The Church of Charlie Hustle

The gospel according to Pete Rose: The former Phillie, banned by baseball, speaking Sunday at a church in Royersford. More on A1.       MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
The gospel according to Pete Rose: The former Phillie, banned by baseball, speaking Sunday at a church in Royersford. More on A1.       MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 01, 2014

Pete Rose came to church Sunday morning wearing a silver blazer, a black mock turtleneck, black slacks, and white shoes, his hair set in a dyed-black halo atop his wide, flat head.

He had come not as parishioner or penitent but as the star attraction, the focus of what was supposed to be a lesson in the power of redemption and self-forgiveness. He had come to Christ's Church of the Valley - an independent Christian church headquartered amid the hills and sleek modern homes of Royersford - at the invitation of its pastor, Brian Jones, and its leadership council.

More than 33 years have passed since Rose - as their first baseman, instigator, and inspiration - helped the Phillies win the 1980 World Series. Twenty-five years have passed since Rose was banned from Major League Baseball for gambling on games he managed for the Cincinnati Reds. Ten have passed since he at last admitted what he had done. At 72, he remains in quasi-exile, living in Las Vegas, selling his signature to fans and passersby along the Strip for millions of dollars, no longer eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame, no closer to reinstatement.

Jones had been conducting a series of interviews and sermons around the theme of "Second Chances." Not long ago, as the church's council met at a Red Robin restaurant and discussed who would make an appropriate subject for the series, Rose's picture flashed on a television screen. Perfect, the council members thought. They contacted Rose's agents, and because Pete Rose will travel anywhere and talk to anyone about being Pete Rose if he's paid enough to do so, he agreed to have Jones interview him during each of the congregation's three services Sunday morning - one day before he would return to Cincinnati for opening day at Great American Ball Park. (A council representative did not disclose how much the church paid Rose to speak.)

"I wanted to ask God who's going to win the game tomorrow," Rose said. "The Cardinals or the Reds?"

This initially would seem an ill-suited venue for Pete Rose: among evangelicals. But to sit in on the services was to see how fitting the setting actually was. He and Jones sat across from each other on stage in an auditorium, and more than 2,000 people whooped and cheered and chuckled at his stories and one-liners. A teenage boy who distributed bread and wine at communion wore a red Phillies jersey. A man in his early 50s - bald and goateed and built like a small mountain - yelled, "Love you, man!"

Old photographs of Rose as a boy and as a minor-leaguer scrolled across giant video screens on either side of the stage. The screens later showed replays of Rose's collision with catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game and his 4,192d hit to break Ty Cobb's record.

Jones asked Rose how he'd gotten the nickname "Charlie Hustle" (Mickey Mantle gave it to him), what he'd done with the meager salary he'd earned as a rookie with the Reds, how he'd elevated the Phillies into champions.

Rose doesn't require much solicitation to tell those stories, and he did so in oft-crude detail. There was the time he went to dinner with Willie Mays, and Mays returned from the men's room with wet pant legs because a fan, upon encountering him there, couldn't contain his excitement.

There was his line about former Reds owner Marge Schott: "She was the only one in the organization who had facial hair."

There was his infamous encounter at home plate with Fosse, which led him into his explanation of why the National League, which had more African American players at the time than the American League, played the superior brand of baseball.

"Nobody in the American League except Kansas City had AstroTurf," he said. "When you have AstroTurf, you need speed. I'm not saying blacks are faster than whites, but all the sprinters are black. There's something about that muscle right here."

The congregation laughed with unease as Rose pointed to his lower leg, recognizing him as a man of a bygone time - the bawdy ex-ballplayer unmindful of the parameters now in place on language and behavior. He is an anachronism, emblematic of a hazy, sepia-toned perspective on baseball and the men who play it: They can be crude and politically incorrect, and they can violate the game's single sacrosanct rule, as long as they play the way we think they ought to. It is why Rose still has such a hold on fans' imaginations today, why so many are willing to forgive him.

"One thing I didn't do is, I never bet against my own team, and I never threw a game, and I bet on my own team to win. If you want to know the truth, I was wrong, but every manager should do that," he said. "You should do everything in your power to try to win the game."

It was late in the third service, and the congregation was still hanging on whatever Rose said, but you had to wonder after a while what the lesson in his words was. Rose wants so desperately for Major League Baseball and Bud Selig to reinstate him. Yet he had more than 14 years' worth of second chances offered to him and never took them, never came clean, and even now his tone was less apologetic than defiant, as if for all he had accomplished on the field, that chance at redemption was owed to him.

"Is he sorry, or is he sorry he was caught?" Jones said afterward. "That's the question I never got to ask him."

It is the question at the heart of Pete Rose and his place in baseball, even if so many in that auditorium and around the country don't care to know the answer. As the final interview ended, the congregation gave him a standing ovation. In the Church of Pete Rose, there's never any room in the pew for a skeptic.


msielski@philly.com

@MikeSielski

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