CINCINNATI — They were lined up five or six deep on the ballpark’s centerfield concourse, just below the tall smoke stacks, under the afternoon sun. A crowd had gathered a few hours before the All-Star Game at Great American Ball Park, everyone leaning in and peering past the lights and the cameras and at the makeshift TV set where three powdered men looked down at blue cards and mumbled to themselves. Two middle-aged men rocking old-school v-neck Reds pullovers stopped in their tracks.
“Hey, is that…?”
Pete Rose is 74 now. His famous mop is now a thinning swath colored an impossible hue of brown, his face sagging and jowly. The bright lights here are not kind.
“He was the best hitter?” a young boy in a Todd Frazier t-shirt asked as he looked on.
“He is the best hitter,” his dad replied.
A few moments later, with still an hour to broadcast, Rose got up from the desk, and the gathered crowd broke into a loud chant. “LET PETE IN! LET PETE IN!” The legend didn’t even glance up as he disappeared into a media work room with tinted windows.
There was a game Tuesday night in Cincinnati. The American League, powered by Mike Trout and an all-world bullpen, took the 2015 All-Star Game with a quiet 6–3 victory. The exhibition capped a week that was a lovely tribute to Cincinnati baseball, with fans coloring the ballpark red over two rousing nights as a reminder that this is a great baseball town. The week “put [Cincinnati] back on the map, to be honest with you,” said hometown hero Frazier after the game.
But all week long, one man, long exiled from the game, loomed over the proceedings. Rose was the big story not only because his case for reinstatement is being reconsidered by Major League Baseball, not only because he was an analyst for Fox, but also because he was voted by the fans as a member of the Reds’ Franchise Four, the reason for the invite to a pregame ceremony with the other three members. Rose was back in the town where he was born, grew up and became rich and famous, and his return in front of the home crowd was the most anticipated moment of All-Star week.
“I told guys, be ready when Pete Rose is announced,” said Frazier. “You might not be able to hear yourself clap.”
He emerged from the third-base dugout, raised his arm and waved and walked to the mound, following Johnny Bench, Barry Larkin and Joe Morgan. It was the longest ovation of the night, and for many fans, particularly the diehards, it will be the most memorable moment of this year’s All-Star Game. It may also be the last time Rose is officially recognized by Major League Baseball.
Outside Cincinnati, of course, Rose’s standing is far more complicated, and what’s become clear in recent weeks and months, with each new revelation, is that Rose will likely remain an outsider, forever. For those clinging to the hope of redemption and reinstatement, Tuesday night’s moment—it felt like a homecoming, a thank you from the fans and maybe even a farewell—will likely have to do as Rose’s storybook ending.
Leading up to the weekend, he was a traveling one-man show, drawing crowds wherever he went. Last Thursday, he was in central Illinois, in the town of Normal, signing baseballs for $50 a pop. The following day in O’Fallon, Mo., near St. Louis, he signed more baseballs. On Saturday, he sat on a stage telling tales like Elaine Stritch at the downtown Taft Theater in Cincinnati; it was called “An Evening With Pete Rose,” one night only (VIP tickets included a meet-and-greet and went for $125). He began the night with a story about how his dad, Harry Rose, took him to the horse track and joked that’s where all “that stuff started.”
Mostly, though, in Cincinnati, Rose retained a low profile, though his presence was felt at every event. At media day on Monday, it seemed like every poor player was being asked about the legend. “He did a lot of great things for baseball; the past is the past,” said Frazier. At Monday’s All-Star press conference, NL manager Bruce Bochy was asked about Rose’s participation in the pregame ceremony. “I know Pete. I grew up a Reds fan, to be honest. I was a big fan of the Big Red Machine and I was here in Cincinnati and I know how popular Pete is here. He’s part of the history of Cincinnati, the Reds.”
At his Town Hall on Monday, commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about Rose as a national. “There’s no doubt that the vast majority of the mail that I get is from people who live in Cincinnati or who were from Cincinnati originally, big Pete Rose fans,” the commissioner said. “It is a topic that’s of interest to people. And it’s one that we’ll deal with going forward.” Even Snoop Dogg, at the Celebrity Softball game, chimed in. “I grew up loving Pete Rose,” Snoop said.
In Cincinnati, there is only love for Charlie Hustle, that much is now clear. There’s been little to cheer about this summer in the Queen City, with the Reds floundering in fourth place in their division and heading toward a possible trade deadline sell off. Monday night belonged to Frazier, the local hero who turned the Home Run Derby into a rousing, feel-good spectacle for the hometown faithful. Tuesday, for many Reds fans, was about Rose. The faithful walked toward the stadium along Pete Rose Way, wearing red FREE PETE! t-shirts and holding handmade signs that read SET PETE FREE. They squeezed into the Reds Hall of Fame and lingered at the display case near the entrance displaying Rose’s game-used jersey from Sept. 11, 1985, the night he became the hit king. They snapped photos at the rose garden outside the ballpark marking the spot where his record-breaking hit landed, at old Riverfront Stadium.
With the events of the week, it may seem as though Rose is inching closer to forgiveness and to redemption, but if this week clarified anything at all, it’s that in many ways, he’s never been further from any of those things. There was never any meeting this week between Rose and Manfred, who earlier this year said that he would listen to Rose’s appeal. That meeting will happen, as Manfred said on Tuesday at the Baseball Writers' Association of America luncheon—“I remain committed to the idea that Mr. Rose deserves an opportunity to tell me, in whatever format he feels most comfortable, whatever he wants me to know about the issue”—though Rose’s chances for reinstatement are remote in light of ESPN’s recent damning revelations that Rose bet on games as a Reds player.
Baseball’s enduring scandal has stretched on for over 25 years and is not going away anytime soon. At the end of the night on Tuesday, Rose was back in the analyst’s chair for Fox’s postgame broadcast. A small crowd looked on as it neared midnight in Cincinnati, and as they signed off, the crowd started again with the chants, “LET PETE IN!” Tuesday was a remarkable night, but in the end, nothing at all has changed in the Rose saga.
This week, he returns to his life in Vegas, to his life behind booths and tables and shuttling between meet-and-greets. According to PeteRose.com, on Thursday at noon at Mandalay Place on the Strip, Pete Rose is available for autographs.