(Trainer Bob Baffert and Medina Spirit the day after the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby / Photos by Holly M. Smith)

I had a first row seat for nearly the entire time that Pete Rose was the player-manager of the Cincinnati Reds back in the 1980s.

I was there when General Manager Bob Howsam, on his second tour of duty in Cincinnati, negotiated the trade with the Montreal Expos to bring Cincinnati’s most favorite son — and best baseball player ever — back to the Queen City.

I was there when Rose made his triumphant return and took up residence in the manager’s office and first scribbled his name on the scorecard.

I was there in Spring Training when Rose would outwork every player under his command, and made sure that he, his teammates and his players were ready for the season to begin.

I was there in Chicago when Rose tied the great Ty Cobb as the game’s all-time hit leader in a game that, ironically enough, ended in a tie.

I was there in Cincinnati the night when Rose dropped a single in front of San Diego Padres’ left fielder Carmelo Martinez and off of pitcher Eric Show to become the sport’s greatest hitter. Ever.

As a reporter and columnist for “The Lexington Herald-Leader,” back in those days, I got the rare and grand opportunity to cover the Cincinnati Reds. It was one of the most amazing jobs I have ever had the chance to do, and I loved every second of it. Every. Second.

At the same time, Pete Rose gave me the most rare and grandest of opportunities, too. For some reason, he took a liking to me. And, for some reason, he gave me access and availability that he offered to few in the newspaper business. It was one of the most amazing times in my life, and I loved every second of it. Every. Second.

As a result of both of those realities colliding in time, I got to see things that very few people could ever see. I got to know things that very few people could ever know. Not only did I get to peek a look from under the circus tent, I got invited in. I got a front row seat. On some occasions, I got access to stories and storylines I would have never known otherwise. On other occasions, I was sworn to secrecy and had to commit to things that were totally “off the record.” I was religiously sworn to both.

And, I got to make friendships and build relationships that have extended to this very day.

I got to be best of friends with Rob Murphy, who was a relief pitcher for the Reds back in those days. He made his living getting the likes of Barry Bonds out on a regular basis. But he was just as comfortable with talking Thoroughbreds and pedigrees as he was throwing his fastball 90+ miles per hour or dropping a splitter on the toes of Mark McGuire. We spent many a day (and nights) talking about both sports.

I got to be very close friends with Pete Rose, too. We spent many hours together on the field and in the dugout. We spent many more talking about horses and handicapping. I enjoyed both. Immensely. I think Pete did, too. I am convinced of it.

I was not there in 1989, though, when the news broke that Pete Rose had been accused of betting on baseball — the unforgivable sin in a sport that had so many. I was not there when Pete was banned from the game that he loved first and foremost and forever. I was not covering the Reds anymore. I had moved on in my professional career and was the Executive Vice President of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders’ Association.

But it was not long into the miserable media hysteria that followed that awful announcement before Pete and I found a way to chat over the phone. He was looking for a friend. He was searching for advice and counsel. He may have been looking for any port in the storm. And, I was willing to listen and help. That’s what friends do. In good times. In bad. At least, that is what I think friends do.

Late one night, I looked down and saw the phone was ringing. I saw the number, too. I answered the call. And, I had a conversation that I will never, ever forget.

It was Pete. And, he wanted to talk. So, we talked.

After a few seconds of pregame announcements, I broke the momentary silence and I asked my friend how he was doing; how he was holding up; how he was dealing with things; what he was going to do.

Pete, always the tough guy and always the optimist, slide into the conversion as he did a bang-bang play at the plate. Head first. Full tilt. Never expecting to be out. Always intent on being safe.

I remember him saying, over and over and over, as if he was trying to convince himself as much as me:

“I didn’t do it.”

“It never happened.”

“The facts will prove me right.”

“I will be back; you watch and see.”

“I don’t cheat.”

“I play to win, but I have never cheated.”

Those sentences may not be direct quotes. But Pete’s words — paraphrased above — were very direct and to the point.

He was going to fight for his baseball life with as much piss and vigor as he took on New York Met’s shortstop Buddy Harrelson. He was not going to take a brush-back pitch from the Dowd Report any more than he was going to let Bob Gibson or Don Drysdale or anyone else knock him off the plate.

He was hell bent on denial.

He was hell bent on winning.

He was hell bent on being back on top.

As the conversation was winding down, and as we were getting ready for goodbye, Pete never asked for my judgment. He was too proud to do that. But he did, in a roundabout way, ask what I would do in the same situation.

I remember telling my friend two things:

If you are right and you are being falsely accused, then you should stand up. Firm. And, you should fight. For truth. Forever.

But…

If you are wrong, and you are guilty? Then, it is time for confession, conversion, and a genuine request for forgiveness. I remember, as if it was yesterday, reminding Pete that people will forgive the sin. Eventually. For the most part. But that people will never forgive him of both the sin and the lie to cover it up. It is always the cover up that is the worst.

Well, you know the rest of the story, as far as it concerns Pete. Truly, it is one of the saddest stories in the history of sports, and, in all honesty, life. As you know all too well, Pete still is banned from the game and life that he loves most for his indiscretions and poor decisions. He is banned from the game’s Hall of Fame, where he truly does belong. He is isolated. For most, he remains an outcast.

I have not talked to Pete since my Dad’s passing. (That’s another story for another day.) But I am reminded of him and his battles so much in these recent days.

I am reminded each day now since the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby. Since the announcement that Medina Spirit tested positive for a drug overage. And, since all the media circus that has been turned on to and for by trainer Bob Baffert.

And, I am worried that horse racing’s Pete Rose may be headed — head first — into making the same mistakes; the same poor decisions; the same miscalculations. And, that Baffert, too, may end up with the same results.

If he is found guilty?

He could be banished. He should be banished.

He could be an outcast. He should be an outcast.

My advice to Bob, if he were to ask and surely he has not, would be the exact same thing as I said to Pete during the early days of his debacle:

If you are right and you are being falsely accused, then you should stand up. Firm. And, you should fight. For truth. Forever.

But…

If you are wrong, and you are guilty? Then, it is time for confession, conversion, and a genuine request for forgiveness.

I would tell Bob the same thing that I told Pete:

People will forgive the sin. Eventually. For the most part. But people will never forgive both the sin and the lie to cover it up. It is always the cover up that is the worst.

I don’t know the answer to Baffert’s current situation. I hope that we will get the facts. Sooner rather than latter. Truth be known, we all deserve to know the facts.

But I do know this, to be sure:

Baffert’s current position and his gorging on media opportunities to wage a PR war is 180-degrees from what I think he should do; what he could do; what this sport and the history of the Kentucky Derby deserves him to do.

No matter how the “positive” has happened this time, there is no argument that Bob Baffert’s pattern of professional behavior warrants a full and complete make-over. The on-slaught of postive  drug tests in recent years and months and resulting from his horses — and on the biggest of stages — not only casts serious doubts, it also demands corrections.

I am positive that his list of recent “positives” is truly becoming a serious negative. For our sport. For our game. For us all.

Instead of another round of denials and lawsuits…

Instead of another round of “lawyering up” and fighting regulations…

Instead of another round of spin-doctoring that only compares to possible veterinarian doctoring…

Why not do this:

One, give Medina Spirit to Todd Pletcher and Concert Tour to Shug McGaughey this weekend and allow them to train the horses going into the Preakness Stakes. Give the horses and their respective owners a chance to enjoy the moment without the bitter hangover of this controversy.

Two, shut down the barn operation and not enter any more horses at this time until there is a complete overhaul of the staff — from assistant Jimmy Barnes to the veterinarian team to the farrier on shoe patrol — to ensure credible and clean horses on race day. Every day.

Three, go out and hire a former, high-ranking member of law enforcement to take over security for any and all Baffert barn operations. And, give this person carte blanche in developing protocols and procedures that will ensure compliance with all rules and regulations. All thresholds. As they exist today. Not as you want them to be.

Four, hire a competent veterinarian and staff that knows how and when to check on any and all medications before applying or administering them to any horse in the barn. Would it not make sense? Who, for God’s sake, authorized anybody to rub a medication on any horse’s ass for any skin condition if you didn’t know what the medication could or would do. Come on, man. The horse’s ass in question here may not be Medina Spirit’s in this case, after all.

Five, instead of bashing Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Racing Commission — who are only doing their jobs to ensure the credibility of the most important race in the history of all horse races — why not come forward and announce that you and your staff will do everything in your power to discover why; what; how; when in coordination with them? They are not the enemy, Bobby. They are here to protect the integrity of the sport that you have the privilege to participate in and profit from. You should want the same damn thing.

You do not have a right to train horses, Bobby. No matter what you have done. No matter what you have accomplished. It is a privilege. Don’t forget that fact.

And…

If you are truly innocent, why not take the high road? Why not fix the image and the problems causing them at the same time?

Until Baffert is willing to spend as much energy and money on this approach — rather than the massive sums he’s spending on legal fees and media consultants — count me now as a skeptic. Until Baffert is willing to do what is right, then I suspect now that something could be wrong. Badly wrong.

Every time I talk to my great and longtime Pete Rose these days, and it has been awhile, I am saddened by what has happened to him. If only he had made better choices — both before the sin and afterwards — maybe it could have worked out differently. Maybe his life would have worked out better. Maybe his retirement and “golden days” would be brighter and more full of happiness.

Every time I think of Pete these days, I now think of Bob Baffert, too. I hope for Bob’s sake — and our sport’s sake — that he does not fall into the same traps; makes the same mistakes; suffers from the same results.

It would be a real shame.

It would be a sad theme.