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Pete Rose is 80 years old and he hasn’t changed much | Bob Brookover

The former Phillies legend, baseball's all-time leader in hits who was banned from the game in 1989, turns 80 Wednesday and he is still sharp and opinionated.

Pete Rose's takes his signature headfirst slide into third base during a 1981 game with the Phillies.
Pete Rose's takes his signature headfirst slide into third base during a 1981 game with the Phillies.Read moreRUSTY KENNEDY / AP

Pete Rose is exactly what you’d expect him to be at 80 years old. His mind is sharp and his opinions are strong and defiant even though he is resigned to the likelihood that his plaque will never hang on the hallowed walls of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

He is content living in Las Vegas, the home he adopted in 2003 because, in his words, “it’s the only place where my gig works.” The gig is a unique one, but nobody is more qualified for the job.

Rose is essentially a professional autograph signer who loves to entertain every bit as much as any other performer you’ll see in Vegas.

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“I enjoy fans,” Major League Baseball’s all-time hits leader said Tuesday by phone, a day ahead of his 80th birthday. “I enjoy talking to kids. I enjoy a mother or father coming in to get an autograph for their son and then calling the grandma so I can say hi to her. We make it an experience. It’s not just a head-down, sign-the-autograph thing. We take time with everybody and that’s why it takes five hours. I work 12 to 5, but I’m always early.”

Rose is about to take on another job with, a Mexican-based sports recommendation service, and, yes, there is great irony here. Roughly 32 years after he was banned from baseball for life because he bet on the game and the team — the Cincinnati Reds — that he loved, Rose is now going to be paid for telling people which teams they should bet on. My, how the world has changed and my, how Pete Rose is still the same.

“It’s a hell of a lot easier to pick games than it is to bet on them,” Rose said. “If you’re going to pick games on a daily basis, which we do, you’ve got to know who’s hot right now and who’s not and who’s hurt and what pitcher is out of the rotation. There are so many things to know going into a baseball game.”

Rose said he is working with his son Tyler, one of his five children, on the game-picking venture. He sounds as energized about it as he was about playing the game of baseball for 24 years, including five with the Phillies from 1979-83. There is no sign of aging in his voice, no sense that his memory is fading.

“First of all, I’ve been lucky because I don’t look 80 and I don’t act it,” Rose said. “That’s important. I have seven grandkids and most of them are boys and they are always doing something that I attend. That’s how I stay young. I have one grandson playing high school football and some others playing baseball.”

On Allen’s Hall chances

Still, 80 is a big number. Many of the legends Rose played with and against during his career have died recently. The list includes Joe Morgan, Tom Seaver, Dick Allen, and Hank Aaron.

Allen, like Rose, never made it into the Hall of Fame, but there is some thought that the former Phillies slugger will be elected by a Golden Era committee posthumously later this year. Rose does not think he should be.

“No,” the Hit King said. “Let me explain. The Hall of Fame is all about statistics. Dick Allen was a tremendous player. I played against him his whole career except when he was with the White Sox. He doesn’t have quite enough home runs or quite enough RBIs. He has no Gold Gloves. But he was a great player.”

It’s a strong opinion that will not be popular among most Phillies fans. Rose has lots of strong opinions about who should and should not be in the Hall of Fame. He’d give thumbs-up votes to Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and he’d really like to know why Jim Kaat is not in the Hall of Fame.

“I think the Hall of Fame is in a negative situation when Clemens and Bonds are not in there,” he said. “You know there aren’t a bunch of altar boys in there.”

Rose’s opinions on the modern game are also strong and mostly unflattering.

“I don’t ever say anything negative about the money the players make,” Rose said. “However, the owners have created a situation where all the guys want to do is hit home runs because players who hit 25 to 30 home runs are going to make $15 to $18 million a year. They don’t want table setters like me and Joe Morgan used to do for Johnny Bench and Tony Perez.

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“Now they’re saying the ball isn’t juiced anymore. Who’s putting that out there? Rawlings, which is owned by baseball? I bet you there have been as many home runs hit this year already as there were at the same time in 2019.”

Rose doesn’t particularly like the idea of starting a runner at second base in extra innings or seven-inning doubleheaders, either.

“You can change the rules to the point where you ruin the game,” he said.

The one thing he does not mind is the shift, mostly because he feels he could still go out at the age of 80 and hit the ball to the spot that has been vacated by the infielders.

A toast to 1980

The number 80 is more than just an age for Rose. It is also one of his most cherished seasons. A year after joining the Phillies in 1979 as a free agent, he helped the franchise win its first World Series in 1980.

“Eighty was a great year for me because the people of Philadelphia waited 86 years to win,” Rose said. “But, as you know, ’79 was a better year for me. My first year in Philadelphia I had a hell of a year.”

He did indeed, hitting .331 with a major-league-best .418 on-base percentage at the age of 38. Rose boasted about how he never missed a game during his first four seasons with the Phillies. He also recounted how he had other more lucrative options besides Philadelphia, including a Budweiser beer distributorship in St. Louis, but he believed the Phillies with Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, and Steve Carlton were the most talented team.

The dark side of Rose still lingers, too. He admits to betting on baseball and said he understands why the Phillies abandoned their plans in 2017 to put him on the Wall of Fame after an anonymous woman testified that he she had sex with Rose when she was under the age of 16 during the 1970s.

“I understood their decision,” Rose said. “I’m the first guy to admit I made mistakes, but I don’t think I made mistakes that hurt anybody.”

Surely not everyone would agree.

Rose has spent most of his post-playing career as a professional autograph signer because he was banned from baseball for breaking one of its most sacred rules. Otherwise, Rose would likely have spent a lot more years as a manager or a coach or a consultant. That his brilliant baseball mind was absent from the game for all these years is too bad, but his own doing.

Rose, of course, also hurt himself immensely. He should, at the very least, have a plaque in Cooperstown detailing his incredible career, but his deeds have prevented it.

“Have I given up on the Hall of Fame? Yeah, sure,” Rose said. “It’s not that hard to do because it has been 30-something years. I still maintain that I am the best ambassador in the game whether you are talking about players from the past or current players.”

It’s possible, maybe even probable, that Rose’s legend will live longer than most of the great players from his generation because he was not elected to the Hall of Fame. Fifty years from now, Rose’s story will still be told more than most. It’s not hard to imagine Rose the movie in 2089 as part of the 100-year anniversary of his banishment.

“This might sound wrong to say, but once you’re gone, why are you worried about your legacy?” Rose said. “My family knows my legacy. My friends know my legacy. Cincinnati knows my legacy and I think the Philadelphia fans know my legacy. You can’t convince everybody to like you. I’m satisfied with what I did. I played the game harder and longer than anybody. If they want to put me in the Hall of Fame when I’m deceased, so be it. All that is doing is cheating my family and friends.”

Pete Rose is 80 and he has not changed much. It’s up to the observer to decide if that is good or bad.