Twenty-one years after his adamant denials began, six years after he finally conceded the charade was up, Pete Rose remains baseball's gold standard for obstinacy in the face of incriminating evidence. All of those Steroid Era stars who bleated about their innocence but folded the minute the Feds said "Boo!" have nothing on him. So now, when asked, Rose says sure, he has some advice for pitching legend Roger Clemens, who was indicted late last week by a federal grand jury for perjury and obstruction of Congress.
"But," says Rose, "the only advice I'd give him would be something that he's probably 120 percent against."
Rose was speaking Monday from Las Vegas, where he makes 12 to 15 appearances a month sitting at a table in a Caesar's Palace shop called Field of Dreams, signing memorabilia that includes a $298 baseball with the once unfathomable inscription, "I'm sorry I bet on baseball."
He's 69 years old now and, on this day, anyway, time and regrets seem to have sandpapered away some of his famous rough edges. Tuesday marked the 21st anniversary of Rose's lifetime ban from baseball. Speaking without a tinge of anger in his voice, he says, "I seem no closer to reinstatement today than I was when it happened."
So for now, he remains the Hit King in exile, forbidden from showing up at major league ballparks and stuck hustling to recoup the income he's funneled to lawyers and tax bills (he served a five-month sentence for tax evasion in 1990) by offering himself up on his web site for meet-and-greets at trifles such as cocktail parties and golf outings, car dealerships and casinos. (The Cincinnati Reds have successfully petitioned commissioner Bud Selig for Rose to get a one-day reprieve from his punishment so they can honor him on Sept. 11 at Great American Ballpark on the 25th anniversary of the hit that moved him past Ty Cobb for the all-time record -- only to have former commissioner Fay Vincent blast Selig, griping that rules are rules.)
Gone is the defiance that Rose exhibited during his many fights against his critics, or within the pages of "My Prison Without Bars," the 2004 book in which he finally admitted that he had bet on baseball games during his four seasons as Reds manager -- and then spent a couple hundred pages rationalizing why his punishment didn't fit his crime.
Rose's 15-year refusal to admit what he did was quixotic, it was desperate, and it was arrogant -- all traits that Clemens is accused of displaying now.
Clemens has been labeled as everything from the white Barry Bonds to the co-poster child of the Steroid Era since his former personal trainer, Brian McNamee, told baseball investigator George Mitchell and then Congress that Clemens used HGH; and Clemens' former teammate and training partner, Andy Pettitte, seconded McNamee's story.
But more than anything, Clemens' insistence on his innocence makes him look like the Second Coming of Pete Rose. Same bulldog mentality. Same righteous indignation.
Either Clemens is truly innocent, or he's perpetrating one of the more remarkable, ill-advised and self-destructive fictions that baseball has seen since, well, Rose. Clemens has only himself to blame for angrily pushing for the 2008 Congressional hearing and his under-oath testimony that is now the crux of the government's case against him.
Rose, who has watched the Clemens case from afar, says if Clemens is indeed lying, his advice to him would be simple.
"I wish I had come clean the day they had called me into the [commissioner's] office in 1989 -- I do," Rose says. "Because I would've saved myself a lot of grief, a lot of everything. Money, you name it. The thing that was so hard for me is I had a lot of respect for the game, and I was respected for that while I was in the game. And I miss that, you know? But I messed up, I messed up!"
Rose -- who says he can recall meeting Clemens only once and found him to be "a prince of a guy" -- sees many resemblances between Clemens and himself.
"When I look at Roger, I just think Roger is a competitor, and he's got it in his craw that he's gonna go to his grave saying he didn't do this," Rose says. "I think Roger is adamant that he's just not going to admit this is something he did. They'll probably give him a plea bargain opportunity. And he'll probably not take it. Why? Because he thinks his whole reputation and everything he's ever done is on the line. If he goes down, it seems like he's made up his mind that he's gonna go down fighting.
"But one thing I don't like about Roger's case is [that] I have no reason to think Andy Pettitte would lie. And that bothers me. Is it possible Andy made a mistake, this or that? I don't know. But if Andy Pettitte says it happened, well then I don't know what to think about Roger."
Sighing now, Rose adds, "It's like a lot of things in the past, honey. You only realize you're wrong after it's too late."
Regardless of what you think about Rose's style or personality, it's indisputable that no one in baseball's modern era has paid a steeper price for transgressions against the game than he has.
Rose's sin -- gambling -- is worse than using steroids because his impact on the integrity of the games he managed was a surer thing. Bonds could have been steroid-addled and still struck out a zillion times instead of smacking home runs so hard the ball seemed to go smearing across the night sky like a white streak of greasepaint. Clemens could've been juiced to the gills and still thrown his fastball all the way to the backstop again and again rather than nip the corners of the plate.
It's natural to wonder if parts of Rose's storyline aren't a glimpse at the future Clemens can expect if he's convicted: Denials, followed by a humbling confession, followed by prison time and pariah status in some corners of the game.
Again, Rose understands how it came to this.
When asked years ago why he denied gambling for 15 years, Rose shot back, "I didn't think I'd get caught."
That's the most sobering thing that Rose, Clemens or anyone who tries to outrun the truth has to face.
The truth is never out of breath.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.