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One of baseball's greatest and most controversial figures Pete Rose is back in the news. Since 1989, Rose, the all-time hits leader, has been banned from baseball for gambling on the game. And still, the fallout continues. A new batch of baseball cards list some of his many records, but not his name. It's a reminder of Pete Rose's singular status as a Major League Baseball pariah.
But with so many other players now tainted with allegations such as steroid use, NPR's Tom Goldman asked Rose himself if it's time to re-evaluate Rose's status?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey there, Pete. How you're doing today?
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Pete Rose seems to be doing fine as he arrives for work at the Art of Music, a memorabilia store in Las Vegas. He's wearing off-white alligator boots and matching fedora. The man nicknamed Charlie Hustle moves slower at age 71. But as he settles into a chair, for four and a half hours of autograph signing, Rose is very much the pugnacious player who barreled around the bases and into opponents. He starts jawing with a couple of mooks wearing New York Yankees gear.
PETE ROSE: Get out of here with that Yankee shirt on.
ROSE: We beat your ass, too, in '76.
ROSE: Get out the broom. We swept you.
GOLDMAN: Rose's great 1976 Cincinnati Reds' team, The Big Red Machine, his record 4,256 hits and so many other on-field accomplishments are the source of great pride. And now, consternation as he wonders why Topps baseball cards are, in his words, taking away those accomplishments.
ROSE: I think it's called piling on.
GOLDMAN: Rose hasn't had his own baseball card since 1989. The new cards compare the player's statistics to all-time records. Rose holds some of those records and they're listed on the cards, but his name isn't.
Rose's 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, he says, are authentic and are recognized as such by official baseball, even as it shuns him.
ROSE: If you go up to the Cooperstown right now, there's 15 of my artifacts in the Hall of Fame. You walk in the commissioner's office, in New York, they got a board with hits - games, at-bats - my name is up at the top of all of them.
GOLDMAN: Topps 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 the perception that someone's profiting.
The baseball card spat reminds the sporting world that Pete Rose remains on an island: population, 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: My name's Rob Schroeder. I'm from San Francisco, California.
GOLDMAN: Cradling his new $100 Pete Rose autographed ball, Rob Schroeder is one of several fans at Art of Music who says, no, it's not fair anymore.
SCHROEDER: I don't think that there's any illusion that professional athletes are role models 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.
GOLDMAN: Rose has watched the so-called steroids era eat away at baseball's reputation. He draws a distinct line between them and him.
ROSE: I didn't cheat to get all those records. You know, like a lot of guys are doing the last 10 years. I (censored) up but I didn't cheat. I didn't cheat the game.
GOLDMAN: In fact, since his 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, an extension of Charlie Hustle's competitive fire.
ROSE: What I did, it was wrong. But what I did is a little bit like the jockey on Number 2 in the Kentucky derby betting on his own horse. Not betting on Number One; betting on Number 2. That's all I did every night as a manager, I tried to win. I tried to win every fricking game.
FAY VINCENT: Well, he's hustling you and he's hustling the public.
GOLDMAN: That's former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent
VINCENT: 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. When he didn't bet on his starting pitcher, what do you think the gambling line did that day?
GOLDMAN: 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 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 there has never been, nor will there be, a gambling era.
VINCENT: And baseball knows that. And any commissioner who tinkers with that deterrent runs the risk that there's going to be an epidemic of gambling that will break out.
GOLDMAN: If the current or future commissioner decides that won't happen and Pete Rose ends up in the Hall of Fame, Rose says he'll be the happiest guy in the world. But until then, he says he has his life to live.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hey, Mr. Rose, how are you doing? Totally an honor, I can't believe this is real.
ROSE: Where you from?
GOLDMAN: For four and a half hours, they come, he signs, they connect - proving no man is an island, even when he's on one.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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