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Pete Rose arrives a few minutes earlier than the appointed time for breakfast on the Las Vegas Strip, which is not surprising because he hates to be late. Even at 70 he still has plenty of Charlie Hustle in him. When Rose eats out, he often chooses this restaurant, The Café, located in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, just a few shops over from the casino's sports book, with its giant electronic boards blinking betting odds in neon green and red.
Given that Rose has been serving a lifetime ban from baseball since 1989 for betting on the game, this seems a little like a recovering alcoholic choosing to hang out near a distillery, but he says he feels no pull from the gambler's paradise. "I'm not saying I've never placed a bet since I got kicked out of baseball," he says over a plate of egg whites and fruit. "I might put a few bucks on the [Kentucky] Derby, like anybody else. But you're not going to find me in [the sports book]." Might even the appearance of impropriety damage his hopes of getting commissioner Bud Selig to lift the suspension? "I hope Bud's got somebody following me," Rose says. "He'll find out I'm just going about my business."
Since his line of work can no longer be baseball, he is now in the business of being Pete Rose. He heads up an escalator to the retail-shop level of Mandalay Place, and within minutes a short, cheerful man in a Rose replica jersey is calling out to passersby. "Hey, folks, we've got the Hit King here today!" says Ralph Bess, who describes himself as a greeter. "Pete Rose, 4,256 hits, more than any baseball player who ever lived! You want to take a picture with him? Get a personalized autograph? Don't be shy. The Hit King is here today!"
The Hit King is here daily from noon to 5 p.m.—sometimes for two weeks straight—at a table in front of the Art of Music, a sports-and-entertainment memorabilia store next to a Frederick's of Hollywood lingerie shop. There is already a line of 20 people waiting to interact with Rose: retirees who remember him as player, buddies in their 40s enjoying a guys' weekend, even twentysomethings who know him only from ESPN Classic. All of them have bought at least one piece of pricey merchandise inside the store, the first step of the "Pete Rose experience," as his business partner Joie Casey calls it.
You can get whatever Rose-related item that your heart desires and your credit card allows. An 8 × 10 photo costs $75, a baseball $99, a bat $199, a framed replica uniform from his playing days $2,000. The value of the merchandise, of course, will be conferred by Rose's autograph. In addition to posing for a picture and chatting for a few minutes, he'll write almost anything a customer requests. On more than a few items the man who for 15 years stubbornly refused to admit he bet on baseball has scribbled I'm sorry I bet on baseball above his signature. In fact, for $99 plus tax, Rose will now apologize for just about anything. He has also inscribed balls with I'm sorry I broke up the Beatles and I'm sorry I shot JFK.
If you consider it undignified for a former player of his stature to turn his career into a commodity, Rose's response is essentially 1) a guy has to make a living and 2) screw you. "I know guys like Mays, Aaron, Yastrzemski wouldn't do this," he says. "But it feels natural to me." Besides, there's no arguing with the numbers. The operation, according to Casey, had a daily average of more than $10,000 in sales last month—beefed up by the occasional purchase of dinner for four with Pete for $5,000.
A gray-haired man yells, "You belong in the Hall of Fame, Pete!" as he passes. Rose doesn't bring up the Hall or his ban often, but if asked, he's more than willing to discuss it. He doesn't see himself as a victim, but he does think he's worthy of reinstatement. "I would have been better off using steroids, being an alcoholic, doing drugs or being a spouse abuser," he says. "All those guys get second chances, but not me."
There is no anger in his tone, probably because he has been saying this for at least a decade. But as the years pass, the words take on a greater poignancy. Rose, who is twice divorced and lives alone, talks about his old friend and manager, Sparky Anderson, who had his number retired posthumously by the Tigers in June. "Where were they the last 15 years, while Sparky was alive?" Rose says. "They had all that time, when he could have been there to enjoy it. What good does it do to honor a man after he's dead?" He is talking about Sparky, but he is also talking about Pete Rose.
Maybe Rose has a point. Maybe it's that after the scandals of Mark McGwire, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods and others, his misdeeds seem less shocking now, more worthy of sympathy. Or maybe it's just that 22 years of keeping a man away from something he loves as much as Pete Rose loves baseball seems punishment enough. Whatever the reason, as I watch him here, Charlie doing a different hustle, I think that it's time to show Rose some mercy, to let him come home. I remember what he said at breakfast: "If they would let me back in baseball, you'd never see me in Vegas again."
But for now Rose carefully writes his name on a ball for a young married couple from Kansas, then inspects it to make sure it's just right. Another $99 in the cash register. The wife says, "Thanks, Pete." Then she takes the baseball out of his hand.