When the leaders of a Royersford church in this Montgomery County community wanted to offer a Sunday teaching on second chances, they turned to an expert: Pete Rose.
Famously banned from baseball for betting on games as a manager, Rose took a seat on a brightly lit stage at Christ's Church of the Valley to talk about his life in the game and why he should be allowed back into it.
"I was wrong," Rose said of his gambling.
But this was not part of a Pete Rose rehabilitation tour. It was a special appearance, at the invitation of the church, in the year that marks the 25th anniversary of Rose's banishment and the 10th anniversary of his admission of guilt.
Rose, among the game's all-time greatest players, told the congregation that drug users and alcoholics in baseball had been given second and third chances. He said he surely couldn't be the only one ever to have bet on games. And yet in the eyes of baseball, "they wish I would die tomorrow, because then I'd be out of their hair."
Among sports fans, the debate over whether Rose should be reinstated has become its own kind of national pastime. Though he spent most of his career with the Cincinnati Reds, he remains popular in the Philadelphia area for having helped lead the Phillies to their first World Series championship in 1980.
On a rainy, gloomy Sunday, the church drew more than 1,000 people to hear Rose during its first service, and perhaps 500 more during its second, with a third still ahead. Among them were young boys who wanted to see a baseball legend, old men in Phillies caps who remember the glory days, and lots of people who came just because it's their church.
"We're hoping we're getting unchurched people here," said Pat Shifflet, 74, of Norristown, a veteran Christ's Church member who, in a red Phillies cap and rain poncho, was helping direct people through the doors.
Expecting an overflow crowd, many Sunday regulars parked at a satellite lot and traveled to the church in buses marked as Pete Rose Appearance shuttles. It turned out there was plenty of room outside and inside the large church, where Rose found supporters.
"I wanted to see him and tell him to hang in there," said Lou Marinari, 59, of Conshohocken, who wore a Rose T-shirt emblazoned, "Lift the Ban," and who came to the church with his wife, daughter, and grandchildren. "Everyone does deserve a second chance."
The idea of inviting Rose emerged during a discussion of possible themes for weekly teachings, according to Pastor Brian Jones. Someone mentioned the topic of second chances, and then the question arose of who could share a story. Somebody suggested Rose, and the baseball great agreed to come. After that, the news media began calling, Jones said.
The pastor declined to specify what fee Rose charged for his appearance, except to say, "He gave us a very generous, nonprofit discount."
In an interview, Jones said the Bible speaks to the need to give people another chance. And it's time Rose was offered one, he said. Rose has admitted his mistakes and paid his debt, Jones said.
"When I pick up USA Today and I see a picture of Barry Bonds as a hitting coach in Major League Baseball, there's a disparity there," Jones said. In baseball, gambling is somehow the one unpardonable sin, he added.
Rose, he said, is the kind of person who might typically come to independent Christ's Church, because it reaches out to those who are not traditionally religious but who are looking for meaning and purpose. Royersford itself is hardly Las Vegas or New York, a community of 4,800 perhaps best known as one of the filming sites for The Lovely Bones, the Mark Wahlberg movie.
Jones interviewed Rose on stage. And Rose, 72, was funny and relaxed, telling stories about playing with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, about the games he won and the records he holds, about playing with Phillies greats such as Mike Schmidt and Larry Bowa, and about crashing into opposing catcher Ray Fosse during the 1970 All-Star game.
He joked about the futility of the Chicago Cubs: "Do you know what God told the Cubs? Don't do nothing till I get back."
A few times he mentioned church and religion, slapping a high-five with the preacher and musing about what he might ask Jesus in a conversation:
"I want to ask him who the hell is going to win the game tomorrow, the Cardinals or the Reds? Not that I'm going to bet on it," Rose said, provoking laughter and applause.
Rose holds baseball records for most hits (4,256), games played (3,562), and at-bats (14,053), among many others. He has three World Series rings, three batting titles, a Most Valuable Player Award, and made 17 All-Star appearances.
In 1989, though, Rose was banned, including from what was his once-certain entrance to the Hall of Fame, for betting on games while manager of the Reds. In 2004, he admitted to the charges in an autobiography, My Prison Without Bars. Today, he maintains a full schedule of personal appearances and autograph signings, a job that Sports Illustrated says earns him $1 million a year.
"No matter how many times you say you're sorry," Rose said on Sunday, "somebody is not going to hear you."
He advised that anyone who has a problem or who has done wrong should speak up and admit it, because it won't stay secret. He initially thought he would be suspended for a year then be allowed to seek reinstatement, he said.
"I can't complain about my situation," Rose said, "because I'm the one that screwed up. If somebody is gracious enough to give me a second chance, I won't need a third."