Among the dozens of memorabilia shops that line this village's quaint Main Street, beckoning to the many baseball pilgrims in town this weekend -- places such as Seventh Inning Stretch, Legends Are Forever and America's Game -- is one store that appears to have no name. The sign at 91 Main St. came down a few days ago, the locals say, although everyone here knows the shop's name, and a credit card receipt provides the confirmation: Pete Rose Ballpark Collectibles.
For the past month or so, folks here had been preparing for an appearance this weekend by Rose, baseball's exiled "Hit King," who has been banished from the game -- and, by extension, the Baseball Hall of Fame -- since being caught gambling on baseball in 1989.
Such an appearance, which would have been Rose's first on an induction weekend since 2002, almost certainly would have shifted attention from the Hall's Class of 2005 -- third baseman Wade Boggs and second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who will be inducted Sunday afternoon -- to Rose, whose quest for reinstatement still provokes passionate responses, both for and against, 16 years since he last wore a big league uniform.
But within the past few days, about the time the sign came down, word began to circulate that Rose was not coming to Cooperstown after all. And people here believe Rose's change of heart and the disappearance of his name from the front of the store are for the same reason.
Last month, Andrew Vilacky, owner of Pete Rose Ballpark Collectibles and a close friend and business associate of Rose, pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of felony tax fraud for his part in a scheme that authorities said swindled the U.S. and New York state governments of nearly $3 million in fraudulent tax refunds between 1997 and 2001. Vilacky, 38, is scheduled to be sentenced in October and could face up to five years in prison.
For Rose, who is still trying to prove to baseball -- unsuccessfully thus far -- that he is a rehabilitated man, it might not have been a good idea to advertise his association with a convicted felon on such a grand stage as Cooperstown's induction weekend.
"I think [Rose] decided he'd be better off staying away and trying to disassociate himself from the store," said Vin Russo, owner of Mickey's Place, a memorabilia store that sits across Main Street from the Rose store. "Given Pete's history, that's probably not such a bad idea."
Rose, whose 4,256 career hits rank first all-time, could not be reached for comment, but his agent, Warren Greene, said Rose had "multiple" offers to come to Cooperstown to sign autographs but never committed to appearing, ultimately deciding he did not want to cause a distraction. Rose, according to Greene, has appearances scheduled this weekend on the West Coast.
"Pete made a conscious decision not to go," Greene said. "Would Pete like to come there? Yeah. But you know what? He doesn't need to be there. He doesn't want to cause controversy. He's not there for the same reason he doesn't go to Major League Baseball games. He's allowed to go. But when he does, [everyone says], 'Oh my God, Pete Rose is here.' Going to Cooperstown became aggravating."
A story in the Las Vegas Sun last month quoted Rose as saying he planned to be in Cooperstown. "I'm a big hit when I go up there," he told the newspaper. "It costs me a lot of money when I don't go up there. If [MLB and the Hall of Fame are] not going to help me or do anything for me, what am I supposed to do?"
Brad Horn, director of public relations for the Hall of Fame, declined to answer a question about Rose, saying: "That's not a Hall of Fame issue. That's a Cooperstown issue."
In the same Las Vegas Sun story, Rose spoke of watching on television in March when Commissioner Bud Selig and five players testified before a House committee investigating steroid use in sports. As he watched, Rose applied what he heard to his own case.
They "were talking about getting four or five chances before they were ousted out of baseball," Rose said. "I'm not comparing the two. I gambled and I was wrong. I was absolutely wrong. [But] you have to have good people in your Hall, and I'm a good person. . . . I've never been given an opportunity to have a second chance."
When the late Bart Giamatti, then commissioner of baseball, banned Rose from the game in 1989 under a mountain of evidence that Rose had bet on baseball as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, he said Rose would need to "show a redirected, reconfigured or rehabilitated life" before he would consider lifting the ban. Three of the "associates" through whom Rose placed his bets later served prison time for various crimes.
Although Giamatti died nine days after handing down Rose's banishment, his successors, Fay Vincent and Selig, have upheld the ban. Rose adamantly denied he had gambled on baseball for nearly 15 years before admitting in 2004 that indeed he had -- an admission that was timed to the release of his autobiography, "My Prison Without Bars."
"I used to get mad at him when he would show up" at Cooperstown, Vincent said earlier last week, when it appeared Rose was going to make an appearance. "Now I just think he's turning pathetic. He's desperate. . . . The only constant in Rose's life is that everything he has done was calculated to make him the most money."
Selig did not return phone messages this week, but he said at the All-Star Game earlier this month that nothing was new in regards to his consideration of Rose's application for reinstatement. A source familiar with Selig's thinking on the Rose issue characterized Selig's stance toward that application as a "pocket veto."
Through 2002, Rose was a regular presence in Cooperstown during induction weekend, selling his autograph and greeting long lines of fans. Rose reportedly made as much as $40,000 over the course of a typical induction weekend. But Rose stopped coming after a November 2002 meeting with Selig, in which Rose, for the first time, admitted privately that he had bet on baseball.
MLB President Robert DuPuy -- who, as Selig's point person on the Rose issue, has remained in periodic contact with Greene -- said Rose's absences from Cooperstown in 2003 and 2004 were not dictated by the league.
"While we appreciated his sensitivity," DuPuy said in an e-mail, "we did not ask him to stay away."
However, Greene said it was made clear to Rose following the meeting with Selig that MLB preferred that he stay away from Cooperstown.
Although baseball officials were aware of Rose's original plans to appear in Cooperstown, MLB spokesman Rich Levin said no one from the league had advised Rose to stay away.
"As far as I know, it has nothing to do with us," Levin said. "In fact, [DuPuy] said he was going to stop by the store [while Rose was signing autographs] to say hello to him."
This weekend, Vilacky has been a constant presence outside the unnamed store, assisting customers and greeting friends. He declined to comment about his own legal troubles or about Rose's decision not to come to Cooperstown this weekend, except to say that Rose's original plans to appear there had been "only tentative." He referred other questions to Greene.
Inside the store, there was little evidence of an affiliation with Rose, just an autographed action photo high on one wall, near the ceiling, and the establishment's name at the top of the credit card receipt.
However, at a bookstore down the street, a stack of copies of Rose's autobiography sat on a table on the sidewalk. On the inside flap of the book's dust jacket, the list price says $24.95. But at the sidewalk sale, a handmade sign touted the discounted price: "$5."