Pete Rose: A Living Legend, Off The Record

As baseball emerges from its winter hibernation, one of the game’s greatest and most controversial figures, Pete Rose, is back in the news.

The all-time-hits leader has been banned from baseball since 1989 for gambling on the game.

It appears fallout continues: A new batch of Topps baseball cards lists some of his many records, but not his name. It’s a reminder of Rose’s singular status as a Major League Baseball pariah. It also raises the question, with so much bad behavior by top athletes, is it time to re-evaluate Rose’s status?

The Art Of Pete

Dressed in a white and red #14 Cincinnati Reds jersey — just like Rose once wore — greeter Nick Giles welcomes the legendary ballplayer to the Art of Music for another day of work. Fifteen to 20 days a month, Rose signs autographs at this memorabilia store in Las Vegas, just a short escalator ride up from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

Rose is wearing a black shirt, blue jeans, off-white alligator boots and matching fedora. The man nicknamed “Charlie Hustle” moves slower now that he’s 71. “Most players who played 24 years, your knees are bad,” he says.

But as he settles behind a table for his four-and-a-half hour shift, Rose seems very much the pugnacious player who barreled around the bases and into opponents during his career.

He starts jawing with a couple of guys wearing New York Yankees gear, as they stand in the entrance to the store.

“Get outta here with that Yankee shirt on!” Rose yells as the two guys laugh. “We beat your a–, too, in ’76! Get out the broom. We swept ya!”

Rose has many on-field accomplishments to be proud of: his great 1976 Cincinnati Reds team, “The Big Red Machine,” beat New York four games to none in the 1976 World Series and he has a record 4,256 hits, among others.

But now, Rose wonders why Topps baseball cards are “taking away” those accomplishments.

Piling On?

The Topps cards are out in time for the new season, and they include a feature called “Career Chase.” It shows how close the player on the card is to one of baseball’s important records. Rose holds some of those records, and they’re listed on the cards.

But Rose’s name isn’t.

“I think it’s called pilin’ on,” Rose says between autographs. “It seems kind of strange that [after] so many years, all of a sudden [they] don’t want to associate my name with the record I got.”

Rose hasn’t had his own baseball card since 1989, when he was banned for life. His on-field achievements are an important counterbalance to a legacy tainted by his admitted gambling on the game when he managed the Reds in the late-1980s. The records are authentic, he says, and are recognized as such by official baseball — even as it shuts him out.

“It’s just like if you go to Cooperstown right now, there’s 15 of my artifacts in the Hall of Fame,” Rose says, adding, “You walk in the commissioner’s office, in New York, [and] they got a board with hits, games, at-bats. My name’s at the top of all of them.”

Topps didn’t return several phone messages. The company is the official trading-card licensee for Major League Baseball. An MLB spokesman says players on the banned list aren’t included in MLB licensed products because baseball doesn’t want anyone profiting from that player — or even to give the impression that there’s money being made off that tainted player’s name.

On An Island

The baseball card spat reminds the sporting world that Rose remains on an island with a population of one. But with each passing day, with each headline decrying another top athlete involved with doping or criminal behavior, one wonders if Rose’s continuing banishment is fair.

Rob Schroeder from San Francisco bought a $100 baseball autographed by Rose at the Art of Music. Schroeder, 40, was one of several fans there who thought the ban isn’t fair anymore.

“I don’t think that there’s any illusion that professional athletes are role models,” Schroeder says, “or have to live their lives to some degree of perfection. And I think it’s terrible that he’s not in the Hall of Fame.”

Rose, meanwhile, has watched the so-called steroids era eat away at baseball’s reputation. He draws a distinct line between them and him.

“I didn’t cheat to get all those records. You know, like a lot of guys are doing the last 10 years. I didn’t cheat at all. I [messed] up, but I didn’t cheat. I didn’t cheat the game.”

In fact, since his gambling admission nine years ago, after more than a decade of denial, Rose and his supporters have portrayed his baseball gambling — regularly betting on his own team to win — as a positive thing. It’s considered an extension of Charlie Hustle’s competitive fire.

“What I did it was wrong,” Rose says, “but what I did is a little bit like the jockey on #2 in the Kentucky Derby betting on his own horse. Not betting on No. 1; betting on No. 2. [He's] going to do everything in his power to try to win that race. That’s all I did every night as a manager I tried to win to win every frickin’ game.”

Charlie’s Hustling?

But former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent says Rose is giving new meaning to Charlie “Hustle.”

“He’s hustling you, and he’s hustling the public,” Vincent says. “Because, in point of fact, he didn’t bet on every game. And he’s the manager. Now why didn’t he bet on every game? Because he knew some of his pitchers were not likely to be successful. And therefore he’d take a night off. … Everybody knew, that was dealing with him, that he was backing away.”

Vincent wrote the agreement, signed by Rose, under which Rose agreed to leave baseball for life with no guarantee he’d ever be reinstated. Vincent says Rose’s punishment stands alone, because his crime does. Gambling is baseball’s capital crime. It almost destroyed the game in 1919, when members of the Chicago White Sox fixed the World Series.

Since then, Vincent says the lifetime ban has been a nearly perfect deterrent. There might’ve been a steroids era, but — and Rose and Vincent are in rare agreement on this — there’s never been nor will there be a gambling era.

“And baseball knows that,” says Vincent, adding, “any commissioner who tinkers with that deterrent, runs the risk that there’s going to be an epidemic of gambling that will break out.”

Hall Of Fame … Someday?

If the current commissioner, Bud Selig, or one in the future decides there won’t be the breakout Vincent warns against, Rose finally might be reinstated to baseball. And if the baseball writers then vote him in, Rose will at long-last end up in the Hall of Fame. If it all happens, Rose says, he’ll be the happiest guy in the world.

But until then, he says, he has his life to live. That means signing autographs and connecting with so many fans who still support him. Watching Rose do his thing at the Art of Music, it’s obvious no man is an island, even when he’s on one.

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