Sleepy town wakes up for Rose

1/12/2004 - Cincinnati Reds

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The scene along Main Street in this quiet, unassuming town can best be described as tranquil baseball Americana.

People nod and say hello when you cross the street. They use old Saturday Evening Posts and Life Magazines to decorate their storefront windows. They sell Roy Hobbs jerseys and Wonderboy bats, both from the dreamy baseball movie "The Natural." It all feels rather surreal, like somewhere perched around a corner, you expect to find Norman Rockwell painting away.

Yet there are two words in this town that get a reaction like no other. Two words transform these cordial, kind people into to their stone-faced, pessimistic cousins from the Metropolis to the south. They are words that can take six strangers in a bar, who were getting along just five minutes earlier, and divide them. They can cause a 75-year-old woman to close doors on you. Talkative teenagers suddenly clam up.

They are Pete and Rose.

In his new book, "My Prison Without Bars," and in his Thursday night television interview on ABC's "PrimeTime," Rose admitted that he bet on baseball and asked America for forgiveness.

Some said it was a play to get into the Hall of Fame before his eligibility runs out. Others said he just wants to get back in baseball to manage the Cincinnati Reds. And yet some others believe that he's actually learned his lesson and is showing contrition. But what do the people in Cooperstown -- the quiet town of 2,500 that Rose so desperately wants to be a part of -- think?

You'd be surprised.

Except for last year, when he was doing his best to get in baseball's good graces, Rose has come here every summer since 1997, on Hall of Fame induction weekend, to sign autographs. For some $20 a pop, he'll sign his name, shake your hand and smile. There's no question of his popularity -- Rose's lines are always the longest.

But in a small town like this, everybody knows everybody else's business. Whether Rose ever realized it or not, Cooperstown was always watching. And its most famous non-resident has not exactly rubbed the locals the right way.

"Pete Rose is a liar. He's a chronic liar," said Clyde Sanders, owner of Cooperstown Sports and Memorabilia. "I've never worked with him, but from everything I've heard, he's just not a good guy."

The stories are everywhere. A close friend of Sanders was tending bar one night in Cooperstown when an 8-year-old walked up and asked Rose for an autograph. He replied, "What's the problem? Your Dad can't ask me himself? Tell him it's $20 like everybody else." The kid walked away in tears.

Another downtown store owner, who refused to give her name, says that Rose stays in a Syracuse-area casino every time he visits the area. His free time, she said, he spends at the Saratoga Springs horse racing track.

"I guess they call that rehabilitated," she said.

Others talk about the way he walks down the street, like he owns the place. And yet others are troubled by the way his visit undermines those being honored on induction weekend, much like the release of his book undermined the announcement of 2004 inductees Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley earlier this week.

Few want to talk about it. And even fewer want to share their names. But Sanders isn't one of them. As he watched the Rose interview at the Doubleday Café, a downtown bar, Thursday night, the Cooperstown resident could only shake his head, mumbling that Rose is a "fraud."

He noted a New York Daily News story from 2002, in which Rose, just like his gambling days of the '80s, was linked to undesirables. The story said that two of Rose's friends, Andrew Vilacky, who operates Pete Rose Collectibles, and Tom Catal, who owns another downtown memorabilia store, brought Perry Ferrara into one of their business ventures, the American Baseball Archives and Wax Museum.

In 1998, Ferrara was sentenced to six years in prison for stealing $2.7 million from his law firm's client escrow account. He used some of the money to buy the wax statues, including one of Rose sliding headfirst into third base. Many of the statues were seized and sold at auction to repay the clients that Ferrara deceived.

"We never found that Pete Rose was involved in any illegal activity," the former prosecutor of the case told the Daily News at the time. "But he didn't choose his friends very well."

What was the reaction to the new book and the Thursday night interview? Some hardly noticed. At Sherman's Tavern, around the corner from the Hall of Fame, a bartender had to be asked to put the interview on the television. Even then, its volume was drowned out by a DJ blasting "Rump Shaker" and "Play That Funky Music."

Becky Davidson-Nielson, owner of the oldest bookstore in Cooperstown, which hasn't had any interest in Rose's prominently displayed new book, wasn't interested either.

"Are you kidding me?" she said. "He was competing with ER."

At the Doubleday, the Rose interview incited six strangers, Sanders included, to argue about Rose's merits for the Hall.

Three patrons -- all male -- said it shouldn't matter. Awful person, but great baseball player. He should be in. Two others -- a male and a female -- shot back that the Hall is about character as much as ability and there should be no place for someone who bet on his own team. "He should be right up there with Martha Stewart," Tina, the bartender said. And then there was Sanders.

"No way," he said. "It's an integrity thing. And most of the people that I know, whether they'll come right out and say it or not, feel the same way that I do.

"I used to slide head-first just like everybody else did. But to see him act the way he does publicly around here, it's just not right."

Interestingly enough, for all the arguments, for all the conjecture, Pete Rose is already here. Not only at his own store, which is currently closed for renovations, and impossible to miss on Main Street. But even inside the Hall, the presence of Pete is unavoidable.

Sure, his plaque is noticeably absent from the illustrious Hall of Fame Gallery. But his contributions to baseball are more than recognized. On display commemorating the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds teams of the 1970s, there's a lifesize cutout of Charlie Hustle. There's the helmet, bat, jersey and pants from the 1973 season, when he won the National League MVP award as well as its batting title.

There's the bat he used in the last night of his 44-game hit streak, in 1978. There's a bat from his 4,000th hit in 1984.

In another display about the great Philadelphia Phillies teams of the mid-to-late '70s/early '80s, there's another Rose cap and jersey from the night he broke the National League all-time hits record in 1982.

All this is visible at a time when half of the Hall is closed for renovations. You want to see a funny sight -- watch the expression on visitors' faces the first time they cross paths with the giant Pete Rose cut-out or one of the No. 14 Rose jerseys. They stand in amazement.

On Thursday, 52-year-old Bobby Henderson, in town from Los Angeles, asked a fellow visitor to take his picture in front of the Rose collection.

"It's like there's this 350-pound gorilla in the room, but nobody wants to admit that they can see it," Henderson said. "I mean, c'mon, Pete's already here. He's all over this place. If you say you're going to ban him for life, then he shouldn't be anywhere.

"They should just write on his plaque, 'Pete Rose, one of the greatest hitters of all-time. And one of baseball's biggest jerks.' I think we could all live with that."

Even if he never does officially arrive, he'll never be forgotten. In the records room, where Rose's name sits atop giant statistical posters as baseball's all-time leader in hits, at-bats and games played, there are oversized portraits. An exhibit documenting the history of baseball cards even includes cards of Rose.

The Hall recognizes Rose's gambling history, too. In his brief bio painted on top of the glass that encases his memorabilia, Rose's illustrious career and hard-nosed hustling ways are commended until it gets to the very last sentence. There, the bio reads, "Rose managed the Reds from '84 to '89, when he was banished from baseball by the late commissioner Bart Giamatti for gambling."

If only it were really that simple.

"After being here and seeing all this," said 76-year-old Art Mandel, "I don't see what the big deal is. Pete's already here. Give him his plaque, shut him up and let's put all this behind us. I mean really, what harm is that going to do?"

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.