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Biding time, Rose says he'll survive

Published Oct. 16, 2005

Pete Rose held a different kind of bat. A putter. "Played lousy today," said baseball's exiled, 48-year-old hero of hit. "Shot a 97. It feels kind of like a 1-for-5 night at the ballpark." Kind of, but not really.

Charlie Hustle is six months into baseball-less, and "gambling-free," life. Rose plays golf today, talks with both love and ire about yesterday, and wonders about tomorrow.

"They took baseball from me," he said, pointing to the heart, "but they can't take the game out of me. Memories are forever. Good times, and bad. Plus all the great people I've met, and played alongside. I'm going to survive."

No tears, just emotion.

Accused of gambling, and cavorting with undesirables, the Reds' manager, and 20-year Cincinnati ballfield darling, was purged from baseball by Bart Giamatti, a commissioner who would die four days later.

"I admit," Rose said, "that I gambled on football and basketball, but not on baseball. Now I've totally quit. My last bet was January 1989, on the Super Bowl the Cincinnati Bengals lost to San Francisco.

"I'm getting help; talking every week with a psychiatrist. I'm not doing things that got me suspended. Not betting even if it's legal, like at dog or horse tracks."

After what Rose terms "my summer of hell," he moved here, to live in comparative solitude at the Walden Lake Golf and Country Club home he bought in 1988, when the Reds moved spring-training operations from Tampa to Plant City.

Reporters call often, asking for interviews. In his 25 major-league seasons, Rose was one of the most available and quotable sources. But after 1989, he is gun-shy.

It took me two trips to Plant City and six phone calls to hook the new Rose. "I'm careful now, hand-picking who I talk with," he said, chowing lightly on a clubhouse lunch of fruit and cottage cheese.

"I was disappointed at the bias, outright lies and tactics some of the media used last year," he said, removing sunglasses to focus a stare. "For three months, CBS and ABC had camera crews with me every day. Waiting for some Pete Rose explosion. I can tell you journalistic horror stories."

For 20 minutes, he did.

"One of the more disturbing was in USA Today, where a headline said my kids hated me," Rose said. "The story was based on a comment from my daughter, Fawn, when she was 11. Something from 1978, when I'd just divorced her mother.

"Fawn is 24 now, and a grad student at Xavier University. We get along great. She drives a new Mercedes I gave her. Everything's good, too, with my son, Pete Jr., who is 20 and playing in the Baltimore Orioles' organization."

Ironically, as we gabbed, Lou Piniella appeared to extend a hand to Rose. He is the Reds' new manager, in Plant City awaiting settlement of baseball labor negotiations.

"Maybe we can tee it up," said the former manager of the New York Yankees, faking a golf swing. Rose finally smiled, saying, "I'd like that, Lou. There are some things I'd like to tell you."

Sitting at the adjacent table were Pete's golf companions for this day, Reds broadcaster and ex-pitcher Joe Nuxhall, and current star Cincinnati left-handed pitcher Tom Browning.

Without baseball, and gambling, the combative Rose needed a substitute sporting challenge. Golf became it, and after six months, computer printouts tacked to Walden Lake clubhouse walls tell you he's a 21-handicapper, indicating scores averaging in the mid-90s.

But, a 97 doesn't satisfy.

"I hit 300 practice balls a day, plus playing 18 holes," Rose said. "I'm smart enough to not try overpowering golf shots. That puts me ahead of most beginners. I'll get better. Just watch me."

Don't, uh, bet against it.

With Rose are second wife Carol and their children, 5-year-old Tyler and 5-month-old Cara. "Out of all the bad," he said, "has come some good. Most nights, I'm home with my family. I take Tyler to school every day. With Petey and Fawn, I missed that. I was forever at the ballpark."

Draw no illusions. We're not talking a latter-day Robert Young. Pete has changed, but not 180 degrees from the cocky, pugnacious, competitive, unrefined No. 14 we knew for so long.

"It's been beautiful in Plant City," he said. "We do get out, and people are so supportive. We eat at Buddy Freddy's, or my favorite local Chinese restaurant. Folks always come up, shaking my hand, asking for autographs and saying they hope everything works out.

"I hope so too."

Next Aug. 23, Rose is eligible to apply to Giamatti's successor and bosom buddy, Fay Vincent, for baseball reinstatement. "I haven't decided if I'll do it then," Rose said. "The timing may not be right.

"Sure, it's something I want. I did some things wrong, and I'm paying my debt. Main reason I want reinstatement is because I dislike seeing a cloud over baseball.

"If I'm fortunate enough to make baseball's Hall of Fame in 1992, I wouldn't want commissioner Vincent to present Tom Seaver a plaque and not be able to hand me one."

Last summer, when the Rose case was afire, I wrote that, unless he bet against his own team and manipulated games, Pete deserved induction into the Hall of Fame.

That still stands.

Are sports halls of fame also halls of morality? If so, why is Babe Ruth honored in Cooperstown, since he was both baseball's most acclaimed player and womanizer, overdrinker and pot-bellied overeater?

"For 2{ decades, I busted my a-- to achieve all I could, and to give everybody their money's worth," Rose said, passion in the voice. "Then, without talking to me, they take the words of convicted drug traffickers to nail me to the wall.

"John Dowd (baseball counsel) filed what amounted to a prosecutor's brief, with a verdict attached. Never talking to Nuxhall and guys who were closest to me on a daily basis. People who'd known if I was betting on baseball. Instead, they take criminals' word as gospel.

"Commissioner Giamatti read the report, laid it down, and said he was convinced I was guilty. I'd confessed months before to betting on other sports, something they said wouldn't influence the verdict. But, unable to prove I bet on baseball, they went back to the other stuff.

"I played fair with baseball, but the courtesy wasn't returned. They were wrong, but Major League Baseball knew I'd run out of courts and money before being able to prove it."

Back to the Hall "My baseball statistics speak for themselves," Rose said. "I broke Ty Cobb's supposedly untouchable record of 4,190 lifetime hits. It's not just my ego talking when I say I belong in the Hall of Fame.

"I played like a Hall of Famer. I would hate like hell to not make the Hall because I bet on some football and basketball games. The Baseball Hall of Fame is not for altar boys.

"But I'm not a bad citizen. Some of my critics say I'm now doing community things to polish my tarnished image. Hell, for years I led the league in charity appearances.

"I'm going to St. Petersburg on Tuesday to appear at a Kids and Kubs softball game. I want to have some fun, and hopefully make those old boys feel good about themselves."

It sounded more like testimony than tirade. But Rose had worked up more appetite, and returned to the buffet line for a big helping of Jell-O.

A man approached Pete's table, asking, "I'm a big fan and wonder if you would pose for a picture with my mother, who's celebrating her 70th birthday." Rose went over, taking Browning and Nuxhall with him, and put an arm around the woman.

Next month, the Roses will return to Cincinnati. With no baseball job, Pete will make his living from autograph sessions, bubble-gum card shows, speeches, and a 32-week deal with Cincinnati radio station WCKY for daily commentaries and Thursday one-hour specials. He's in Memphis, Tenn., this weekend for a card show, goes to Detroit the next, then New York, then Erie, Pa.

Last year, Rose was said to be financially busted, and selling World Series rings and other memorabilia to pay off bookies and other debts.

"The bad information was incredible," he said. "Lawyers cost plenty. But I'm okay. We're going to make it. Media people gave me hell for doing a CVN (cable TV) show that sold autographed baseball items.

"That was a six-figure deal set up long before my trouble. Frank Deford said on NBC-TV that I was like a wino selling my blood. Nobody knows what I went through. But I'm alive and doing okay in Plant City, and thinking about going home to Cincinnati.

"I will survive."