LAS VEGAS - Pete Rose, the man who compiled more hits than anyone in baseball history, is sipping coffee and checking his phone at a table in the middle of a crowded mall restaurant. He's about an hour from the start of another autograph signing session a few stores down, and he's enjoying the company of several East Coast day games to go along with his egg whites and sliced tomatoes.
"Did you see? Jeter got a hit in his first at-bat," Rose says.
He's looking down as he talks, his face buried in his phone. He is busily swiping his finger across the screen, going from baseball game to baseball game for updates. He doesn't know the name of the app he uses. All he knows is that it provides him with the latest baseball scores.
On this day, Jeter finally has returned to the Yankees lineup, if only for a day before getting hurt again. When reminded that with that first-inning single, Jeter needs only 951 more hits to catch Rose's all-time record of 4,256, Rose stops what he's doing, finally looks up and says, "Yeah, well, this year took care of that."
'I can't get a second chance'
"I don't like to say this," Rose said over breakfast. "Because I'm not whining now, it's just the way it is. The last time I checked, the guy who shot the pope got a second chance. He shot the pope. He got a second chance. I bet on my own team to win. And I can't get a second chance."
Rose was referring to the 1981 assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II. The Pope famously forgave his shooter and requested that he be freed from jail. But his point was clear.
Banned from baseball in 1989 for betting on the game while managing the Cincinnati Reds, Rose believes it's time he's allowed back in. He has felt this way for a while.
Rose officially filed for reinstatement in 1997, has met with commissioner Bud Selig over the years and believes he has done everything that was asked of him. They wanted him to admit he gambled on the game. He did. They wanted him to keep a low profile for a while. He did. And what did he get in return? Silence.
Officially, Selig has not ruled on Rose's application for reinstatement. That 16 years have passed since Rose first applied for reinstatement without hearing yes or no tells you everything you need to know about his chances. (A spokesman for Major League Baseball declined to comment, saying the application remains under Selig's review.)
"For me to sit here and tell you that I wouldn't want to go into the Hall of Fame, I would be the stupidest ---- in the world," Rose said. "Every player should want to go to his or her Hall of Fame.
"But I can't get mad at you or Johnny Bench or Mike Schmidt. I'm the one who ---- up. I'm the one who messed up. So if I want to go beat my head into the ground, I'll beat my head. But I can't sit here and blame [former commissioner] Bart [Giamatti] or blame Bud. I put those guys in a tough position."
Suspension lengths puzzling
Selig has other more pressing matters on his hands at the moment, of course.
The Biogenesis scandal is expected to result in suspensions for the some 20 players alleged to have received performance-enhancing drugs from the former Miami-based anti-aging clinic. The first one came down Monday when the Brewers' Ryan Braun agreed to sit out the remainder of this season -- 65 games -- rather than go through the punishment process. Others are expected to follow within weeks.
Rose has been following this situation because he follows everything about the game. When asked about PEDs, he brings himself back into the equation.
"I broke the rules, and I was wrong. I was very wrong, OK? Everybody knows that," Rose said. "I've been suspended 23 years. They break rules, they get 100 games, 50 games?"
Rose pauses for effect, shaking his head in disbelief.
You might say the steroid era has increased the level of frustration to Rose's quest for reinstatement. Over the years, Rose has been asked many times for his opinion about whether players connected with steroids should be allowed into the Hall of Fame, which holds its 2013 induction ceremonies this weekend in Cooperstown, or banished for life like himself.
So he watched with keen interest when the baseball writers' voting on last year's ballot, which included Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, was released in January. "See, you writers, you confuse me, and let me tell you why," Rose said. "And if you have an explanation for this, I want to hear it. All I've heard the last four, five, six years is I'll never vote for a guy who did steroids, OK? You heard it. When the voting came out last year, Clemens got 36 percent, Bonds got 35 percent. So one out of every three voted for them. So where did all that ---- about 'I'll never vote for anybody connected to steroids' go?"
Rose, A-Rod connection
One player connected with steroids that Rose won't be critical of is Alex Rodriguez.
A few years ago, Rose said, the Yankees third baseman walked into the Vegas memorabilia store where Rose was signing autographs and they struck up a conversation about baseball. They exchanged phone numbers, Rose said, and have kept in touch ever since.
Rose said they last spoke when Rodriguez was still working out in Tampa, just before he was about to start his minor-league rehab games. A-Rod has since returned to Tampa after injuring his left quadriceps.
"I said, 'Don't worry about all this other stuff with the drugs,' " Rose said. "I said, 'Just go get in shape.' He said, 'That's all I want to do. I want to come back and rake.' "
When it's mentioned to Rose that it seems odd for him to support Rodriguez -- who, like Braun, is alleged to have received drugs from Biogenesis -- while taking a hard stance against some of the other players connected with performance-enhancing drugs, Rose doesn't miss a beat.
"Listen, who am I to sit in Las Vegas, Nevada, and talk about the choice of these guys? I have my own problems," Rose said. "I'm not like that. They know what they did. All I'm saying is I chose the wrong vice. If I had done drugs, I'd still be managing the Reds. If it was alcohol, if I was a spousal beater . . . but I understand that. I ---- up. That was my mistake. But I can't change history. Can't change it."
To him, Vegas is Sign City
Removed from the game he loves, Rose now spends his days as a full-time autograph signer here in Sin City. Why? Because he says he has to make a living. "I wasn't one of those 15-million-a-year ballplayers," he said.
Signing autographs for money wasn't his first choice for a post-baseball career. He said he tried various jobs over the years, such as owning a Pete Rose restaurant and doing a Pete Rose sports-talk radio show, but he's learned that the most successful way for him to make regular money has been through shaking hands with fans, answering their questions and, yes, signing his famous name.
That's what he said led him to Vegas about a decade ago.
"There are two things people have when they come to this town," Rose said. "One, they have money -- usually. And two, they just want to see a celebrity."
As many as 20 days a month, the 72-year-old former ballplayer reports to work at the Art of Music memorabilia store, located in a mall on the famous Las Vegas Strip. From noon to 4:30 p.m. he sits behind a roped-off table, makes small talk and signs autographs for those who are willing to pay. Prices range from $75 to $800, he said, depending on the item you buy to get signed.
Rose knows how this looks to those familiar with his past: The man who was kicked out of baseball for gambling -- and who has long wanted to get back into the game -- decided to relocate to the nation's gambling capital just to make a buck. But that's a "shallow" way of viewing it, Rose said.
"If this gig works in Hoboken, New Jersey, that's where I would be going every weekend," he said. "This is the only city in the world where my gig works. There's an influx of people every three days."
The gig, as Rose often calls it, has worked so well for him because he is a baseball fan -- "its biggest fan" -- and a people person, too. He says he answers every question that's asked of him, and they usually run the gamut of topics. His answers usually begin with a bold statement of some sort and then, without stopping for air, he quickly adds, "And I'll tell you why."
And then he does just that.
'HIT KING' forever
Rose adds all sorts of special messages to his autographs. He'll write that he never took steroids. He'll apologize for betting on the game. He'll write most anything anyone asks of him. But his favorite is this: "HIT KING." Which makes sense. At this stage, his all-time hits record of 4,256 is about the only real connection he has remaining to the game that he loves.
For a while, it looked as if Jeter might make a run at the record, but Rose said he was never concerned. He said he did his own mathematical "analyzation" -- his word -- regarding Jeter's chances and concluded that the Yankees shortstop needs another 4,000 more at-bats to catch him. "And I can't figure out how a guy who is 39 is going to get 4,000 more at-bats," he said.
Now, after Jeter's injury-plagued season, Rose wonders whether Jeter (3,305) is going to catch Hank Aaron's 3,771, third all-time, let alone reach 4,000.
Rose insists no one will ever break his record, "and I'll tell you why. Because baseball isn't constructed today for hits. It's constructed for home runs. And it's not going to change."
So therefore his record will remain etched in Cooperstown, even if its owner is not. That's the reality of his situation, no matter how much Rose wishes it wasn't.
"Now," Rose said with a smile, "if you get a guy connected to drugs and he gets 4,257 hits, I'll have some things to say."