"Who went through more stress than I did in 1989?" Rose told me in an interview in Cooperstown in 1998. "Bart Giamatti was one of the smartest guys around. But how smart could you be if you're 70 pounds overweight and smoke five packs of cigarettes a day? He was a walking time bomb."
MY ENCOUNTERS WITH PETE have been sporadic since the summer of '89. He briefly caught the golf bug the next spring, and I followed him for a round at the Walden Lake Golf & Country Club in Plant City. At one point, a fellow golfer took a swing, and the head of his driver disengaged from the shaft and sailed down the fairway before rolling to a stop 50 yards from the tee. "My luck must be changing," Pete cracked. "Last year, that thing would have flown off and hit me in the back of the neck."
Three years later, I caught up with him in Boca Raton, Florida, where he was hosting a radio show and promoting Hit King sports apparel, Ballpark Café Frozen Pizza and 4,256 Picante Sauce.
In recent years, writers have made a habit of dropping by Rose's annual July autograph sessions in Cooperstown for updates and entertainment value. In the summer of 2000, Rose engaged in a verbal sparring match with Hall of Fame great Bob Feller, a longtime antagonist who strongly believed Rose had no place in the baseball shrine.
"I'm tired of hearing about Pete Rose," Feller said that year. "He's history. Has he ever read what's posted in the clubhouse? If he can't read, he better get glasses."
Rose countered by calling Feller a hypocrite who gladly sat near him during an autograph show when the crowds were big and he could benefit financially.
"I have the rarest thing in the hobby -- an unsigned Bob Feller picture," Rose said.
At times, there have been signs of a thaw in his relationship with Bud Selig and occasional glimmers of hope for a comeback, but something has always happened to gum up the works. Nevertheless, Rose maintains he has never held any personal animus toward Selig for refusing to consider reinstating him.
"Bud's a good guy," Rose says. "I have nothing bad to say about Bud Selig. I defended him in that All-Star Game when [Joe] Torre and [Bob] Brenly ran out of pitchers. How would you like to be the commissioner, sitting in your hometown, and they're giving out the first Ted Williams award for Most Valuable Player, and all of a sudden the two managers come over and say, 'Mr. Commissioner, we've run out of pitchers. What are we going to do?' How did people blame him?"
It's only natural for anyone with an appreciation of baseball history to reflect on the past 25 years and what Rose has lost -- what we've all lost, really. No one enjoys talking baseball more than Pete does, and very few have a more genuine connection with the average sports fan. Rose's deceptions and lapses in judgment have deprived the game of a tailor-made ambassador.
As a baseball writer and Hall of Fame voter, I have no direct role in Rose's ultimate fate. Two years after Rose went on baseball's ineligible list in 1989, the Hall's board of directors decreed that players with that distinction could no longer appear on the ballot for induction. So even if the voters are inclined to forgive Rose, they've never been given an opportunity.