November 21, 2011
LAS VEGAS — Inside of a memorabilia shop, seated at a table barely 10 feet away, Pete Rose smiled happily, bobbed his head and tapped his foot as an Elvis impersonator knocked out "Viva Las Vegas." It was a spirited and appropriate way to end the set for both men — the most Vegas way possible, probably — and to end one of the oddest experiences of my life.
Hours earlier, I had met Rose for breakfast at Planet Hollywood inside of Caesar's Palace. Breakfast? With Pete Rose? At Planet Hollywood? How'd that happen? Well, long story short: I asked, and he said yes. We got off to the worst start possible, because I was 5-6 minutes late and he had already finished eating. (The same thing he eats for breakfast every day, he later said; egg whites, wheat toast and coffee.) The disgusted look on his face scolded me before I could even squeeze out my first apology. You just don't keep Pete Rose waiting.
"I'm a very prompt person," Rose said.
Despite my tardiness, Rose graciously stayed in his seat for another hour and answered questions for an upcoming Answer Man session, squirming occasionally, checking his watch only two or three times — nonverbal cues for me to pick up the pace or ask better questions or both. The experience couldn't have gone too poorly, though. He said to come down to the Antiquities store in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and sit in as he signed for fans. Not only would I be grateful for the second chance, but I'd understand more clearly why Rose likes to stay on time.
Most of the folks who come to see Rose buy photos, baseballs, jerseys or caps for him to sign. But considering the location — a mall in a resort hotel in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip — you never know who will stop by, and not just devoted fans of Charlie Hustle. The wife of a former major-league pitching coach, for example. A retired champion boxer killing some time. An Elvis impersonator putting on a mini concert.
A couple of hours into Rose's appearance, a friendly looking man in his late 50s sporting a big ol' head of white, wavy hair came to Rose's table inside of the front entrance. They called him Tommy Vegas (of course) and he had stopped by to deliver his friend Pete some lunch. Rose quickly opened one of the bags Tommy brought and found a quart of clam chowder from a nearby oyster bar. Perfect, except for the plastic spoon. Reaching into a Ziploc bag filled with pens and markers used for signing stuff, Rose took out his own metal spoon. Always prepared. Rose shared lunch with his son Tyler, who often helps him handle merchandise and take fan photos.
"You see, I don't take breaks for lunch," Rose said, wolfing down the chowder during particularly slow moments. "Breaking for lunch for an hour costs me money."
Rose, who is 70 years old, recently signed a deal with Antiquities that sits him down for least five hours a day for five, six, or sometimes seven days a week. Often commuting from Los Angeles, he's been signing in Vegas at some venue — such as Caesar's Palace, or Mandalay Bay, or the Mirage — since 2004.
Prices for small stuff start at $89 (less on his website), and rise to $800 for a bronze mold of Rose's right hand holding a signed black ball with three inscriptions. (It kind of looks like the Monkey's Paw, minus the terrible curse.) If you want to meet him in the middle, for $500 you can buy a copper binder that includes a "banishment document" from Major League Baseball that features Rose's signature, along with those of commissioners Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent. Rose might have admitted he broke the rules and bet on baseball, finally, but he's also not ashamed to profit from doing so.
Also available on Rose's website: A $5,000 package that includes a "first-class" dinner for four (plus Rose) in Vegas along with signed memorabilia. Rose said he has made as much as $3 million a year selling this kind of stuff as recently as 2007, but he has taken his hits with the recession just like many others. Still, he seems content. And proud.
"This is the only city in the world where this kind of thing works, and I'm one of the few guys willing and able to sit all day, so many days a week, and sign," Rose said.
As with everything else, Rose is competitive about autographs. The subject of Jose Canseco appearing at Mandalay comes up. There was some talk of the two of them combining forces, but Rose dismissed the notion, saying, "I don't need any help." In fact, Rose doubts that Canseco will last in Vegas. He's at the far south end of the Strip, not in the middle of the action, like Rose. He doesn't have the name recognition that Rose does. He also probably doesn't have the work-ethic, Rose contended. And he's not selling the same kind of quality stuff, Rose asserted.
"He doesn't even have a hand to sell!" Rose said, amusingly holding up his arm and pretending to clutch a ball.
Along with lunch, Tommy Vegas also brought a stack of CDs for Rose to sign that included a homespun tune with a country twang — "Everybody Loves the Hit King" — which GG with Tommy Vegas and the New Wrecking Crew released in April.
Here's the chorus:
Everybody loves the Hit King/everybody wants him in (the Hall of Fame)
Everybody loves the Hit King/everybody wants him in (the Hall of Fame)
Everybody loves the Hit King/put him in the Hall of Fame
The lyrics actually echo just about everybody Rose meets on this day.
Hours earlier, the first people in line to see Rose were a couple from Ohio. It was the wife's birthday the next day, so she asked for a "birthday hug." Her husband told Rose how he belongs in Cooperstown. Rose signed a Reds jersey that displays his major-league and NL records. It's not a particularly busy day for autographs — Rose says he might make only a "few thousand" today — but he's going to accumulate lots of adulation.
"That's all I hear all day," Rose said. "'You belong in the Hall. You deserve it.' "
Fans from all over the globe identify themselves. Many are from Ohio and Kentucky; several live in Canada (Rose even signed a Montreal Expos jersey for a man from Quebec); at least two fans came from England and Australia, respectively.
Rose reminisces with them, but he also talks current events.
"I'd rather see Oregon than Alabama vs. LSU in the national championship game," Rose told a woman from Louisiana. [So much for that.] Her husband, who has bought an iconic photo of Rose sliding headfirst at Wrigley Field, said: "When our boy slides, he goes head-first. He does his Peter Rose."
Rose whipped out his iPhone, which displays the exact same photo on its home screen.
Later, a woman in her 60s stopped by — not for an autograph, but to tell Rose that her husband, Wes Stock, says hello. Stock was the pitching coach for the Oakland Athletics from 1973-76. Rose remembers Stock, along with the sting of the Reds' loss in the '72 Series against the A's.
Some fans occasionally come by and don't want to buy anything, but they do say hello, or take pictures from behind the barriers. They seem stunned to find Rose sitting there, like a living museum piece. It's awkward, especially when no one is in line to have Rose sign. Rose isn't rude to them, but he also isn't as polite as he is to the buyers.
Tyler Rose was a baby when his father broke Ty Cobb's major-league hit record in 1985. Within the next few weeks, Tyler and his new wife will welcome their first baby. He will be named Jordan Peter Rose — after Tyler's idols, Michael Jordan and his father. On his phone, Tyler showed granddad a picture of Jordan Peter in the womb, sucking his thumb.
"If he's still doing that a month after he's born, I'll put pepper on his thumb," Rose said. Tyler and I just shook our heads.
Rose is particularly proud of another grandchild, a 7-year-old boy who's playing football and already has "made several 8-year-olds cry" with vicious hits, he said. I wonder where the kid got his attitude. Rose smiled.
"Got to raise them aggressively," he said.
Rose also complained about how he thought the White Sox organization had hamstrung his oldest son, Pete Rose Jr., in his first season as minor-league manager for Class A Bristol of the Appalachian League.
"You know he can't even develop a closer?" Rose said. "Kenny Williams wants them to play 'White Sox baseball.' You said you're from around there — do you have any [expletive] idea what 'White Sox baseball' is?"
A lot of White Sox fans have been wondering too, I replied.
Not long after, an athletic guy sneaks up behind Rose and gives him a hug. Thankfully, Rose knows him. It's retired boxer Jesse James Leija, former lightweight and super featherweight champion. Back in the day, Leija fought the likes of Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti. I remind Rose about the Ward fight (which gets me back a few points) and he asks Leija about it. Ward was tough as his reputation, said Leija, who comes off as a nice guy.
Say, did Rose ever do any boxing, any Golden Gloves?
"Silver Gloves," he said with a laugh. "My record was 0-2."
As if the experience hadn't been Vegas enough, the Elvis impersonator came by with about 90 minutes to go in Rose's session. Rose had warned me about the Elvis impersonator. He was good, Rose said. Wait 'til you see him. Wait 'til you hear him. And he was right! The impersonator sort of looked like Fat Elvis, for real, and he sang quite well — hitting all of the right notes. He even did a little pitching for businesses for Rose, which the ballplayer appreciated.
"This here's the real Pete Rose," Elvis told mall shoppers. "I understand why you might think I'm an imitator. But this here's the real deal!"
Rose has met several presidents and one of the Beatles — Ringo — but he said he never met the real Elvis Presley. It was probably, he figured, because he had never been to Vegas until the 1990s, when he started a sports talk radio show out here.
"I kind of was on top of my game when Elvis was on top of his," Rose noted.
"Viva, vivaaaaaaaa, Las Vegaaaaaaaaaaaaaas."
After the last note of "Viva Las Vegas" popped out of Elvis' tiny amplifier, the impersonator finished with a trademark, "Thank you very much." Only he did it in the voice of Andy Kaufman. What a weird day.
Tyler tapped his watch. It was about time to go. But wait a second. There was still one person in the back. Tony from Dayton was buying a jersey package. So Rose said to wait.
"The customer is always right," Rose said before signing the jersey and shooting the breeze with Tony from Dayton. It was a little after 5 p.m. As he gathered his belongings, Rose wondered what was for dinner. He also was headed to Philadelphia for an appearance at a Dave & Busters on the waterfront, but he would be back in Vegas the day after that. The day before and the day after Thanksgiving, too. And Christmas Eve. He's still in demand.
Major League Baseball might keep him banned. The Hall of Fame might keep him out. But Rose is in a place where it doesn't matter so much. In his world, it's like Tommy Vegas says: Everybody loves the Hit King.
Coming Wednesday: Answer Man with Pete Rose.