Rose returns to field, conversation returns to his lifetime ban

Pete Rose fist bumps with Lancaster's Wilson Batista on Monday in Bridgeport, Conn. Rose, banned from Major League Baseball, returned to the field for one day to help coach the independent minor-league Bridgeport Bluefish.  

Jessica Hill/AP

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. —€” Pete Rose walked up the dugout steps at 4:19 p.m. First pitch was nearly three hours away, but the 73-year-old, already tired from eight hours of pregame interviews, handshakes and autograph signings, shuffled towards the field. He walked slowly on the grass at the Ballpark at Harbor Yard, towards the batting practice cage, finally finding a spot behind home plate.

Here in this second-chance league, in a second-chance city, baseball’s all-time hit king returned to baseball in a uniformed, professional capacity for the first time in a quarter-century. The last time he had put on a jersey to coach a team, three of the Bridgeport Bluefish players had not yet been born. Most of them had little knowledge of the particulars of the gambling transgressions that led to his lifetime ban. They knew only the stories they’d heard and the statistics they’d seen, which is to say, they knew most of what mattered to them, most of what matters to the baseball public.

"I don’t think it makes any sense that he’s here. I don’t know why he’s here. But I’m pretty excited that he’s here," said outfielder Joe Mather, who played parts of four seasons in the majors.

And why was Rose here to coach for one night, anyway? He has no real connection to the team or the area. True, his son Pete Jr., played 50 games with the club in 2006, hitting .299 with seven home runs, but it was part of re-Pete’s baseball world tour. During his 20-year-career, Pete Jr. played for 25 teams.

Monday night was mostly a well-paid gig for Pete Rose, and a publicity stunt for the Bluefish, who have seen sagging attendance in recent years. But in the time from the announcement of the one-day engagement until first pitch, it morphed into something else entirely: a revisiting of Rose’s lifetime ban.

One night only: Pete Rose returns to the field

On the day when Hall of Fame batsman Tony Gwynn unexpectedly passed away at 54, it was a logical jump to wonder whether commissioner Bud Selig might take another look at Rose’s case before time gets away from him, too.

"I haven’t given up on Bud, OK," Rose said prior to the game. "But what happens if the next commissioner is Bud’s best friend? You think the first thing he’s going to do is reinstate me? The ban’s going to outlive me. I wish I could be 113 applying for reinstatement. But I’m going to tell you again, I’m the one who screwed up, so I’m not sitting here whining about being reinstated. You guys brought that up. If I’m reinstated, I won’t need a third chance, believe me."

Wary of ruining any chances, however remote, Rose’s agent Mike Maguire sought out the blessing of Major League Baseball for the one-day independent league gig, which was granted by MLB general counsel Tom Ostertag.

That was the extent of the communication between the sides, Maguire said. No discussion of the past or the future, no movement.

Despite his long exile, Rose still wears his attachment to the game like a lapel pin. During the season, he watches two to three games a day, he said, offering his vote for Miguel Cabrera as baseball’s best hitter and Andrew McCutchen and Mike Trout as its best overall players. And when he gets going talking about it, the stories and jokes pour out of him.

Bob Gibson threw so hard "he could throw it through a car wash and not get it wet."

Mickey Rivers "moved so much he made coffee nervous."

Jesus told the Cubs, "Don’t do a damn thing until I get back."

If Rose cut a vein, it seems he’d bleed baseball.

"Four-thousand something hits? Come on. That’s on-the-field stuff. You can’t take that away. He really should be in the Hall of Fame," said Bluefish everyday manager Willie Upshaw, who played 10 years in the big leagues.

But instead, here he was, wearing black dress pants and coaching first base in an Atlantic League ballpark that drew 4,573 fans.

There was nothing wrong with the setting; it just wasn’t the return many had hoped for the legend. It brought to mind the ending of "Eight Men Out," the film adaptation of the Chicago Black Sox scandal, with Joe Jackson playing under an assumed name before a small crowd in the minor leagues. The game might have quit him, but he can’t quit the game.

"I didn’t have a reason to come here, to try to impress baseball or anybody else," Rose said. "We started out with just me doing an appearance with the Bluefish and ended up with me being on the field. I would never use anybody to try to get me reinstated, because I’m going to have a good crowd. That wasn’t our angle here. [The media] created that more than I have. I don’t know that this will help Bud Selig like me more. But he’s probably going to see we’ll have a full house, which is a good thing."

There may have been no ulterior motive; only Rose knows that for sure. But he had to know the attention his return would receive. After all, the ban is never far from his name. It’s his shadow.

During a Monday lunch, as Rose was telling a story about Mike Schmidt, a phone rang nearby.

"Answer that, it might be Bud Selig," he joked. "It’ll be a collect call."

If that call ever comes, it might be that sudden, that unexpected. For now, though, he’ll settle for a loose affiliation with the game, and a one-off role as an honorary manager for a team he’s barely familiar with, in a city he’s never visited before. In the near future, that might become the norm.

"I don’t think there’s any way in the world that I won’t be doing this somewhere in the future," he said.

On Monday, the Bluefish won 2-0, snapping a three-game losing streak. Fittingly, one of the runs came in a very Charlie Hustle kind of way, Prentice Redman scoring from second on an infield single. Rose took out the lineup card, coached first base for five innings, then sat in the dugout the rest of the game passing along his decades of observations.

"Very inspirational," winning pitcher D.J. Mitchell said. "Anything that comes out of his mouth, we should write it down or log it into our heads. It was great. I think that’s why we won."

REMEMBERING TONY GWYNN

As the innings wore on — the game lasted 3 hours, 11 minutes — the crowd began to thin out. It was a work night in a working-class city, and beds were calling. Finally it ended near 10:30. Counting his lunch appearance, Rose had been at this for more than 15 hours.

After it was over, his agent said it was the happiest he might have ever seen Rose look.

"That’s because he’s only been my agent for a week," Rose joked.

Rose was in his element, everyone hanging on his word, everyone focused on the hit king, and the penalty he still was paying. If Monday was not expressly about it, you could never tell. Why else would so many people be interested in paying for a ticket just to see a coach?

Of course, the answer to that is they weren’t. They were there to pay tribute before time slips away from Rose and from MLB. He himself put his own situation in context before it all began. Talking about the players he was about to get to know, the ones who were reaching for something slightly beyond their grasp and out of their direct control, he might as well have been talking about himself.

"It’s nice to be here because you got guys that are still trying to live out their dream," he said. "There’s always a possibility. You never know."

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