In four days, I’ll be meeting a few friends in Las Vegas, and I’m sure we’ll likely bump into Pete Rose while there. We’ll find him in one of the glitzy casinos where he sits behind a long table outside a sports memorabilia shop and puts his signature on anything people are willing to pay him to sign.
It is an honest day’s work, I suppose. So what if Rose is whoring his name, demeaning all he once stood for as a ballplayer? He wouldn’t be the first athlete to sell his fame for a few dollars.
Now, at this moment in the baseball continuum, Rose shouldn’t be holed up in Vegas day after day after day. He should be making a grand tour of Major League ballparks this summer and having baseball fans salute his place in the sport’s lore.
But today, Pete Rose will be inside Great American Ball Park, on the diamond of a Major League ballpark for only the second time since 1989 and hearing the cheers that so many Reds fans have longed to shower on him. They will salute the man who holds one of baseball’s most sacred records on the 25th anniversary of the day he set it.
It was, as the switch-hitting Rose referred to it, “The Big Knock,” hit No. 4,192, which erased Ty Cobb’s name from the top spot on Major League Baseball’s list of all-time hit leaders.
To Americans, Sept. 11 means a lot more than peanuts, Cracker Jack, and base hits. The day is identified forever with an unspeakable act of cowardice, an act so reprehensible that it changed their country. So Sept. 11 can never be a day for celebrations; it can only be a day of remembrance.
With the country’s attention rightly on terror, Pete Rose deserves a tip of the cap if nothing more. In the summer of 1985, his chase of Cobb’s hits record caught a baseball fan’s attention the way Hank Aaron’s chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record had done a decade or so earlier.
Unlike Aaron, whose reticence and the threats to his life kept him from enjoying the chase, Rose had no such problems. Even in the most mundane times, Rose had plenty to talk about when the subject was baseball. No man who ever lived relished putting on a baseball uniform more than Pete Rose did. The sport made Rose into what he had become in life, and he returned the favor as a ballplayer by being as accessible an ambassador for the game as anybody else who ever lived.
Deep into his retirement years, he should be spreading the gospel of the game, assuming a role that Buck O’Neil held until his death a few years ago. Rose should be hopscotching the continent, offering testimonials, wolfing down chicken-and-biscuit dinners, and recounting Hit No. 4,192—the historic hit that made him famous.
Fame is not what follows Rose these days; infamy is. He is a pariah in baseball circles—cast aside along with the wrongdoers, the liars, and the never-weres, relegated to the darkest margins of the game. He's big enough in name to remain in the public’s consciousness, but sullied in eyes of the game’s guardians to the point where they can never open their arms to embrace him.
So here is Pete Rose, 69 now, working a table inside a Vegas casino or at some card show, doing his best to stay tied to baseball, to mean something special to people who have a love affair with the game. So he talks baseball with them; he signs his name for their money and, perhaps, thinks about what his life might be if he could get a chance to redeem himself.
He’d surely make amends for betting on baseball games and then lying about it, which might be his everlasting legacy. For it is this misdeed that has Rose banned from the sport, that has him making what amounts to a cameo in the dead of a fall pennant race instead of at ballparks night after night. It might be last time “Charlie Hustle” hears the cheers in Great American rain on him for all the good things he did as a ballplayer.
Those cheers will tell him, as Frank Sinatra sang, thanks for the memories. That’s what people tell Rose when they stand in front of him at a table with memorabilia in hand, plop down their dollars, and ask for an autograph as they hope for a bit of conversation.
Yet what choice does Pete Rose have when he’s trying to make baseball fans like me and my friends forget his failings and focus instead on his successes, all 4,256 of them?