In this combination of photos Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, left to right, speak during their news conferences after being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. (AP Photos)
AP Photo
January 07, 2015

LAS VEGAS (AP) Pete Rose didn't want it to be about him, not on a day when four new members were elected to baseball's most exclusive club.

Good picks all, Rose said, though he would have liked to see Mike Piazza get in, too. He believes Piazza was the best hitting catcher ever, which says something because Rose played alongside the best catcher ever in Johnny Bench on the Big Red Machine.

''Let's talk about them, not me,'' Rose said. ''Why take away from the four inductees? It would be like those policemen turning their backs on the mayor at the funerals in New York.''

Invariably, though, the talk returned to baseball's all-time hit king. Had to, because there's a big gap in Cooperstown where his Hall of Fame plaque should be.

It's been a quarter-century since Rose agreed to a lifetime ban from the sport for betting on games, and almost that long since the Hall of Fame adjusted its rules to keep him off the ballot. Rose thought when commissioner Bart Giamatti issued the ban that it would include a chance to apply for reinstatement, but 25 years later there's been no sign that baseball will welcome him back.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens may someday find their way into the hall despite being poster boys for the steroid era. Time has a way of healing all wounds, even those that were self-inflicted, and their monster numbers may impress some more voters a few years down the road.

But time is running out on Rose. He'll be 74 in April and there's been no indication so far from Rob Manfred that he will be any more agreeable to Rose's reinstatement when he takes over from Bud Selig as commissioner later this month than Selig himself was.

Rose understands that. He's also figured out by now that selling signed balls with the inscription ''I'm sorry I bet on baseball'' isn't going to get him off the banned list.

Yes, he bet on baseball, though he says it was always on his team to win when he was managing the Cincinnati Reds. And, yes, he continued to deny it until finally admitting it in a 2004 book that infuriated many in the sport.

But he'd like to hold out a little hope that his lifetime sentence won't last the rest of his life. He'd like to think that one January day not too far in the future he will be on a long overdue Hall of Fame ballot himself.

''I'm not eligible, though I'd like to be eligible,'' Rose said. ''I'm the one that messed up, but if I'm ever put on the ballot I'll be very happy about it.''

So would a lot of Pete Rose fans, who can't help but wonder why the juicers who made a mockery of the sport are still welcome in baseball while Rose is on the outside looking in. No matter how you feel about him betting on games, no one questions his numbers as they do those of several players who were on the latest Hall of Fame ballots.

Those numbers more than speak for themselves. Rose played more games (3,562) than any other major leaguer, had more hits than any other player (4,256). He played in six World Series, winning three, and hustled every step of the way.

He didn't pump steroids into his body to hit more home runs. He never tried to fix a World Series; not even a spring training game.

Yes, his original ban was rightly imposed as a deterrent against someone else trying to fix games themselves. But after all these years, his punishment no longer fits the crime.

Rose watched the latest selections Tuesday, applauding the election of Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Craig Biggio and Randy Johnson to the hall. He then headed to work at the Art of Music collectibles store at the Mandalay Bay where he spends most of his afternoons chatting with fans and signing merchandise they buy.

A signed 8x10 of Rose sliding head-first into third base is $75, while the apology baseball goes for $299. For $199 fans can get another baseball with the inscription ''Hits: 4,256. Steroids: 0'' on it.

He'll be in Cooperstown this summer as he almost always is, though not for the actual induction ceremony itself. Like many other former players, he sets up shop that week to sell his merchandise to fans and the sons of fans who once watched him play.

It's good money on a busy week, and Rose isn't going to apologize for being there. It's what he does for a living, and the reason he finally had to cut short a conversation about an induction of his own that will probably never come.

''I've got two people waiting in line right now,'' he said. ''Could be busy day.''

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/timdahlberg .

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