“Pete Rose: Hits & Mrs.” has baseball great stepping up to the reality-show plate

A lot of people view Pete Rose these days with a mixture of anger and pity. Anger that his long-ago sin of betting on baseball games still keeps the sport’s all-time hit king out of the Hall of Fame, and pity at the sad caricature they think he’s become. Maybe they saw that melancholy documentary that shows Rose making his living sitting at Caesars Palace hawking autographs and telling stories of his glory days. They see him trotted out occasionally at WWE events and wonder how he could have fallen so far. And now, perhaps the ultimate indignity, he’s starring in a reality show with his much, much, much younger fiance — a former Playboy model, no less — on the same network that gave the world Honey Boo Boo.

Pete Rose and fiance Kiana Kim star in TLC's "Pete Rose: Hits & Mrs"But to talk with Rose, and yes, even to watch the first two episodes of Pete Rose: Hits & Mrs., you’d never know this was a guy who’s supposed to be all broken up about his life. The 71-year-old is clearly having a good time these days, making the media rounds with fiance Kiana Kim as they unabashedly peddle their six-part series, which premieres on TLC Jan. 14 at 10pm. The show follows their life together in all its unconventional glory — he’s nearly 40 years older than she is, he’s a blue-collar American guy while she comes from a traditional Korean family, she lives near Los Angeles with her two children, ages 14 and 11, while he lives half the time in Las Vegas.

Rose and Kim are readily aware of how this must look. The washed-up athlete desperate to get back in the spotlight takes up with a fame-hungry young sexpot, and now they’re packaging their lives in some fake reality-show model hoping to make a quick buck. While neither claims they’re doing Hits & Mrs. for charity, they also say they’re hoping to change the public’s perception of them both as a couple and as individuals.

“One of the reasons I did it is to try to get people to understand who I am more, and what kind of person I am,” Rose says. “I’m not the aggressive, ass-kicking athlete that they were used to seeing knocking catchers down and yelling at pitchers and knocking second basemen down. Hey, when I got through with the game, I was a nice guy.”

For Kim, it’s all about establishing her own identity, one that was forged long before she met the legendary slugger.

“Naturally, they see an older man with a younger girl, they think she’s using him, you know, all those gold-digging remarks that we hear,” she says. “We just laugh because it’s so opposite. When Pete met me, I had my own stuff going on. I had my college degree, and then after that I got my real estate license, and owned a business, raised two kids. So after seeing that part of my life, people will say, ‘Well, she’s a lot more mature than we had expected.'”

The two seem to share an easy comfort with each other, and this extends to their families as well, with Rose meshing comfortably with Kim’s youngsters — who have little to no idea of their future stepdad’s baseball past — and Kim’s parents. Rose turns the language barrier into a source of humor that can feel a little rough around the edges, but makes everyone laugh just the same. He says the age difference, far from being a hindrance, actually feeds their relationship.

“I don’t quite understand this, but people in the press worry about an age difference more so than we do,” he says. “As long as we’re happy with it, I don’t understand why everybody else is concerned. I’m not the first older guy to date a younger woman. I can name you three or four guys that you’ve heard of: Letterman, Trump, Larry King. They all did the same type of thing, and it worked for them. It’s amazing how people worry about that more than her or I do. We make each other laugh, we have a good time together, being around her kids is fun. Neither one of us drink, neither one of us smoke. We spend a lot of time in Vegas, but we’re not clubgoers. We’ve got a lot of similarities. She keeps me on my toes and keeps me young with her energy, which is something you need. Misery loves company, but energy and enthusiasm loves company, too.”

Kim is also on board with Rose’s quest to get back into baseball’s good graces. Even though she hadn’t heard of him when they met — yet she had heard of Rose’s longtime rival Steve Garvey, because he played for Kim’s hometown Dodgers — she’s right there with Rose, even pushing him at times to try to get an audience with commissioner Bud Selig. The fight to get into Cooperstown will be a part of Hits & Mrs., although it’s hard to tell how a reality show will help his chances. If anything, the recent debate brought up about the sport’s steroid era, which resulted in otherwise surefire candidates like Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro not getting voted in, could cause everyone to re-evaluate Rose’s case.

It’s been a fight he’s waged since 1989, but only in the past few years has Rose actually admitted to betting on games when he was the manager of the Cincinnati Reds. But while his desire to get there is wholly understandable, one could see how a man now in his 70s might want to just let it go. Then again, Rose didn’t earn the moniker Charlie Hustle for his tendency to give up.

“In my case, it’s just trying to get what you earned, but at the same time knowing that you’re not getting what you earned because you screwed up,” he says. “I’m not bitter at the Hall of Fame, or bitter at anybody that’s around the Hall of Fame or anybody that votes for the Hall of Fame because I know the reason I’m not there is my fault. You can complain about it all you want, but it’s not going to do any good. You just keep striving forward and hope you get a second chance.”

Even if we don’t see him in Cooperstown anytime soon, it’s quite possible we’ll be seeing him on TLC for a while. Kim says the couple enjoyed making this first batch of episodes, and are all but planning on a Season 2.

“Pete is synonymous with success, and he’s not going to do anything if he doesn’t think it’s going to be successful,” she says. “I’m the same way. So we expect it to be a hit.”

That would be hit No. 4,257, for those keeping track.

Photo: Credit: TLC