If you want to, you can view the whole thing as sad or pathetic. I arrive at the Forum Shops, whether I realize it or not, with just that perspective. Pete Rose disabuses me pretty quickly of that notion.
Really, though, who could blame me? It is difficult not to bring your sympathy with you to meet a man of this stature and accomplishment who has been forced to turn himself into a living cardboard cutout to make a living. His former teammates are mentoring the next generations to championships as managers or raking in dough as commentators or, if nothing else, slipping away from their wives by passing their days on the world’s great golf courses. Rose, banned for life from Major League Baseball in 1989 for betting on games, has to do this?
But the first thing I see at the Field of Dreams shop is the line out the door leading to a smiling Rose, holding a ready pen to sign purchases and chatting amiably with a 50-something tourist who wonders whom Rose likes for this year’s World Series.
Rose sits here for more than 75 hours a month in his white Air Jordan cap mugging for pictures and signing his name for folks who pay $99 for an autographed ball or hat and $199 for an autographed jersey. Behind him looms a backdrop featuring a montage of images of him in his Charlie Hustle, Ty Cobb-displacing, sliding-headfirst-into-third, Big-Red-Machine prime.
As odd as it might sound, Rose seems to be having fun. You know that because there’s even a $299 option to have Rose sign on a ball, “I’m sorry I bet on baseball.” Really.
“It’s fun for me because my demographics is so good,” says Rose, as we grab lunch at the bar at Sushi Roku so he can keep an eye on the Indians-Yankees game. “A couple of things amaze me about this gig. One is the number of kids who come in. They’ve never seen me play, they’ve only been told by their moms and dads how I played the game. And two, a lot of my customers are women because we’re in the No. 1 mall in the country. Women buy for their grandpas, their dads, their husbands and their kids. It’s right up my alley.”
I believe him, sort of. I believe he is enjoying, not merely enduring, these sessions. Not that this is what he’d be doing today were it not for all of the scandal, but I believe he does not wish to present himself as unhappy or wistful. I believe that, both having ignored the calls for him to come clean for years and then having finally confessed his sins in 2004 only to find himself in precisely the same place, Rose is no longer interested in trying to figure out how to fix the broken parts of his life. It can’t be an accident when he grabs my microphone and amuses his crowd by crooning, “I did it my-y-y way.”
“You want to know the absolute truth, I quit worrying about it,” Rose says. “The Hall of Fame would be the absolute greatest honor any player can ever be given, but I have a young family to provide for. I don’t have time to sit around and cry and worry what Bud Selig’s going to do.”
Sit around and cry? Naw. But when asked, Rose forthrightly admits he’s sick of being the ultimate prodigal son, the one never allowed to return home despite the fact that others are now doing far more violence to the “integrity of the game” than he ever did.
That frustration is obvious when discussion turns to homer-king-with-an-asterisk Barry Bonds: “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. They put an investigator on me who used to work against the guys in the Mafia. I don’t know what kind of investigation [Former Sen.] George Mitchell’s doing, I don’t know how involved he is in all that, I don’t know.”
So it’s a little unconvincing that his own interminable punishment doesn’t eat at Rose. But here in Las Vegas, he finds the salve that soothes the wounds of his dishonor. He lost his livelihood and reputation over gambling, and yet in gambling’s capital his spirits can be renewed and memories of his greatness may remain alive as he meets fan after fan, virtually every one of whom informs him of their support and their annoyance at the injustice he continues to suffer. And, in a nod to the scandal that brought him such grief, he vows not to play table games in casinos. If you catch him doing so, he says, tap him on the shoulder and he’ll give you a $100 bill.
“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,” he says. “Ain’t that funny, we’re sitting here in Las Vegas sayin’ that?”
Not funny at all. Makes perfect sense, actually. Where else, really, would virtually everyone around agree that there are worse things you can do than place a few bets?
Hear Steve Friess’ full chat with Pete Rose on his podcast at TheStripPodcast.com or read Steve’s daily blog at TheStripPodcast.blogspot.com. E-mail him at [email protected]