By Joe Lemire
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Before Pete Rose managed his first professional baseball game in 25 years, he took a seat in the middle of right field. Next to him were his lawyer and his manager. They sat on folding chairs behind a makeshift dais that stood under a tent sponsored by Banana Boat sunscreen, adjacent to an inflatable kids' moon bounce and alongside the commuter rail tracks that separate the ballpark from a coal-burning power plant. Trains periodically interrupted his remarks.
Such were the circumstances of baseball's all-time hits leader before his return to the dugout in a one-game stint guest-managing the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League. Rose, of course, received a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball for betting on Reds games he managed. Despite his record 4,256 hits and 17 All-Star Game appearances, Rose is not eligible for the Hall of Fame.
"I didn't have a reason to come here, to try and impress baseball or anybody else," Rose said. "We started out with just doing an appearance with the Bluefish, and it ended up with me being on the field. I would never use anybody to try to get me reinstated."
Rose is not only the Hit King but also the Appearance King. He spends 20 days a month signing autographs for four and a half hours in Las Vegas, where he lives. He said he tries to engage each customer with a story and make the transaction more of "an experience" rather than just a purchase.
In Bridgeport, Rose appeared before nearly 200 fans who paid $150 apiece for a luncheon in which they could take photographs with him, and he met nearly 50 more fans who spent $250 for a meet and greet in which they could get an autograph, too.
Rose is well rehearsed at receiving his customers. He patiently takes photos with all-comers, often supplying a quip to go with his say-cheese smile. He knows his audience and what stories and jokes will go over best. He's become a barnstorming storyteller.
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A phone rings during the luncheon. "Answer that," Rose says. "It might be Bud Selig." After the laughter dies down, Rose adds, "It'd be a collect call."
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Rose said he has had two cordial meetings over the years with Selig and insisted that he hasn't given up on the commissioner possibly reinstating him at some point.
He also said, "You guys have to understand one thing, I'm the one who screwed up. I'm not mad at anybody in baseball, more so not Bud Selig. Bud never did anything to me."
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Rose recounts how he and the late Don Zimmer, a baseball institution for seven decades, grew up in the same neighborhood in Cincinnati. Their fathers were teammates in Little League. And their fathers used to bring the boys with them to the track to bet on horse races. "That's where I got the gambling from," Rose says.
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Scanning an independent league roster is to indulge in a trip down memory lane. Seemingly every other name inspires a "so that's what happened to him" or a "wasn't he the guy who ..." It's a way station for prospects who stalled on their way to the majors or former big leaguers hoping to work their way back. The Bluefish employ 14 players who made the big leagues on their 25-man roster, not including usual manager Willie Upshaw, who played 10 major league seasons and tallied 1,103 hits.
"The dream is still there," Upshaw said of his club. "There's a price to pay. Like I tell my guys, you're going to have adversity. This league is your adversity."
It can be a league of image rehabilitation. Three Bluefish have already returned to an affiliated minor league club in Double-A or Triple-A this season. Rose's own son, Pete Rose Jr., played in independent ball for years, including a stint in Bridgeport. He now manages the Class A Kannapolis (N.C.) Intimidators.
"It's nice to be here because you've got guys who are still trying to live out their dream," Rose said. "There's always that possibility -- you never know."
He was talking about the players, but his words aren't true only about them.
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Rose and Joe DiMaggio travel to Vietnam for a wartime goodwill trip. One humid night in the jungle, DiMaggio decides he needs a shower, which requires another man to pour water into a canvas contraption from which water sprayed down below. "I gave Joe DiMaggio a shower," Rose says. He cracks that DiMaggio was very well endowed. "I don't know if I envied or felt sorry for Marilyn Monroe," he says.
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Among the 4,573 tickets sold -- more than triple the usual Monday night gate -- were a few to fans who walked through the concourse at The Ballpark at Harbor Yard with a large sign that read, "Baseball's All-Time Hit King Deserves Cooperstown," alongside a Photoshopped image of what a Rose Hall plaque would look like at the cause's website, thepeteroseproject.com.
Bluefish management said the idea to invite Rose began with brainstorming ways to bolster attendance.
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Rose pities a Cubs fan at the luncheon, joking that God told the Cubs, "'Don't do a damn thing until I get back' -- and they listened." He later asks, "Ever been to the Cubs' website? They don't have one. They can't put three W's together."
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Rose was an integral part of Cincinnati's Big Red Machine, with whom he won two World Series and, later he won a third with the Phillies. "I'm kind of used to winning," he said, joking that he would take credit for a managerial victory but allow Upshaw to take the blame for a loss.
The Bluefish, incidentally, shut out the Lancaster Barnstormers 2-0. Lancaster had won the seven previous meetings.
"First of all, it was a good game -- they hustled and they took extra bases," Rose said. "And [D.J. Mitchell] pitched a wonderful game.
"It was fun to be a part of."
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Though Rose praises Derek Jeter as a class act and great ballplayer, he can't help but note his late-career struggles, too: "You mean that guy was going to catch me in hits? What the hell happened there? I could loan him 600, and he still won't catch me."
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Rose's 4,256 hits are an astronomical number, now more than ever. The league-wide average in the majors so far in 2014 is .251, the lowest it's been since 1972. It is harder than ever to get a hit in the majors -- better defensive play and more shifting, an increase in strikeouts and a widespread swing-for-the-fences mentality are among the reasons why -- which makes Rose's mark seem awfully safe for the foreseeable future. Jeter entered play on Monday as the active hits leader with 3,380. He's nearly 900 hits shy and has announced his retirement at year's end.
"He's a Hall of Famer who hasn't been rewarded as one," Bridgeport catcher J.R. Towles, who spent parts of five seasons in the big leagues, said of Rose.
It is impossible to tell the history of baseball without Rose, given his records, his rings and his role with the Big Red Machine. On Hall of Fame induction weekends, however, he sits in town and signs autographs rather than attend the induction ceremony. The Hall houses several artifacts from his playing days, but there is no bronze plaque for him. Does his punishment fit the crime? Should the ban be lifted? Could there be a middle ground in which he has a plaque but it notes his gambling transgressions?
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Rose says of Cardinals Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, "He could throw a ball through a car wash without getting it wet."
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Rose noted that his career average was .303 against all pitchers and .302 against the many Hall of Famers he faced in his career -- 22, in fact, for a total of 1,614 at bats. He said Mike Schmidt was the greatest player he ever had as a teammate. The greatest player he opposed was a four-way tie between Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays and Stan Musial. The greatest of all-time was Babe Ruth.
Of Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who died earlier on Monday, Rose said, "He probably put more into hitting than anyone I've ever met."
Rose still watches two or three baseball games a day, he said, and touted some of his favorite modern stars.
"All I do is go around and talk positive about the game of baseball," Rose said. "I don't badmouth anybody in baseball. I don't get on the guys that maybe used PEDs -- the guys that did this, the guys that did that. I want to talk about the Cabreras, the Trouts, the McCutchens, the Vottos. I'd rather talk about those guys."
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Asked about former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who received a lifetime ban from the NBA after racist comments he made surfaced in a video released by his ex-girlfriend, Rose's first response was to say, "All I can say about Donald Sterling is, my fiancée is a lot better looking than his girlfriend."
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Rose likened baseball to a radio show or a restaurant: They are all businesses where you need to perform daily to give people a reason to come back tomorrow.
Rose shook hands before the game. He managed from the first-base coaching box for the first five innings, congratulating Bluefish base runners and delighting in one player's headfirst slide into second base. He was an active participant in the game and not merely a celebrity spokesperson.
"When he was coaching first, he was telling us where the shortstop was," Bridgeport's Joe Mather, who played four big league seasons, said. "He was very, very into the game -- same thing in the dugout."
"It wasn't just for show even though he was in slacks and Gucci shoes," said infielder Sean Burroughs, a former first-round pick and seven-year big league veteran.
Rose said he has no interest in returning to managing as a profession but would gladly make future one-game promotional appearances such as this one.
"When I'm here, I try to do a good job," Rose said, "because people always remember the last thing they saw or heard about you."
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Joe Lemire is a former Sports Illustrated staff writer and current New York-based freelance writer who can be found on Twitter at @LemireJoe.