NORMAL, Ill. — The line of people in front of him ended, and Pete Rose checked his gold watch and peeked at his white iPhone. Rose stood up from a white folding table and ambled eight creaky steps across a concrete concourse. He wore a bright yellow T-shirt with “CornBelters” across the chest and a forest-green cap with a cartoon ear of corn that had husks for arms and held a bat. Rose greeted a pack of 40 people sitting around picnic tables, admirers who had waited in line and paid $25 for his autograph and a brush with baseball’s career hit king.
“Thank you for coming out,” Rose said, the paunch of his belly nudging the high-top table he had turned into a makeshift dais. “It’s my pleasure to be here. Where the hell am I?”
Rose was at the Corn Crib, the home ballpark for the Normal CornBelters of the independent Frontier League. Rose was, in baseball terms, as far from the majors as possible. Rose was at work, signing his name and glad-handing with fans and spinning yarns for money. He had done the same in Chicago the previous night. He would be at a ballpark in O’Fallon, Mo., a night later. About 250 days a year, he signs his name inside a casino in Las Vegas, where he lives. He is 74. Pete Rose still hustles for a living.
Rose is in limbo, the place he has resided since baseball banished him for betting on the sport 26 years ago. Holding on to faint hope baseball will reinstate him, Rose will receive something close to a reprieve Tuesday night. Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game will take place in Cincinnati, where Rose played 19 years for the Reds. Rose will be there, as a broadcaster for Fox and on the field. He will walk from behind home plate at Great American Ball Park before the game, part of the league’s “Franchise Four” campaign. It will be the first time he attended an all-star game he did not play in.
Commissioner Rob Manfred said this spring that he will review Rose’s request for reinstatement. Rose has never met Manfred, but he plans to buttonhole him in Cincinnati. He might have to explain the ESPN report that he bet on baseball not only as a manager but a player as well, a charge he had denied for decades.
On Tuesday night, Rose will stand on the field next to Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Barry Larkin. They are in the Hall of Fame. Rose is banned permanently, desperately waiting for baseball to pardon his sins, biding his time in Las Vegas on the outskirts of the sport. He has reached the stage of his life when it would be natural to wonder how much he has left.
“There comes a time when you see all your friends go in the Hall of Fame,” Rose said. “To think that you could be a member of the Hall of Fame, it would be goosebumpy. A Hall of Fame is more for your fans and your family. And a lot of the people responsible for me being a baseball player aren’t here no more.”
Rose listed the names. His uncle, the scout who first signed him. His high school coach, who mentored him. His Little League coach, who started him in the sport. His father, the only man he idolized his entire life.
“They’re all gone,” Rose said. “I got six grandkids that would love to go to Cooperstown. I got two daughters and two sons who would love to go to Cooperstown. I have a fiancee who would love to go to Cooperstown. It would mean a lot to them. It would mean a lot to anybody.”
On Thursday evening, around the picnic tables, Rose stood and took questions for 20 minutes. He appeared to take genuine glee in telling stories and drawing laughs.
“I played against Stan Musial,” Rose said. “And for you smartasses, I didn’t play against Babe Ruth.” Everyone laughed.
First pitch neared. Rose walked to the CornBelters’ clubhouse; they named him Manager For a Night. He hobbled down steps to the turf field. Players from the opposing Schaumburg Boomers broke from their warmups and approached. “Michael,” one of them said as introduction, sticking out his hand. “ ’Sup, Pete?”
Rose shook several hands and trudged from the third base line across the infield, toward the clubhouse out past the center field fence, where cornstalks grew on a grass berm. Rose grimaced as he walked into the outfield.
“You guys, you know you’re killing my knees, okay?” Rose said to Mike Rains, the CornBelters’ director of baseball operations. “Walking up these hills and stuff?”
Rains laughed, thinking it was a joke. Rose winced. He looked at the ground and kept walking.
Rose began his appearance in Normal with a news conference, and once he finished he moved down the concourse to sit at the table under a white tent. Amid a scramble of assistants and fans, Rose found routine.
“Mike, you got the pen for balls?” Rose asked, looking at his agent, Mike Maguire.
“What do you want?” Maguire replied. “Ballpoints, Sharpies, everything?”
“Leave the Sharpie,” Rose said. “I need a pointy one for the bobbleheads.”
“You ready for the first one?” Maguire said.
“Just tell them to get their items out,” Rose said, motioning at the line. “It’ll go a lot faster.”
Neal Dufreese, a 59-year-old from Bloomington, Ill., walked to the table and held out a ball. He had arrived at 4:30 p.m., more than two hours before the game’s first pitch, and found himself first in line.
“Pete Rose,” Dufreese said. “I want to ask you a question. In 1967, the Cardinals played the Reds. You got into a skirmish big-time. You remember that?”
“Bob Gibson threw at Tony Perez,” Rose said. “I remember that. That was a donnybrook, boy.”
The procession lasted more than an hour. Rose perked up and posed for pictures. His recall was uncanny. His mind was sharp. “Go Buckeyes,” he told a man in an Ohio State T-shirt, before predicting Braxton Miller would start at quarterback for the school’s football team. He acted like things he had heard a thousand times were fresh and new.
“It’s her birthday. This is her birthday present, to get to see you.”
“It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Rose.”
“We’re gonna be in Vegas this spring. We’ll look for you.”
Rose signed baseballs, miniature bats, bobbleheads, pictures, jerseys, tickets and a women’s biceps.
“He’s good at what he does,” Maguire said.
Bobby Mills, a 55-year-old Cincinnati native who traveled from his current home in Florida, walked up and told him, “Since I’m 8, I’ve been waiting to meet you,” Mills said.
Mills bent down, turned his back and showed Rose the Reds jersey he had made: “LET HIM IN” above the No. 14. “That’s awesome,” Rose said. He signed his name inside the “1.”
Rose remains beloved in Cincinnati, but a complicated relationship between fallen hero and storied franchise will be on display next week. It may appear simple.
“You have to understand one thing about the All-Star Game,” Rose said. “The game is being played on Pete Rose Way.”
At times Thursday, Rose evaded questions about his status in the sport. At others, he drifted toward them, especially when it concerned his home town. A local television reporter asked Rose whether it felt special the CornBelters would retire his number.
“They are retiring my number?” Rose said. “It’s special here because it’s the first time I’ve ever been here. It would be more special if it happens in Cincinnati someday, which you understand. It’s my home city. Maybe someday I’ll get a statue of me in Cincinnati. They got one of Bench. They got one of Morgan. They’re doing one of Tony Perez this year. Based on those three names, I got a shot.”
Joey Votto, the Reds’ biggest current star, said Rose receives the largest ovation of any person each time he attends a game. Votto has met Rose several times, talked hitting with him. In any typical situation they would be linked, the past and present stars. Votto said he has interacted with Rose, but he does not know Rose.
“It’s tough,” Votto said. “He’s probably the most well-known Red, probably the most polarizing Red but also probably the most beloved Red. But he’s also got this major restriction and this black mark on his legacy. And so it’s a challenging scenario for the fans, and certainly the organization. You want to embrace this guy, but then you also want to respect Major League Baseball’s rules and the penalty. And you want to acknowledge that he did something that is not allowed per the rules. In a different scenario, he would be working in a big league uniform some way or in a front office or be in the Hall of Fame.”
Even if baseball has not loved Rose back, it still has a hold on him. He watches three games a night, he said. He animates when he tells a story — one he has told who-knows-how-many-times before — about why he wasn’t at fault when he smashed catcher Ray Fosse at the 1970 All-Star Game.
A few reporters and photographers followed him to the field Thursday evening, through the cornstalks and into the home clubhouse. He intended to rouse the players. “Well, you’re a game out of first place,” he said, looking around and pausing. “Mike, am I talking to the guys?” he asked his agent. “Then why is the press in here?” The media walked out. The speech continued.
By 6:30 p.m., about three-quarters of the 7,000 seats had filled. A public address announcer, holding a microphone and standing in the infield, introduced Rose. Rose walked out of the first base dugout, a white No. 14 CornBelters jersey billowing over black slacks. Rose waved to the crowd.
“So many fans want to see you inducted,” the announcer said, to the cheapest applause imaginable. “But you control what you can control. There’s not a lot we can do in Central Illinois to change that.”
The announcer directed the crowd’s attention to the left corner. Rose turned and looked, beneath the O’Brien Mitsubishi billboard. A worker yanked a sheet from the wall and revealed a square banner that read, “Rose 14.” The announcer proclaimed Rose “the inaugural member of the CornBelters Wall of Fame.”
“When I first looked out there,” Rose said into a microphone, “I thought you were going to give me an SUV.”
Rose coached first base for the first two innings. On a close play in the first inning, Rose waved his arms — safe! — as a CornBelter sprinted past. The umpire called him out. Rose threw his hands up. A couple pitches later, he was still hollering at the ump.
The CornBelters had planned for Rose to coach first base for two innings, then switch to third base for two innings, before signing more autographs. After Rose made one painful walk from the first base dugout to third base and back, the plans apparently changed, and he coached first base for his final inning.
“One more round of applause for Pete Rose!” the public address announcer bellowed at the end of the fourth. “Pete will be signing autographs in about 30 minutes behind the third base line!”
By the sixth inning, Rose had returned to the table, back under the white tent, five pens in front of him. The sun had set, and a lamp with no shade lit his face. Another line had formed, more than a hundred people eager to pay $25 for him to sign something. Grown men walked from the table wearing thin smiles. A boy floated away, mouth agape, staring at the ball Rose signed for him.
Jesse Miller, a 34-year-old from Peru, Ill., carried a nearly finished beer and a miniature bat to the table. He told Rose he had made a parlay bet on major league games Thursday night. Rose pointed the bat at him.
“Don’t tell people that,” Rose said. “Because betting is illegal in these towns.”
“I got Seattle,” Miller said.
“You got balls,” Rose replied.
Miller bounded away. “That was awesome!” he said.
At one point, Rose signed 110 autographs and posed for nearly as many pictures in 36 minutes, including some for people who had slipped past without paying.
Where was he again? The sport had relegated him here, to the margins, a fate he will briefly escape Tuesday night. He held nothing against the game, only himself.
“I made mistakes,” Rose said as he walked out of the park. “How could I get bitter at the game? I’m bitter at myself. You try to pay back. I try to make everybody happy. When I do an appearance like this, I look at it like this: If you piss one person off, you ruin the appearance. That’s the way I look at it.
“You watched me. I worked my ass off today. You probably couldn’t do what I did today. See you tomorrow.”
In the dark parking lot, Rose winked and dropped into the passenger seat of a gray station wagon. He had to get back to his hotel. He had to be in O’Fallon to wear a River City Rascals uniform the next day to do it all again. The car drove away.