“You’ll think I’m crazy for saying this,” Pete Rose told us, “but I’m probably the best ambassador that baseball has.”
On the surface, it does sound crazy. In 2016, when you hear the name Pete Rose, you don’t immediately think of his legacy as the Hit King. You don’t remember the guy who broke Ty Cobb’s hitting record, and ended his career with a still-uncontested 4,256 hits. You don’t think of his three World Series wins, one with the Philadelphia Phillies and two with the Cincinnati Reds, where he was part of the legendary “Big Red Machine.” You don’t think of his aggressive base-running or head-first slides, or how he was on more gum packages than Bazooka Joe. You think, “Oh yeah, the player who got fired from baseball for gambling.”
Rose has been permanently banned from Major League Baseball since 1989. That was 27 years ago. It’s ancient history, and a bell that can’t be unrung. Rose is now 75, and should have accepted his fate as baseball’s most notorious black sheep. But no, he won’t go gentle into that good night. He keeps arguing for his reinstatement, for another chance to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, for the glory he has coming to him. He finally admitted to his gambling misdeeds in 2005 —in the autobiography My Prison Without Bars—and when that didn’t work, he kept trying. Asking for forgiveness, again and again.
That’s why Pete Rose truly is baseball’s best ambassador. He embodies the sport’s underdog spirit. There’s a line in the epic poem of baseball hope and heartbreak, “Casey at the Bat,” that perfectly embodies Pete Rose’s unfaltering belief in himself. He possesses, more than any other ball player in our lifetime, the “hope which springs eternal.”
We called Rose to talk about his unbreakable records, why 10,000 failures can be character building, and why he still loves to gamble (just not on a particular baseball franchise.)
Why are you still so hopeful that they’ll let you in the Baseball Hall of Fame someday? Isn’t it starting to seem like a lost cause?
Pete Rose: Oh sure. Some days I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. But listen, I know I messed up. I’m not going to whine to you or anybody else. If I’m ever bestowed a second chance, I’ll be the happiest guy in the world. But if it doesn’t, I understand that I’m the reason why. All you can do is learn from your mistakes.
Have you learned from them?
I’m not the same guy today that I was back in the 80s. I cleaned up my act. I’m a good citizen now, I’m productive, there’s no more illegal gambling. That’s all I can do. I know for some people, what I did was unforgivable. There are people out there who really hate me. But the majority of people, I think they support me. They’re on my side. I know this because of the volume of autographs that I sell. You don’t sell this many autographs without a lot of support from the people.
You sell autographs, Pete? Come on, man.
Well, I probably sign more free autographs than anything. If I’m at the airport and somebody asks for an autograph, I’m not going to charge ‘em. But when I’m working, if I’m siting behind the table at an autograph signing session, then I’m working.
Is it true you can remember every hit you ever made?
Of course not. I remember my first hit. Everybody does. I don’t remember my second hit. Who remembers that? I remember my 4000th hit, but I don’t remember 4001. The milestone hits you remember.
You remember everything about beating Ty Cobb’s hit record?
What happens when you do something historic like that? What goes through your head? What are you thinking?
I wasn’t thinking about anything.
Nothing at all?
Nope. I was just doing my job.
Your mind never wanders, or you start thinking about something that has nothing to do with the game? Like, “Later I’m totally getting some nachos.” Nothing like that?
Nothing at all. You only start thinking after it happens. When I broke that record in Cincinnati on September 11th in 1985 at 8:01pm, I ended up getting a nine-minute standing ovation from the crowd. Are you married?
Okay, when you go home tonight and your wife is cooking, go in the kitchen and stand there and clap for nine minutes.
If you say so.
You won’t make it! You won’t make it to nine minutes! It just gets awkward.
Was it awkward for you during your standing ovation?
Not awkward, but after awhile, you’re not sure what to do. The first five, six minutes you’ve got lots of activity. Players are coming out to congratulate you, my son came out, my owner gave me a Corvette. But then you get to seven and a half, eight minutes, and you’re still out there in the middle of the diamond and people are still clapping, and you don’t know what to do.
What’s when your mind wanders?
Sure. Cause what else are you going to do? I started thinking about my little league coach, my father, my uncle, all the people I’d known that had passed away. That’s what brought the tears to my eyes. That’s why I started crying. Which I think surprised a lot of the fans. They didn’t realize I had feelings.
What? Come on, that’s not true.
I don’t think they did.
They thought you were an emotionless monster?
It was the way I played. The way I slid into first, and knocked catchers down, and knocked second basemen down, and I yelled at pitchers. I was a tough, aggressive, volatile-type individual.
That doesn’t mean you’re incapable of feeling joy or sadness.
Well listen, I understand it. People only see what they see. You think John McEnroe has feelings?
Sure he has feelings.
McEnroe is just dead inside? His heart is an empty black hole? That can’t be.
What about Michael Jordan? Did he have feelings?
I would put money on it.
Well, no . . . you probably shouldn’t.
I’m not saying they don’t have feelings. I’m just saying, the way they played, like the way I played, people get the wrong idea.
When you were at the top of your game, did you ever think about “Casey at the Bat”?
The baseball poem. It’s like a cautionary tale about hubris. Casey was a baseball legend. There was no way he could lose. But he did anyway, because of his arrogance. How does that not ring through your head every time you’re at bat, especially when you’re the biggest name in baseball?
I never worried about that. I always went up expecting to strike out.
You did? Why’s that?
I try to explain this to kids. I don’t care who you are, how much money you’ve got, where you’re from, what color you are. When you’re playing baseball, you’re going to strike out seven out of ten times. That’s true for anybody. Baseball is a failure game. What other sport can you fail seven out of ten times and still be a champion?
None of them.
Tom Brady completes only three out of ten passes, we’re not buying his jersey. LeBron James makes three out of ten shots, we’re not buying his jersey. But baseball, it’s about failure, and being okay with failure, and pushing through the failures till you win.
That’s a pretty good life philosophy, actually.
I struck out over 10,000 times in my career. Think about that. Your only job is to hit, and you fail at it 10,000 times. That’s a lot of disappointment. But everything turned out okay for me. [Laughs.]
Nobody’s beaten your hit record yet. Are you surprised?
No. No one will.
It won’t happen.
You’re starting to sound a little like “Casey at the Bat,” Pete.
You want to know why nobody will beat me? Because life is fun.
Okay. Um, we’re not following your logic.
Here’s the thing. Today’s players won’t have 24-year careers like I did. Even if they made it to 20 years, and they got 200 hits a year, you’re still going to be 256 short of my record. In the last two years, there’ve only been three guys to get 200 hits in a year.
But if they stick around a little longer. . .
How do you know? Why can’t a player today have the same career longevity you did?
They’re paying ‘em too much. If you’re the type of person who’s going to beat my record, you’ve got to be a pretty good player, right? If you’re that good, you’re going to demand a high salary. These guys are making millions for just a few years of service. And like I said, life is fun. And short. By the time they’re 35, these guys have 150 million in the bank. They don’t need to travel all over the country and check into hotels at three in the morning. You’re a millionaire! Sleep in and skip the game.
One of the things we loved about you in your prime is that you brought so much energy and intensity to the game. When you were playing, it felt like watching a ninja movie.
[Laughs.] I appreciate that. All I was doing was two things. I was having fun, and I was trying to give people their money’s worth. There’s one thing you can’t do as an athlete. You can’t cheat the fans! You have to bust your ass when you’re out there.
Baseball can be a slow-moving game sometimes.
It doesn’t have to be. It’s not just standing around on the field, scratching your nuts and spitting tobacco. This is your job. If you cheat your fans, you’re cheating your team, you’re cheating your city, you’re cheating your family.
Are players today living up to these standards?
A lot of them are, sure. Some of them are jerks.
Were there less jerks in your day?
No, we’ve always had jerks. That’s just society. You’re going to have guys who bust their ass, and you’re going to have lazy jerks. I loved the jerks. Especially when they were playing for the other team. [Laughs.] It makes it easier for you to win.
Let’s talk about the Chicago Cubs. If you were a betting man, which obviously you’re not, would you bet on them to win the World Series this year?
Okay, hold on. First of all, you’re wrong about me not being a betting man. I am absolutely a betting man.
But we thought you were—?
Not on baseball. Not anymore. But I am a huge betting man.
Okay, so would you—not you, but somebody else. Would you advise a friend who’s not you to put a bet on the Cubs to win it all this year?
They have a good ball club, no question about it. And if you go to the racebooks here in Vegas, the Cubs are favored to win the World Series. But I would find it very hard to bet on a team that hasn’t won since 1908.
You’re saying it’s a bad bet?
I’m saying it’s the worst bet. Honestly, I think it’d be great if the Cubs won it. It would be amazing for baseball. But I wouldn’t . . . well, obviously I wouldn’t.
But if you could. If the MLB commissioner told you, “Fine, Pete, make one more bet on baseball, and then we’ll never speak of this again,” you wouldn’t put that money on the Cubs?
I would rather open a window on the 14th floor and just throw it out. I read in a paper yesterday about a woman celebrating her 115th birthday. She was in the 2nd grade the last time the Cubs won a Series. Now that is a slump.
It doesn’t bode well.
Here’s the only gambling advice I’ll give you. Don’t bet on something to happen that only a 115-year-old woman can remember happening the last time.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Men’s Health.)