Pete Rose lied for 14 years. Fine.

Keeping him out of the Baseball Hall of Fame for betting is like keeping the Rolling Stones out of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame for using drugs.

If the best aren't there, what's the point?

Rose admitted this week that he bet on baseball games while managing the Cincinnati Reds. This was in contrast to what he said for years. But with time running out on his chance for enshrinement, he reversed field. The admission coincided with the release of his autobiography.

In the book, he denies ever trying to fix games and says he didn't bet against the Reds. Unfortunately, I trust Rose as far as I can throw David Wells. But that doesn't mean he should spend the rest of his life in exile.

Rose visited Salt Lake City in 1997, promoting a company for which he was a spokesman. He was more appealing than I expected. He wasn't apologetic, but he still had a sort of roguish charm — talkative, humorous, approachable. Naturally, he knew why several news outlets were there.

"Go ahead," he winked. "Ask me the question you're all here for."

Rose was just beginning the process of applying for baseball reinstatement. So someone asked why he felt he should be allowed back.

"Why? Because we just felt that baseball has almost got its house in order — and I guess what I'm saying is the game is on the rise again and a lot of positive things are happening," said Rose. "For those who say why now, I say why not now? We just feel like now is the time."

But even in admitting he bet on games, he was in denial. He spoke of baseball getting "its house in order" but didn't mention his own.

Over the years he has passed through various stages. First, he denied betting at all. Then he denied betting on baseball. Next, he refused to admit he bet on Reds games. Now he's admitting he did all of the above.

The player who collected more hits (4,256) than any player in history has come clean, one excruciating step at a time.

The latest admission could pave the way for his reinstatement and land him in the Hall of Fame. He is ineligible to be on the ballot until he is cleared by baseball, and his last chance to make the ballot is in 2005.

It's not hard to see Rose's motive. He wants in the hall, and the only way he'll get there is to be pardoned. He isn't trying to do what's best for baseball, he's doing what's best for Pete. Meanwhile, he's selling books, too.

Still, Rose isn't the game's first bad boy. Babe Ruth was said to be a drunk and a philanderer, Ty Cobb a nasty and cantankerous man that many insist was a racist. Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic who played some games through bloodshot eyes. Gaylord Perry doctored baseballs. It could be argued that each compromised the integrity of the game in some degree. Yet they're all in the Hall of Fame.

When it comes to admitting questionable characters, the barn door was opened long ago.

The hall isn't a museum of role models, it's a collection of the greatest players in history. Sammy Sosa, a sure Hall of Famer, will be honored despite being a notorious bat-corker. Heaven knows how many players will enter, having spent their careers on performance-enhancing drugs.

The Hall of Fame election ballot states that voting should be conducted on the basis of "playing record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team." But if character and integrity are what the dictionary indicates, they may as well toss out a large chunk of the current honorees.

Halls of fame speak of character and integrity, but ultimately they're about the greatest players in their sport. Without them, it's a joke. Rose remains one of the best baseball players ever, thrilling fans with his all-out play. He competed as hard as anyone in history. There's no getting around the fact he was a gambler and a liar. But there's also no ignoring that the Hall of Fame is incomplete without the man who got more hits than anyone.

It's time to let him in, and the baseball writers will soon agree. Bet on it.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com