If his face weren’t so famous, I’d be sure I was speaking to a different man. The Pete Rose I met three years ago was bitter, irascible, impatient, fidgety. The guy I sat with last week at the Forum Shops, where he signs autographs for a living, seemed possessed by the Dalai Lama.
There were two reasons to chat up Charlie Hustle now. For the first time since he was banned from baseball for betting on games as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Rose is being honored on the field at the Reds’ ballpark this month on the 25th anniversary of breaking Ty Cobb’s hit record. Also, seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens is being indicted on charges he lied to Congress about whether he used performance-enhancing drugs.
Rose remains an official pariah, ineligible for the Hall of Fame while people who did real long-term and widespread damage to the game—Clemens, Bonds, A-Rod—remain eligible. Not to mention, have you seen the list of all-around assholes enshrined in Cooperstown?
“Every case is different,” said the tree trunk of a guy wearing a dress shirt with “Hit King” embroidered on the lapel. “All I can tell you is, ‘Listen, I made a bad mistake, I’m sorry and I’m trying to go on with my life.’ And I can’t talk about this guy or what Babe Ruth did or what Ty Cobb did because you can find a skeleton in anybody’s closet. You’re going to drive yourself crazy.”
Why, sure he can! Three years ago, the same question yielded this: “People forget there’s not a bunch of altar boys in the Hall of Fame, but I’m the one that did the crime of all crimes, I gambled.”
Rose 2007 was like that. He’d said he was sorry and wrote a book filled with details he withheld for years. What else did the world want from him? On Barry Bonds, Rose scathed: “I don’t want to speculate because a guy gained 35 pounds, or because a guy got muscles or because a guy’s head grows or because a guy never hit 50 home runs and all of a sudden he did. I’m not going to speculate on all that.”
Rose 2010 on Clemens was snark-free: “I believe he seriously thinks he didn’t cheat. And if he didn’t, I respect what he’s doing. He’s going to take our legal system and put them to work. You don’t know and I don’t know. You can’t speculate because a guy’s built good at 40 or because a guy’s head gets bigger or his muscles get bigger. There’s other ways to make your head and muscles bigger than just steroids.”
Perhaps Rose realized the curmudgeon act didn’t work, so now he’s back to being the great ballplayer. You know, head down, don’t make trouble, try harder.
So far, it’s worked. He talks of his gratitude to “our commissioner” Bud Selig for letting him be honored on September 11 in Cincinnati, his hometown and the site of nearly his entire career. It’s a new ballpark since his day, of course, but nonetheless it stands on Pete Rose Way. He’s giddy that his son and ex-teammates will be there, but it’s fan adulation he craves: “Anytime a player can be remembered for something he did on the field, it’s not only a big deal, it’s a big weekend for me.”
There’s no doubt this may be a first big step back into baseball’s good graces. Sooner or later, the Reds will finally retire his number, 14. And someday—“maybe after I’m dead”—he can take his place alongside his many career artifacts already on display.
“I tell young players today, don’t do like I did,” he said. “Get it out there as quickly as you possibly can, like these guys with drugs did, like Giambi and A-Rod did. If you come clean when it’s time to come clean as quickly as you possibly can, this country will give you a second chance.”
Here’s hoping it’s finally Pete Rose’s turn.