BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Just a few miles up the interstate from where George Steinbrenner made his triumphant return from baseball's suspended list, Pete Rose's Baseball Cafe is filling up with the dinner crowd.
The proprietor is sitting by himself in a booth, going over notes he has made for his radio show, which will air live from the restaurant in about 45 minutes. He is wearing a black parka and a teal blue and white cap with a zebra design, both bearing the logo "Hit King."
Behind him, next to the bar, is a framed front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer from Sept. 12, 1985, with the huge headline "4,192" -- the day he became baseball's all-time hit king. Across the room, the 17 Sports Illustrated covers he adorned are encased in frames and take up an entire wall.
"Only two guys ever had more -- Ali and Larry Bird," Rose says proudly, even though his last three covers, in 1989, were the result of the betting scandal and investigation that led to his lifetime suspension from baseball.
If you are expecting to find a dejected and defeated Pete Rose, embittered with baseball, you are mistaken. The 3 1/2 years he has spent in exile from the game, including a five-month stint in a federal prison for tax evasion, have failed to still the upbeat and ever self-assured Rose persona.
"I love the game," he says. "I'll always be the No. 1 fan baseball has. I need to be a fan of the game, but I don't need the game anymore. I'm making too much money out of it now. I don't have to worry anymore about who's gonna pitch, who's gonna pinch-hit or who's not gonna show up."
Certainly his restaurant looked prosperous, with patrons filling nearly all the tables as the time draws near for him to assume his seat in the radio booth overlooking the bar. And, he says, he plans to open another restaurant in Tampa as well as produce and market a new energy drink through his Hit King company.
Just then, a woman reaches over the railing behind him and hands him a "Pete Rose Hit King" sweat shirt she has purchased at the restaurant gift shop. Rose reaches into his pocket, pulls out a blue pen and obliges her by autographing the front of it.
"I read where [sportswriter] Frank Deford said that I was like a wino selling blood when I did all those autograph shows after I got out of prison," Rose says. "I wonder if he'd do it for $130,000."
While he is not bitter at baseball, the same cannot be said of how he feels about some of the people in it.
"It really hurt me when Bob Feller said he'd never go back to the Hall of Fame if I were inducted," Rose says. "He knows he's lying. He'd never pass up those card shows he does when he goes up there [to Cooperstown]."
At one point, the conversation gets around to the commissioner's office and Rose's intent to apply for re-instatement -- "when I know who to send the letter to."
It is a reference to the current vacancy at 350 Park Ave. and he is unable to conceal his satisfaction over Fay Vincent's forced resignation. Although it was the late Bart Giamatti who conducted the investigation of him and imposed the lifetime suspension, Rose is convinced Vincent was behind the decision to have his name removed from the Hall of Fame ballot.
"He [Vincent] was obsessed that I bet on baseball," says Rose, who continues to deny that he did, despite evidence to the contrary. "I hate to see anybody get fired, but he got what he deserved. He didn't do one damn good thing for baseball. Talk about somebody who thought they were bigger than the game. That was Fay Vincent."
His producer comes over and says it's showtime and Rose grabs his notes and goes into the radio booth.
After an introduction and commercial break, he begins to take calls. One of the first is some guy named Delmus from Fort Myers. "Pete?" Delmus yells. "Remember me?"
"Yeah, I remember you," Rose replies.
"Well, I just wanna say that Marge Schott got a dirty deal."
"Dirty deal?" Rose shoots back. "All they did was make her sit upstairs for a month."
It goes that way for two hours. Rose is a natural, rapping with the get-a-life sports junkies. Here in his Florida exile, he is surrounded by the mementos of his career and he is prosperous and at peace.
"Knowing what I did, I took my pill and I didn't whine," he says. "Even when I was in prison you didn't hear me bitch. That was because I got only five months when all those other guys were in there for 17-18 years. It was a temporary setback, but I'm gonna make it back OK. I'm a fighter."