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July 30, 2013 8:34 am

Lawrence at Large: Pete Rose and the lie I told him

Written by Tom Lawrence

Pete Rose wasn’t inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame Sunday. Again.

It appears a plaque bearing his name and describing his magnificent achievements on the diamond never will be placed in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown, N.Y.

Which makes a liar out of me.

Rose, who amassed more hits than any player in Major League Baseball history, is a polarizing figure. Some still support and admire him for his brilliant career. Wherever he was needed, he would play, and play hard, earning the nickname “Charlie Hustle.”

However, that hustle that so delighted fans and made admirers of teammates and opponents, was also evident off the field. It’s been part of the downside of Rose’s life.

But let’s go back a few decades. At the end of his career, he managed his hometown Cincinnati Reds. That’s when I twice met him, and when I told a lie.

I was covering a game between the Reds and the Houston Astros in the Astrodome in 1986. I would write columns and features about pro sports for a pair of Texas newspapers, but it was also a wonderful chance to see games for free and get to meet some fascinating people.

During the three years I did that, I interviewed and chatted with Yogi Berra (very drab, nothing like his colorful reputation), Johnny Bench, Dave Winfield, Hakeem Olajuwon, Rick Barry, Earl Campbell and many other star athletes. Yeah, I know — tough gig, but somebody had to do it.

My friend Ted Bennett often accompanied me, serving as my photographer. Ted is an Ohio native, and a Reds fanatic. Rose was his favorite player — still is, I believe.

Before watching that game in the musty, dank Astrodome, Ted and I were standing by the batting case watching the Reds hit. It was more than an hour before the first pitch, and I was taking notes while Ted snapped photos of the hitters and fielders getting ready to play.

A ball rolled loose. It stopped near us, and Ted reached down to pick it up. I hissed for him to leave it alone, but it was a big league ball, right at his feet. Ted snagged it and thrust it into a pocket.

Pete Rose had a well-deserved reputation for not missing anything on the field. Even though he was the Reds’ manager and still an active player who was taking batting practice at the time, he somehow spotted what Ted did.

“Must be nice,” Pete said. “Get into the game free, and then you steal stuff.”

I froze. Ted turned white. We envisioned being hauled off the field, our media credentials ripped in half. Luckily, for once I thought quickly.

“Well, it’s not every day you meet a Hall of Famer,” I said to Rose. “He wants something to remember it by.”

Pete’s tone immediately changed. His wide, creased face beamed, the gap in his two middle teeth clearly on display.

“Gimme that ball,” he ordered Ted.

Rose autographed it, and summoned the massive Dave Parker, the Reds’ star outfielder, to ink his name on it as well. For some reason, journalist and author Pete Axthelm, who was a famous writer and TV commentator at the time and was at the game, got hold of the ball and signed it too.

Suddenly we were Pete Rose’s buddies.

We talked baseball and Ohio. When Rose learned that Ted was, like him, a native son of the Buckeye State, they chatted and laughed like schoolmates.

I interviewed Rose about the pennant race, the Reds, his career, whether he would retire — he played his final game on Aug. 16, 1986, a few days after we talked with him — and anything else I could think of at the time.

We were thrilled by the encounter, and astounded that when we covered a Reds-Astros game the next summer that Pete remembered us. We had another friendly chat, and I finally headed to the pressbox, my notepad stuffed with quotes.

When I got there I looked down, and Pete had his arm around Ted and they were talking like old friends. Ted floated up to the pressbox later.

He and I have discussed those twin events time and time again.

But the story didn’t have a happy ending for Pete Rose. As the world knows, Rose was addicted to gambling, and even resorted to betting on the Reds while he managed the team. He also was hanging out with some very shady characters.

The story broke in 1989, and Rose was suspended from baseball. In addition to a lifetime banishment from the sport he loved so dearly, Rose was shut out of the Hall of Fame.

While other, lesser players and baseball figures are enshrined every summer, Pete Rose is left outside. Sure, some of his bats and other memorabilia are in there, but no plaque with the name Peter Edward Rose hangs on the walls with the other 303 players, managers, umpires and other men who earned the highest honor in baseball.

On Sunday, 19th century star Deacon White, umpire Hank O’Day and the late Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert were inducted. No recently retired players made the cut, with baseball writers reluctant to vote someone in now, since the glittering statistics that have been put up in the past two decades are seriously in question.

However, those drug-enhanced ballplayers are given another chance. They are sidelined for several games, but are then allowed to slip back into uniform and resume their careers.

Rose never was given that chance. He went to prison for tax fraud, and was not allowed to manage again, even after he finally admitted what was so obvious — he had bet on baseball.

When he did confess, he did so in part to plug a new book. Always on the hustle, you know.

Rose now lives in Las Vegas — how completely appropriate — where he signs his name to anything for a price. He and his new, decades-younger wife were featured on a “reality” show, and he gives interviews about the Hall of Fame, baseball and gambling on a regular basis.

Rose, who has taken to calling himself “The Hit King,” does have his fans and supporters, as well as his memories and a tremendous list of statistics and accomplishments. But he’s not a Hall of Famer.

So I told a lie that day 27 years ago, however unwittingly. But Ted still has the ball.

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