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Rose holds court with fans in Cooperstown

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Like it or not, it has become a part of Induction Weekend at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Pete Rose arrives. He signs autographs in one of the souvenir shops that dot Main Street of this picturesque village. He's less than two blocks from the front doors of the iconic building that houses tributes to the game's immortals. Then he leaves.

So near, and yet so far.

He's still the Hit King, the player whose 4,256 knocks knocks still are the most in history. And he's still locked out of the game he played for 24 Major League seasons as a result of agreeing to being "permanently ineligible" amid allegations -- which he has since admitted were true -- that he bet on games while manager of his hometown Cincinnati Reds.

It doesn't seem to matter. Saturday afternoon, a steady stream of fans filed past the table for an autograph, a photo, a chance to say a few words. The 71-year-old wore a brown fedora. His fiancée, Kiani Kim, sat nearby. Their relationship will soon be the subject of a new reality series on TLC which, Rose said, is scheduled to start airing in December.

Barred from baseball, Rose makes his living selling his signature. Asked how many times he calculates that he's signed his name in his life, he shrugs.

"But I do know that I've signed more for free than I've been paid for," he said. "I don't mind signing for free, but when you're working, you get paid."

He has it down to a science. To his right is a folding chair for pictures. In the background hangs jerseys from three of the teams he played for, home whites for the Reds and Expos, the 1980's powder blue road uniforms of the Phillies. He grins into the camera. He offers a handshake. He signs baseballs, jerseys, photographs. And the fact that he keeps up with the game is evident in his banter with the customers.

To a Marlins fan: "I'm kind of amazed that they're 18th in attendance. With the new stadium, I thought they'd be doing a lot better than that."

To a Philadelphia fan, with empathy: "Do you think it's too late to say, 'Let's go Phillies?'"

To a Tigers fan, encouragingly: "They're hot right now."

To a Yankees fan who wishes he would come manage in the Bronx, gently ribbing: "They've got a good manager. They're just not scoring runs right now. Are you a typical fan? They're eight games in front and you're not happy?"

He keeps a running commentary to a reporter about the Reds, hoping that they can hang in until Joey Votto comes off the disabled list, advising that Drew Stubbs should do nothing but try to hit the ball to right field during batting practice. He gives his opinion that on-base percentage only matters when there are hitters further down the lineup who can drive in runs. He doesn't like the modern emphasis on home runs above all else. "Last week I looked and 14 of the 30 teams had batting averages under .250," he noted, shaking his head.

In the end, though, there's no escaping the subject that's foremost on everybody's mind. Every few minutes, somebody offers up a variation on the theme that he belongs in the Hall of Fame, that they're sure he'll be inducted someday, that it just isn't right that he's excluded.

Rose, for the most part, tries to shrug off the comments. He seems to understand, after all these years, that there's not really much more he can say on the subject. Occasionally, if a fan doesn't relent, he'll resort to humor.

After getting his autograph, one older man wouldn't let go. "Thanks for all you've done for baseball," he repeated several times. "You were the original Charlie Hustle. There was nobody who was Charlie Hustle before you."

Rose looked at him with a lopsided grin. "Well," he said, "there was a Charlie Russell once."

The only other comment that evoked a reaction came when somebody suggested loudly that "the next commissioner" would be sure to reinstate him. Instead of rising to the bait, Rose looked down and signed another baseball.

"[Bud Selig] has got a tough job," he said, respectfully, and went about his business.