LAS VEGAS — The last person to be banned for life from baseball was having a pretty good day, with a steady stream of fans and customers dropping by his table just off the casino floor at the Mandalay Bay resort for a picture, an autograph and a few words.
Signing things and chatting with people is what Pete Rose does for a living, and judging by the wad of bills he was struggling to get a rubber band around, it pays well. Alex Rodriguez might take note, should he be banned from baseball, too, and lose out on the remainder of his $275 million contract.
Then again, A-Rod might have to learn some better people skills to make it in the autograph business. Rose made sure Friday that everyone who left his table had something to tell the neighbors back home about how the hit king treated them special, including the man who got his ball autographed with Rose's name in Japanese.
"Took me two hours one night in Tokyo to learn how to do it," Rose said.
He's 72 now, and nearly a quarter century has passed since he agreed to a lifetime ban from the game for betting on games. It took him more years than it should have to do it, but he finally came clean and he finally apologized to baseball. He'll even sell you a signed ball with the inscription "I'm sorry I bet on baseball" if you need any more proof of his remorse.
Still, he remains banned from the game, and he may go to his grave still banned from the game. It eats at him because baseball has always been his life, and he believes he still has some good to offer to the sport he loves.
"I'm the one who messed up. I'm the one who made mistakes," Rose said. "But this is America. You sit and you have your fingers crossed and you wait and you wait for a second chance. I understand what happened in 1919, but I also know I would get a second chance if I beat my wife or girlfriend or if I was an alcoholic or a drug addict."
He would also get a second chance if his name was Ryan Braun, whose only penalty for cheating baseball and lying about it was sitting out 65 games. Braun's contract will still be good, and the $117 million the Milwaukee Brewers owe him will still be guaranteed even if what he did was just as harmful to the game as what Rose did.
Yes, Rose messed up — and messed up badly — by betting on baseball when he managed the Cincinnati Reds. If it took him a long time to fess up to what he did, it took him even longer to understand why baseball is so sensitive about anyone in the game betting on it (see 1919 World Series).
But he's spent 24 years being an example. He's served his time, and more.
Unfortunately for Rose, there's no indication anyone in baseball is even thinking about letting him back in.
"Pete Rose is all about deterrent and it's totally effective," said former commissioner Fay Vincent, who was the deputy commissioner under Bart Giamatti when Rose was banned. "No one in baseball gambles and it's all because of Rose. We made it clear that you touch that third rail, you die, and you don't come back."
If only Bud Selig was as serious about cracking down on steroids in his tenure as commissioner, maybe the game would have records that could be believed. Instead, the inflated home run marks stand while the record for career hits (4,256) that Rose set without the use of chemicals is wiped off baseball cards and anything licensed by Major League Baseball because he was a gambler.
"It's like I'm Al Capone or something," Rose said. "But guys are starting to come back to my side now because they see what is happening in baseball. Guys are doing things that alter records and they get 65 games. I got 24 years."
He's not so sure what to think about A-Rod and says he didn't offer him any advice when he spoke to him a few weeks ago. Rodriguez, he says, loves talking to him more about guys he played with, such as Willie Mays and Henry Aaron, than anything going on in baseball today.
But he does know something about being in exile, and it's not a life he would recommend for the Yankees slugger. The money may be good, but it's not always fun being a baseball pariah.
"I know A-Rod lied about taking steroids. I don't know about all the other stuff," Rose said. "But a lifetime suspension is pretty serious for anyone. He loves baseball and loves to play baseball. Now he can't play the rest of his life?"
Rose says he hasn't talked to Selig in years about letting him back into baseball. What bothers him is that the commissioner doesn't say yes or no to lifting the ban, only that he has given thought to the subject.
"Please don't write this like I'm whining," he said. "I've come to grips with not being in the Hall of Fame. I've come to grips with not being in baseball. Would I love to be in baseball? You're damn right, and you know why? Because baseball is a better game if I'm in it. I love the game, and I care about the game."
He cares about A-Rod, too, enough to pass along a piece of well-earned advice.
"He screwed up, no question about it," Rose said. "But if there's a lesson to be learned in my deal it's this: If you screw up and do something, don't lie about it.
"Don't be like me. Come clean. I eventually came clean, but it was too late."
Too late to get back in baseball's good graces, though fans seem more forgiving. They came in a few at a time Friday to buy pictures or jerseys, spending anywhere from $75 and up. The merely curious could stand behind the roped off area and take his picture for free, and Rose obliged them all with a smile.
One couple with teenage daughters bought a black ball and stood next to Rose as he signed it with a gold pen before applying some hair spray to make sure the ink didn't run.
On the side of the ball he wrote: Hits 4,256. Steroids 0.