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Sign of times: Rose still can work a crowd

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG- He repeatedly signed, "Pete Rose/Hit King/4256." Old 14, also the king of baseball controversy.

Still, from 300 who came to Tyrone Square Mall, paying $30 to $65 for each Rose autograph, he heard nothing but plaudits, encouragement and idolatry.

"You'll always be No. 1 to me," said a woman with a young daughter. Pete smiled, asking, "What about the man who helped you bring this lovely child into the world?"

With a shrug, the awed fan added, "That's true, Pete, but there was a time when I would've given you that opportunity."

Rose, the eternal flame.

He got more hits than Cobb, Aaron, Williams or anybody, but Pete officially has been disowned by the game of his life. Charged with gambling on baseball. Prohibited from Hall of Fame ballots.

Despite his 4,256.

"Who can I write to appeal?" asked an elderly man. Rose answered, "I can't say, but his initials are Bud Selig."

Chances are, a million letters or a bushel of e-mails and a multitude of pleas won't thaw the new commissioner's icy, anti-Pete stand.

Still, at 58, Rose's popularity flourishes. Highly saleable to memorabilia fanatics. They lined up at Champs Sports, spending 30 bucks to get Pete's name on baseballs. Double for bats, helmets, books, photographs and his No. 14 Cincinnati Reds jersey.

"I'm the wrong one to ask about people's opinions," said the smudged icon. "Everywhere, it's like this. No negative comments.

"They say, "You gotta be in the Hall of Fame.' In an Internet poll with 700,000 voters, 93 percent said I should be reinstated by baseball."

Rose kept signing. Including two Sports Illustrated covers that were heaven-and-hell reminders. One from Dec. 22, 1975, when Pete was honored as Sportsman of the Year. In contrast, an edition from May 8, 1989, with "SUSPENDED" stamped across his picture.

A famous face appeared in the procession. Bucs running back Mike Alstott came to the autograph table, handing Pete a bat.

"I was at four of your games in Tampa last season," Pete said. "You're some stud. Hey, it was me yelling, "Alstott oughta be benched!' And I didn't even bet on the game."

Joking with fire.

Alstott is a Chicago chap. Cubs fan. Rose has a line for any situation. "You know what God told the Cubs?" he asked the football hero. "Don't do anything until I get back." Alstott gave a 260-pound chuckle.

For whatever purposes, no athlete has kept closer, deeper track of competition in all major sports.

Rose talked of the NCAA basketball tournament, saying Michigan State looked best to him. "I love going to great events," he said. "My next goal is the Indianapolis 500."

Pete cherishes the Kentucky Derby. "I couldn't make the great horse race through all my baseball summers," he said, "but I did finally get there.

"I sat with President Clinton's mother, Virginia Kelly. Great old gal. Plain-spoken. We had a lot of fun. Sadly, she has died."

Rose got MLB's okay to appear at last year's World Series, cheered among the greatest players of a century.

"But now, they won't let me go to Cincinnati for the 25th anniversary of our 1975 championship Reds or to Philadelphia for a 20th reunion of our 1980 championship Phillies.

"Aren't such things supposed to be mostly for fans? Bill Giles (Phillies president) sat with me at a game this spring. He said they'll draw maybe 38,000 for that anniversary. Told me it'd be a sellout if I came. Isn't that good for baseball?"

After 90 minutes, all Rose seekers had been served. Pete was headed downtown to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for an old-timers game, where he would be hurrahed louder than any other.

Unique dude.

"One family -- the Niekros -- was especially good to me," Rose recalled. "I got 77 hits off Phil Niekro. Thirty-something off his brother, Joe. More than a hundred of my 4,256. You know, if Mama Niekro had produced quints I might have 5,000 hits."

Speaking of kids, Rose talked of his own. Pete Jr. is now 30, playing pro baseball and still trying to establish himself in the big leagues.

"I've had some incredible thrills," said Senior, "but it was a different twinge at seeing my son run onto a field this spring wearing No. 14 for the Phillies.

"He was doing good. Four hits in 10 tries. But they sent him back to Triple A. You wonder what it takes."

Rose has two younger children by his second wife. One is a child TV star. "She's 10, performing not under the name Rose but as Chea Courtney. Was a regular on Melrose Place. Chea's done a lot of specials.

"Sunday night, I'll be home in California, going to a black-tie deal where young actors are honored. Chea is up for an award. Now that will be a unique thrill for me if she wins."

Hall of Fame moment?

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