I was in Las Vegas early last month when a friend told me and some of our buddies that Pete Rose was signing autographs at a memorabilia shop inside Caesars Palace. My friend suggested we walk over there with him and get a glimpse of Rose.
I declined. I didn't want to see Rose like this, prostituting his signature on any piece of junk a baseball fans slips in front of him.
But that's the plight of a baseball pariah. Banned for life for betting on baseball, Rose finds himself in the nether regions: on the fringes of the sport yet connected with its army of baseball faithful.
I had long ago pleaded for Commissioner Bud Selig to lift Rose's ban. To me, Rose has served his sentence in purgatory. He also has confessed his mortal sins, so it is time the commissioner set him free. Selig has said nothing about Rose's case, which makes me think Rose will continue to make a living glad-handing at Caesars.
Rose has too much value to the game to be left standing on its margins, and I see no purpose in keeping him there when Selig and the rest of baseball can extend their arms to welcome Mark McGwire into the game's fold.
I have no misgivings about this at all," Selig said in an article on ESPN.com. "Mark McGwire is a very, very fine man, and the Cardinals are to be applauded."
Applauded? For what?
I can't defend what Rose did. His actions did besmirch the game in ways that border on unforgivable. Yet what Rose did palls in comparison to what McGwire, who the Cardinals hired as their hitting coach, and all the other ballplayers from the Steroids '90s did to baseball. Their deeds threatened all that's sacred about sport.
None of these wrongdoers hurt the game as much as McGwire. He was a larger-than-life hero, almost Bunyanesque, some might say: the baseball strongman who hit homers so far that some of them might still be orbiting the earth. He crushed the most hallowed record in baseball when, during the 1998 season, he broke Roger Maris' total of 61 homers in a season.
More than a few baseball fans have argued that McGwire's race to 61, a contest he waged throughout the summer with Sammy Sosa, helped Major League Baseball, still trying to mend the ill-will that grew out of the '94 strike, restore its standing in the public's eye.
McGwire's assault on the home-run record transformed him into an icon. He was the toast of the sport, the megastar of stars in the home-run era.
This is not to say his image was not celestial before the '98 season, because that would be inaccurate. McGwire had built a reputation for himself with the Athletics, teaming with 'roids-abuser Jose Canseco in the late 1980s to give the A's two of the most powerful sluggers in the game.
Yet McGwire never had a season like '98, when his bat powered the Cardinals into the playoffs. He would never have another season quite like this one either. He wouldn't need to, though; McGwire had already elite numbers as a power hitter.
A few years later, he was out of baseball. He fled the game with rumors trailing him out the ballpark. He became the human billboard for what sullied the game. His bulging biceps and power hitting were, people were saying, the result of chemical enhancements and not of night after night in the weight room.
McGwire never answered those rumors. He didn't answer them in front of Congress when he was called to Washington, D.C., in 2005 to testify. He gave the politicians vague responses about his past, saying it is the future that counted now.
After his testimony ended, he became a recluse, disappearing into the California countryside. He severed his connection to the game, and unlike Rose, McGwire didn't seem to want one -- until now.
Somehow, he persuaded Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa to hire him as hitting coach.
Why LaRussa did isn't a question I've heard answered. He's been as unclear about the reason as McGwire has been silent about his past. Not even LaRussa can claim McGwire is the best candidate for the job, because as a "pure" hitter, he wasn't much.
I do believe in giving a man a second chance. I also know men make mistakes -- every man does. What man living can throw stones at glasshouses and not have stones thrown at his?
To get that second chance, I expect a man to repent first, including McGwire. I would like to hear him own up to his mistakes; I want him to set the record straight, which he refused to do in front of Congress. I implore Bud Selig to demand McGwire does so in front of baseball.
For if that's what he demanded of Pete Rose, Selig should accept no less from McGwire.
The fact is that while Rose, baseball's all-time hits leader, compromised the game, he didn't do nearly as much harm to its integrity as McGwire. Selig shouldn't give McGwire a free pass for turning baseball into a carnival freak show and then continue to ban Rose.
Can't Selig, the guardian of what remains of the game's integrity, see how unfair that is?