CINCINNATI -- A few weeks ago, in an open lot in the area where Crosley Field once stood, the remnants of the Big Red Machine, the great Cincinnati Reds teams of the mid-'70s, gathered for a family reunion. Pete Rose sent his regrets.
It seems Rose was, as they say, otherwise engaged. And so he remains -- engaged, regretful and, most of all, absent.
The road leading to Riverfront Stadium is called Pete Rose Way, now popularly understood in a town where he was once a hero among heroes to be the Wrong Way. You can ride on Pete Rose Way all day, but you won't see Pete Rose. He's 250 miles away in Marion, Ill., doing harder time than he could have possibly guessed.
This is a sad and terrible irony: Not only does Rose lose everything he holds dear, but also the Reds -- the team he managed, played for, rooted for, bled for -- are in the World Series without him.
Because he traveled the Pete Rose way, Rose had to give up baseball and give up his freedom. He traded them in for a twisting knife in the gut. Rose will watch this World Series from prison, a field of nightmares. My God, what could be worse?
Well, there's this: No one in a Reds uniform even mentions his name, unless specifically asked. No one wants to buy in on the irony. The Reds are focused on the Oakland A's, a sufficient challenge.
Rose, to his former players, to his former teammates, is simply gone, yesterday's news. As if he had been traded. Or if he had dropped dead. They can't quite shape the word -- the "p" word or the "j" word. Instead of saying prison or jail, they stumble before deciding that Rose is "somewhere else." They finally suggest that he's with the Reds in spirit, and that fits, because Rose is nothing so much as a spirit -- a ghost, a shade -- that rests uneasy over Riverfront.
"I'm sure he feels like he's part of us -- I hope," said Ron Oester, who, like Rose, grew up in Cincinnati to become a Red. "I know he'll be rooting for us. I doubt he'll miss an inning or a pitch."
Oester has a copy of "The Pete Rose Story" somewhere at home, autographed by Rose himself. It was a book written in a happier time, when kids recited Rose's batting average and not his serial number. Oester clings to that image. He said that Rose, who managed the team most of last season, deserves much of the credit for the Reds' success. What he didn't say was that the end to all the distractions that Rose brought down on the Reds helped, as much as anything else, in turning the team around.
Tony Perez, the hitting coach and an old teammate, said he, too, was sure Rose was rooting hard for the Reds, but understood the attendant pain.
"To be out of baseball, to be . . . in prison," Perez said, "that's not easy for anybody. Pete is a Cincinnati Red, and so he has to be happy for us. But it must make it more difficult, too."
None of the Reds I talked to had called Rose, or written him a letter, or sent him an autographed ball or anything suggesting the team was thinking of him in his darkest hour. The team is not thinking of him. Of course, it isn't as if he's in the hospital. He's in prison. He put himself there. He disgraced his team, his sport and, of course, his name. What he has become is the horrible ghost of Pete Rose past.
The last time Johnny Bench talked to Rose, they were playing golf together as Rose awaited his final day in court.
"It was just before the sentencing," said Bench, who's in town as a broadcaster. "We didn't talk about it. You don't bring up, 'How's the sentencing going?' We're old friends, and there are things you don't have to say.
"I'm sure he wants to be here. We want him to be here. But he's paying his dues. I think he understands that -- and that's the important thing."
Maybe he does. But there is word that Rose, even from prison, is not paying his debts. The joke is that the Home Shopping Network will put together a behind-bars special broadcast so Rose can raise money.
And, as Rose does his time, the revelations continue. There's a new book out, called "Hustle," detailing the decline and fall of Rose. It says baseball officials had been aware of his gambling problems for nearly two decades and, basically, chose to ignore them.
It's all out in the open now, of course, although Rose is not. He got seven months for tax evasion and a lifetime sentence for betraying what could be called, without risk of overstating the case, a public trust. And so, he watches the World Series, if he chooses and if the guards permit him, only on TV. It isn't a pretty picture.
And it wasn't pretty either when two National Enquirer reporters sneaked into the prison to try to get to Rose, who has refused to be interviewed. Although they didn't get the interview, they did see him. He was sitting in front of a TV set. And pulled down over his head, as of old, was a Reds cap.