ATHENS, Tenn. -- It sounds implausible today. The heart and soul of Cincinnati's Big Red Machine becoming the charter member of a Big Orange Machine?

Pete Rose a Tennessee Volunteer?

"You know, I almost played football there," Rose said Saturday evening, a couple of hours before being the featured speaker at a fundraising banquet for the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce.

"They were ready to fly me down and everything. But at the last minute I decided I was going to stick with baseball. I probably wouldn't have gotten in anyway. I wasn't real strong academically."

The sports world usually focuses on something else Rose isn't likely to get in -- baseball's Hall of Fame. Despite being the all-time leader in hits (4,256), games played (3,562), at-bats (14,053) and outs (10,328), Rose's admitted gambling on baseball will almost assuredly keep him out of the Hall forever.

"I bet on my team to win every night because I love my team, I believe in my team," Rose told ESPN in 2007. "I made a big mistake. But if an owner don't want to win and draw people, don't call my number (to manage again). I'm the best ambassador baseball has."

It's doubtful anyone will call on Rose to manage again. First, his ban from baseball would have to be lifted by commissioner Bud Selig. Second, he's 68 years old and spends at least half his time in Las Vegas, which would hardly be a venue from which to argue you no longer gamble.

But judging from those who showed up at Tennessee Wesleyan College to hear Rose speak, collect his autograph and have pictures made with him, he might be right about the ambassador part.

And given the current state of the game, its recent record-breakers marred by steroids, one could even argue Rose looks better every day.

"I was playing T-ball in Louisville, Kentucky," said 42-year-old Ted Gocke, who introduced Rose at the banquet after having him sign a 1985 Wheaties box bearing the player's photo.

"My team -- we were the Reds, naturally -- went to Riverfront for a game. We were along the outfield wall. We started yelling at Pete. He waved to us. That was 1973. From that day on I wore No. 14 in every sport I played."

Said Gocke's son Trent: "This is pretty cool. It's nice to know where my number in soccer and baseball came from."

Matt Mason, 37, grew up in Athens, a cousin of former Wesleyan star pitcher Tom Browning. When Browning eventually was managed by Rose during his time with the Reds in the late 1980s, Mason occasionally went to Florida for spring training.

"I'm just here to see him," said Mason, who brought both a 1979 Rose baseball card and his 11-year-old son Riley to meet Charlie Hustle. "I've always been a big fan."

There's no bigger Reds fan than Bob Kesling, the Voice of the Vols. An Ohio native, Kesling's memory of Reds history is almost as good as that of Rose, who starred as a running back at Cincy's Western Hills High.

"I get to be a fan for a night," Kesling said as he posed for a photo with Rose. "I was just wondering if you remembered a game in St. Louis in 1968 when a fight broke out."

Said Rose almost instantly: "Remember it? (Bob) Gibson was throwing a no-hitter for the Cardinals. (Tony) Perez got into an argument with (St. Louis) first baseman Orlando Cepeda. That wasn't a fight. That was a donnybrook."

That's not all Rose remembered, of course. He may have lost some of his spiky hair, but his mind remains as sharp as his hitting eye.

When someone asked him about the late Roberto Clemente, who was killed in a plane crash in 1972, Rose said, "I knew Roberto well. Going into the final game of the 1969 season, we were 1-2 in batting. If I went 0-for-4 and he went 4-for-4, he'd beat me. I was 0-for-3 for my first three at-bats and he was 3-for-3. I got a bunt single in my final at-bat to beat him out."

Of course, Rose remains so proud of his hitting that on the right point of his shirt collar are stitched the words "Hit King."

Not that he's only proud of his own prowess with the bat. Ask about Pete Jr., who once played for the Chattanooga Lookouts, Rose said, "He's doing great. He just started playing for a team in York, Pa. I think he's 8-for-15 so far."

Befitting a guy who showed up at a Christian college in the South dripping in gold, clad in mid-gray pinstripe suit and white leather boots, Rose still embraces his gambling image.

He even told a story of one of his earliest bets.

"We moved into Riverfront Stadium from Crosley Field in late June," said Rose. "Right after our final game at Crosley, I told Perez, 'I'll bet you $150 that I'll be the first person to (go to the bathroom) at Riverfront. He said, 'You're on.'

"On the first day it opened, I was there at 11 in the morning for a 7 p.m. game. Perez showed up at 11:10. We'd do anything to make money in those days."

Those days are long gone, as is Rose from Cincinnati. He now splits his time between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, making his money on speaking engagements, appearances and baseball memorabilia shows.

As for the current state of baseball, Rose says, "I wasn't a power hitter, so I don't know that the steroid era makes much difference to me. But if I was a Roger Maris, or Babe Ruth - who I still think is the best ever - or Hank Aaron, I might be upset with these guys. Of course, I don't know much about steroids, but from what I've seen I might have gotten 5,000 hits with them."

He's also not terribly happy about the plight of pitchers in today's hits-happy majors.

"Everything is for the hitter," Rose said. "Baseball made an evaluation that hitters would bring people back. They've built smaller ballparks and shrunk the strike zone, and it's all working.

"So here I am in Athens, Tenn., defending pitchers, and I hate pitchers."

What he doesn't seem upset about is his absence from the Hall of Fame.

"Would I love to make it? Absolutely," he said. "But I don't go to bed at night praying I'll make it to the Hall of Fame. I go to bed at night praying I'll wake up the next morning."