Wednesday, April 28, 1999

Cereal crime: Wheaties can't re-serve Rose




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Breakfast of Champions never had a better huckster than Pete Rose.

        On the afternoon of his 4,192nd hit, with road-weary sportswriters scrambling to squeeze another story out of a pregame press conference, Rose was asked about the source of his energy.

        “Well,” he said, a conspiratorial smile on his lips, “the only place I can think of is THIS.”

        With that, the soon-to-be-crowned Hit King yanked open his warm-up jacket to reveal a Wheaties T-shirt (and impeccable comic timing). It produced the loudest laugh ever heard at Riverfront Stadium, including the Dave Shula era.

        Rose was always fast on his feet, especially when there was endorsement money to be made. His face was already on Wheaties boxes and billboards when he stepped in front of the microphones Sept.11, 1985, but he saw no harm in giving General Mills a little extra bang for its bucks.

        The cereal maker, sadly, is unable to reciprocate.

A marketing nightmare
        In observance of its 75th anniversary, Wheaties will be re-releasing 10 of its original packages this month. Rose was not among the honorees announced Monday, nor was he even included among the 75 names on the ballot. The 200,000 consumers who responded to Wheaties' poll were allowed to vote for such obscure immortals as aviator Elinor Smith and the fictional Jack Armstrong, but the exiled Hit King was eligible only as a write-in candidate.

        “In order for the different athletes to appear on the ballot, we needed to work out deals with them for their appearances,” Wheaties spokesman Gregory Zimprich said Tuesday. “There have been over 500 different people on the box over the years, and we tried to cut across different sports and different eras.”

        That's the PR answer, but it fails to get to the point. It doesn't explain why Rose would be excluded from a ballot that included less accomplished contemporaries such as Joe Horlen, Tim McCarver and Tom Tresh.

        Left unsaid is that Rose has become a pariah in mainstream marketing and that re-releasing a box bearing his photograph in a Reds uniform could raise licensing issues with Major League Baseball. He's become more hassle than he's worth.

        “The rule is that he's not allowed to appear (in uniform) in a commercially oriented program,” said Reds marketing director Cal Levy, “unless it's in a group photo with historical context.”

        When Rose agreed to a permanent suspension from Major League Baseball in 1989, he naively boasted that he would be back the following year. Yet barring a sudden surge of compassion from Bud Selig, Rose will observe the 10th anniversary of his banishment this summer, still waiting for his application for reinstatement to be processed.

        Selig has seen no reason to reconsider Rose's case — no change in lifestyle, no real contrition — and Rose has signed away his right to sue. What Rose may not have understood in August 1989, however, was he also had signed away a significant portion of his earning power.

Lost wages, lost cause
        Rose cannot commission any uniformed figurines or collector's plates or any of the schlock souvenirs spawned by the massive sports memorabilia industry. If his picture were to appear on a Wheaties box now, it would probably have to be in street clothes or as part of a group portrait of The Big Red Machine.

        Given Rose's gambling habits, the licensing embargo represents a serious infringement on his cash flow. Much as he covets a plaque in Cooperstown, the idea of lost income probably grates Rose even more.

        Once, Rose's representatives thought the licensing issue was his best shot at reinstatement; that baseball was not only denying him employment but also limiting his opportunity to make a living. There was some talk of litigation, despite Rose's agreement not to sue. Empty threats, evidently.

        Rose's exile has been long on promises and short on action. He talks angrily but behaves apathetically. He must not be eating his Wheaties

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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