LAS VEGAS – Needless to say, there is a lot of baseball talk at the Winter Meetings. It's never ending, actually. Banter over the latest free agents, trades, the economy of the game is the reason why everyone showed up at The Bellagio in the first place.
Yet despite all of the talk and rumor-mongering no one at The Bellagio took the time to bolt out of the resort and out into the sun-soaked Thursday afternoon in the dry December desert air to Caesar's Palace. Seperated by just mere steps, the baseball Winter Meetings were so close to a lonely figure who knew a thing or two about the game.
At the same time he may as well have been on the other side of the moon.
But this was where he was hiding in plain sight, sitting behind a long, narrow table with a pile of Sharpie pens of various sizes while fiddling with the Bluetooth ear piece for his iPhone. He looked much older sitting there with an assistant behind the table and red ropes that cordoned his area away from the rest of the room. Wearing a weathered leather ball cap with white leather ankle boots, a Nike dri-fit top, all accessorized by a large gold watch and gold bracelet, baseball's all-time hits leader sat so close yet so far awy from the epicenter of the game he loved so much. His face was weathered by sun and late nights, but not as old as his years. The extra weight he carried was striking to anyone who saw him three decades ago, but then again, that’s life.
We should all be so lucky as to get old.
So Pete, is it OK if we talk some baseball?
“Sure,” he said. “Come on over and sit down.”
Finally, some baseball talk with a guy who still loves the game as much now than he ever did. Here was a guy who knew a little about it, too. Judging by the photos of other folks displayed behind the table that also made the pilgrimage to see the man (Roger Clemens, Li’l Jon, Paris Hilton, Ice-T, etc., etc.) it appeared as if I came to the right place.
“I watch more baseball than anyone I know,” said Pete Rose, without a trace of self-doubt. “I live out west so the East Coast games are on at 4:30. The midwest games come on by 5 and then the West Coast games are on at 7:30.”
He also pointed out that he had a television set up on the table so he could watch games at work in the sports memorabilia shop called, “Field of Dreams” in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. So yeah, not only did he watch a lot of baseball and talk a lot about baseball, but he also capitalized off it by signing his name to baseballs, shirts, bats, photos or whatever else fans requested. After the signing, where Rose usually personalized the item before writing his name, the phrase “Hit King” and “4,256,” he invited the fan to the other side of the red ropes to sit for a picture and some peppery banter.
Sorry, he signs “Charlie Hustle” only on Cincinnati Reds jerseys.
After being told that a man requesting a signature and photo was named Lester, Rose said, “Lester? Lester the Molester?” Then he turned to the man’s wife and said, “She’ll never tell.”
Needless to say, the couple and Rose had grins ear-to-ear for the camera phone photo.
With the ropes and the table, it was almost as if customers showed up at the zoo and were allowed to hop in the cage.
So between autographs, photo sessions, the occasional handshake and call on the iPhone, we sat there talking about baseball. More specifically, we sat there on the other side of the ropes and talked about the Phillies. Along the way various other tangential topics arose from the serious – such as his suspension from baseball, steroids, his prison term for income tax evasion and the global economic crisis and how it relates to baseball – to the absurd – such as how no one in prison admitted guilt (“When I was in there there were 245 guys in there, but I was the only one who was guilty. They all told me their fucking story, but I was the only one who was guilty.”) and his job as a prisoner at the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Ill.
Talk about traveling all over the map – we redrew the borders. And yes, the irony about talking to Pete Rose in a shop at Caesars Palace was not lost.
“When I was in there it was the only Level 6 [federal prison] in the entire system in the U.S.,” Rose said about his jail term. “I had to work in the main prison. I had to go every day and the people in Marion were in the cage 23 out of 24 hours a day. We were the only camp who didn’t have cable TV, because then every fucker in there would have had to have it in every cell.
“I worked in the welding department. My job was to have the bleeping hot chocolate made by 8:15 a.m. every day. That was my fucking job. And every time the warden was coming back [to the welding department] they had me back as far back as I could go. Because I was a high-profile guy. They’d also say, ‘The old man is on the way back,’ and every time he came back I was in my little kitchen sweeping the floor. He said, ‘Pete, you know something, this is the cleanest damn floor in this entire prison. Because every time I come back there you’re sweeping this damn kitchen.’ I said, ‘Hey, I gotta keep it clean!’
“A couple years ago we we’re selling Pete Rose cookies with a company out of St. Louis. The only place you could get these cookies is in prison. They can’t sell them in a supermarket. A couple years ago I went to North Carolina for a convention of all the commissaries and all the wardens came. That warden came and got my autograph.
“I should have signed the broom for him.”
But the intent was to talk only baseball. That’s it.
Look, by now everyone has heard Rose’s story and has formulated an opinion. There are no more surprises, spins, stories or theories. Pete Rose bet on baseball. As we sat there in Caesars Palace, he looked straight into my eyes and told me that he bet on his team every night.
“That’s how much confidence I had in my team,” he said.
I certainly didn’t show up in Las Vegas to get an admission from Pete Rose. Nor did I show up to kick dirt on the biggest pariah in the history of professional sports or listen to him state his case. Everyone gets it by now, and even though I told Rose I believed his suspension was proper, it does seem odd to note that if he had committed murder he might have served his sentence by now.
“I just want a second chance,” he said, sticking to his mantra. “I’ve been suspended for 19 years already.”
“And how long did you play?”
We just let that hang there for a moment.
But the point was baseball, and since Rose says he watches religiously, the topic turned to the Phillies and manager Charlie Manuel, who was rewarded with a contract extension that will carry him through the 2011 season. After a rocky start as manager of the Phillies, even Rose was impressed with how far Manuel had come to win over the fans.
“I can see how they didn’t like him in Philadelphia at first,” Rose said. “He made some moves that no one understood but him. But give him credit. His team likes him and they play for him. That’s the hardest thing to do. Look, I managed and I know that a team takes the personality of the manager. He keeps them relaxed so they can play. He takes all on the media and the fans and lets them do their jobs."
“As a manager you have to have one set of rules for all 25 guys,” he said. “But you have to treat each guy individually. When I was managing and I said we have batting practice at 5, you better be there at 4:30.”
Charlie had a few issues with tardiness from shortstop Jimmy Rollins.
“I don’t get that. Rollins is a great player,” Rose said. “He must not like the game.”
Told Rollins is an astute student of the game and its history, particularly the Negro Leagues, Rose had a quick reply.
“I guess he doesn’t want to be in the clubhouse.”
Rose admitted he didn’t know so much about the modern-day big league clubhouses, since his ban from the game prohibits him from so much as attending a game without purchasing a ticket. In fact, he expressed surprise when a friend with the Astros organization told him the team employs a chef for the clubhouse. He also couldn’t get over how far technology had become entwined in the modern game.
“I got 4,256 hits and I never hit a ball off a tee and I never watched myself hit on video,” he said. “Neither did Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron.”
But Chase Utley does. Tirelessly. Rose likes Utley and allowed himself a little laugh when told about Utley’s speech at Citizens Bank Park following the World Series victory parade. Rose appreciates how Utley played much of the 2008 season through a hip injury that was worse than he let on, though the Hit King noted the price.
“He’s paying now if he’s out through May," he said. "But I guess he got his ring so it’s OK.”
But Rose does not understand Utley’s reluctance to open up to the media about himself or baseball. Different personalities, perhaps. Rose was an open book and revealed all even when he was keeping a secret about his gambling on baseball. One of the secrets to the success of those juggernaut Phillies teams in Rose’s day was that he was the one who stood up and took on the media. With sensitive personalities like Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt on the club, Rose was the go-to guy for a quote or some insight. By doing that, he took the pressure off the team’s best players.
Rose simply did not understand why Utley refused to talk to the media during his 35-game hitting streak during the 2006 season. Not talking about baseball is just a foreign concept to him. Worse, he says, fans – particularly kids – don’t get a chance to know their heroes without some type of media insight.
“Kids might want to know more about baseball and they will listen to what a guy like Chase Utley has to say,” Rose said. “But when he’s up there all he says is, ‘Yep.’”
Rose always has time for the fans, it appeared. He was genuine, easy going, friendly, a kidder and bawdy. He sang a few bars of “Oh Canada,” to a couple from Saskatchewan, asked a man in a cowboy hat if he was in town for the rodeo and talked about boxer Manny Pacquiao with a woman from the Philippines.
When told that he was good at interacting with people, Rose agreed.
“Yes, I am,” he said.
But Rose was left alone with his Sharpies and the curiosity seekers behind the red rope and long, narrow table.
Sad. Not sadness in a condescending way, but in truest sense of the word. Sad because a man who had accomplished so much was now reduced to shaking hands and signing his name while his old friends got to be on the inside of the game that defined him for all of his life.
“I don't mind working,” said Rose, noting that he drove from his home in Los Angeles to Las Vegas 15 times a month to work at Field of Dreams. He also seems to genuinely enjoy interacting with baseball fans. It is the fans, after all, that keep him tethered to the game.
“Baseball needs the fans,” he said. “Without the fans, what’s the point?”
“Dave Raymond,” he said. “Do you know who he was?”
The original Phillie Phanatic.
Rose likes his life, he said. He goes to all the big fights in town, he watches baseball and he gets to meet new people every day. He gets to talk about the game, though. He’s also hoping to open up a steakhouse in Vegas, soon. Maybe, just maybe, baseball will allow him to formally ask for a second chance.
That’s not too bad.
At quitting time, Rose stacked the pens, bundled them and put them away. The assistants who snap pictures for the fans and give the memorabilia to sign slipped out of their Cincinnati Reds’ shirts and tidied up. Rose got up, gathered his things in a small bag and walked with me to the door.
We shook hands and I thanked him for his time and the stories. Especially the stories.
“Just quote me accurately,” he said.
Then he turned and walked down the ornately decorated shopping mall toward his car for the drive back to Los Angeles.