COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) _ In the gospel according to Dr. Peter Merrill, ''Pete Rose should be forgiven, not forgotten.''

And if ''Charlie Hustle'' isn't on the Hall of Fame ballot by Labor Day, Merrill says he will go ahead with his plans to erect a Pete Rose memorial as close to the Hall of Fame as possible.

''That way, people will see Pete when they come to the Hall of Fame,'' said Merrill, pastor of the tiny Hallton Church of Christ in Austin, Pa.

A statue of Pete Rose smack-dab in the middle of Cooperstown? Is he kidding?

''It sounds to me like he's serious,'' said Don Olin, a local realtor who has spoken with Merrill about the purchase of land for the project. ''I don't know.''

He is.

Merrill, who met Rose once at a baseball card show, already has taken some preliminary steps - he's formed the Pete Rose Memorial Fund and rented a post office box here, although he hasn't received any letters yet.

''I've had a lot of offers, but I'm holding off until I get better organized,'' said the soft-spoken, 55-year-old Merrill, who's looking for volunteers.

Merrill, a self-proclaimed champion of the underdog, also has begun a letter-writing campaign, addressing his outrage in the form of a position paper to such baseball higher-ups as Commissioner Fay Vincent.

''The monument could detract from the glory of previous players in the Hall, and I do not like the thought of that,'' Merrill writes in his paper. ''But, neither do I like the thought of gutless decisions. ... Rose has been called out and we think he was safe. ... Errors happen, players screw up. Mistakes are part of baseball. Mistakes are part of life.''

Rose was placed on baseball's permanently ineligible list by former Commissioner Bart Giamatti in 1989 after an investigation into allegations that baseball's all-time hit leader and one-time Reds manager bet on games. The Hall of Fame voted unanimously in February to take his name off the ballot until he is reinstated.

Rose, who would have been eligible for election in November, does have a presence in Cooperstown, however. There are nearly two dozen mementos of his career on display at the Hall of Fame museum.

The Hall of Fame has declined to comment on Merrill's monument, but Cooperstonians seem to think the idea would be a monumental mistake.

''I can think of a great spot - up by the jail,'' Margaret Savoy said. ''Let's immortalize what he's done wrong.''

''Sounds like a vendetta against the Hall of Fame or the village,'' said Hugh MacDougall, a former village trustee.

''I don't think it's a necessary thing to have around,'' Olin said. ''Cooperstown is a very nice, neat little town. If you start doing things like that, then what do you have? Everybody and their brother comes along and wants to erect statues for somebody else.''

Cooperstown does have a few historical markers. The Sandlot Kid guards the entrance to historic Doubleday Field where, as local legend proclaims, Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball in 1839. And there are statues in honor of Natty Bumppo - better known in fiction as the Deerslayer - and his creator, author James Fenimore Cooper.

And just what does the good reverend have in mind?

''I'd like to see something that suggests motion, like Pete sliding into third base,'' said Merrill, who doesn't care where the statue is built, although he'd prefer it close to the Hall of Fame. ''Pete Rose sliding into third is representative of every man. Every man's going to be called out or safe.''

It's safe to say that Merrill will face a stiff fight.

''We have an ordinance that sets certain standards for monuments,'' Olin said. ''You can't just put up a monument, even on private property. It's got to have historical significance and be approved by the planning board.''

The five-member planning board appears to be a tough bunch. When a local family wanted to put up a plaque in a village park to honor their son, who grew up here and was killed in a terrorist attack on a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, the board said no.

''I've heard about them,'' Merrill said. ''They're probably thinking about it now. They've probably already passed a law.

''But they'll find out. Once I get my mind on something, I don't give up. They can't keep me out.''

The board, over which the Hall of Fame has traditionally held substantial sway, isn't the only obstacle.

''He'll never have it on Main Street, I know that,'' Olin said. ''There's no place to put it. There's no land available.''

Actually, there is a spot available about a block away from the Hall of Fame, but the asking price is pretty steep - $110,000.

''That's a lot. It's going to depend on how the people of Cincinnati react.'' said Merrill, who figures he'll need about $500,000 for the project. ''It seems like a lot, but if everybody who goes to Cincinnati Reds games gave up a beer and a hot dog, we'd have the money right there.''

Merrill, who said he hopes to attract some attention at the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in July, remains undaunted. Besides, this is not just about some statue as far as he's concerned.

''I'm trying to put as much spiritual input into this thing as I can,'' Merrill said. ''To me, this thing is larger than a monument. You can't keep a person down all his life. It's not just a monument to Pete Rose, it's a monument to humanity.''

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