "Maybe that was stupidity on my part not to understand."
One Hall of Famer, recounting a talk he had with Bud Selig three years ago, tells USA TODAY that the commissioner said Rose will never be reinstated under his watch. Rose applied to Selig for reinstatement in 1997. There was virtually no movement by baseball's highest office until late 2002 after Selig spoke with several people, including former Rose teammates Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt.
The aftermath of Rose's autobiography, My Prison without Bars, published in 2004, signaled an end to the progress Rose had made.
After 14 years of lying, Rose confessed to baseball's cardinal sin betting on the game as a manager in Cincinnati during the late 1980s, though the Dowd report indicated he also wagered as a Reds player. The tone of his tome and a botched interview with ABC's Charles Gibson doomed Rose when he came off as insufficiently contrite. The timing of the release only days before Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley were announced as Hall inductees also damaged his cause.
"You know, I let my (late) mother down," he says. "She didn't see me go into the Hall. I let a lot of people down. But I can't change what happened. I wish I could rewrite it, but I can't. All I can try to do is be a better person because of it."
Bob DuPuy, the president of Major League Baseball, says Rose's application remains on Selig's desk, but "he has not given any indication he is prepared to act on it."
Rose says he doesn't believe Selig has a vendetta "No, not at all. I like Bud" but he can't help but wonder "What if?"
"I believe that if (commissioner) Bart Giamatti had lived, he would've given me a second chance," he says. "I got along with Bart. Then to hear people blame me for his death. I mean, the guy was 60 pounds overweight and smoked five packs a day."
Giamatti, 51, died of a massive heart attack in 1989, eight days after punishing Rose.
Rose's universal appeal has been diminished since he admitted he broke baseball's biggest taboo, a betrayal that stunned thousands of supporters and alienated him from many of his former "Big Red Machine" teammates. An online poll taken in Cincinnati after his book came out showed 70% of nearly 5,000 respondents didn't want their sullied hometown hero to manage the Reds.
Not long before, Rose's stained reputation absorbed another hit. His former friend and bet-runner, Tommy Gioiosa, revealed to Vanity Fair that Rose told him he used a corked bat in 1985, the season he surpassed Ty Cobb's all-time major league hits standard. Gioiosa, a convicted drug and tax cheat, also said he forged autographs for Rose and alleged Rose financed a cocaine buy to generate cash for his gambling. Rose denies the claims, but his past haunts him.
Next month, Pete Rose Jr., 36, faces a potential two-year prison sentence and a $1 million fine after pleading guilty in November to distributing a steroid alternative drug when he played in the minors.
Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Henry Aaron, among others, are outspoken in their opposition to Rose. Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman and ESPN analyst, did not return calls for this story but wrote at ESPN.com in 2004 that he hadn't "seen a genuine apology from Pete yet." Hall of Fame Reds catcher Johnny Bench also did not return calls from USA TODAY.
Brooks Robinson says some Hall members were willing to give Rose the benefit of the doubt, but "I think he'd have a hard time convincing (a majority)."
"I had an open mind, but I was with Pete so many times when he'd say, 'I bet on everything, but I didn't bet on baseball,' " Robinson says. "I have a hard time thinking about him getting in after that."
It's all about 'second chances'
Stubborn and strong-willed, Rose understands why some people feel the way they do about his transgressions, but he continues to make his case, mostly reduced to one argument: compassion.
"Don't you believe that a guy like me deserves a second chance?" he asks. "Our problem was 17 years ago. If one spouse had killed another spouse, they'd be out of jail by now, right? If so-and-so gets caught with drugs five times, doesn't he get a second chance. Isn't Terrell Owens going to get a second chance? I'm trying to get one I won't need another."
Rose says he no longer bets on sports games of any kind, although he still enjoys playing the ponies. He spends 15 days a month in Vegas working his memorabilia job, which he says is a "great public relations thing for me."
"Noooo, I don't do no gambling" on teams, he says. "People will see you. Secondly, I don't like it. I don't need to work my ass off and go put it through some (gaming) window. Now I watch games because of certain guys I root for Brett Favre, Carson Palmer, Bobby Knight. I'm through breaking TVs and making tackles watching Monday Night Football in my living room."
Rose recently told the Associated Press that he "bet on my own team every day." That raised more than a few eyebrows because of its lack of believability. Rose claims that he doesn't recall the first time he bet on the sport, but "nobody believes Pete anymore," says Joe Garagiola, the former player and broadcaster. "The same arrogance that made him a great player is the same arrogance that got him in trouble."
For many years, Rose was a thorn in baseball's side. He would appear in Las Vegas or other casino cities for signings. Or he would show up in Cooperstown, N.Y., the week of induction to sell autographs even some on striking black baseballs.
Rose has tried to rehabilitate his image through appearances. His rousing ovation before Game 2 of the 1999 World Series during introduction of the All-Century Team was embarrassing for baseball.
"Heidi Fleiss came by to see me she's a fan," Rose says, laughing. "She (told) us she wants to open a bunny ranch, but the guys are going to be the prostitutes. She said, 'I know more about prostitution than anyone in the world.' I said, 'That's what I read, Heidi.' "
Taking a good look
Rose works his stretch of mall real estate from noon-6 p.m., flying or driving from Los Angeles.
Most purchases are impulse buys. Casual shoppers are shocked to see Rose sitting in the Forum Shops of Caesars. Prices range from $69.99 for autographed 8x10s to $399 for a jersey package that includes a signed photo or ball. He is paid a monthly sum by Mounted Memories and Dreams Inc. His compensation is determined by the business he generates.
Joe Hill, visiting from New Hampshire with his wife and two sons, says Rose is getting a raw deal because baseball is being excessively punitive. "I wouldn't be afraid to pick him as a role model as opposed to any of a dozen guys today. Everybody has skeletons."
Wes Champion of Charlotte says, "Is it worse that Pete was a gambler or that guys took steroids?"
If baseball is concerned Rose's return might cause other skeletons to tumble out or that he might one day be involved in a betting scandal, Rose says, "That was such a long time ago, man. That's the furthest thing from my mind. I would never make that mistake again, not if my life depended upon it.
"I hope baseball's following me around. They're not, but I wish they were, to see the kind of life I've got. All I do is work. Work, travel, sell baseballs. What am I doing today? What is this?" He gestures toward a life-sized Pete Rose photo on the Field of Dreams store window.
"This is baseball," he says.
"This is all I do."