The finish on Pete Rose's new $7,500 automobile has been burnished to a bright black shine and a galaxy of lights adorns hood and bumpers. The front and back are garnished with green and white Ohio license plates which read 14-PR and there is vinyl and fiber glass all over the car. It is a 1973 version of the 1934 Model A Ford and they only turn out three a day. "I had to have it," Rose said last week. "I like the old look in things. Bow ties. Caps. Big cuffs on the pants. I put my 3-year-old son in the back and drive him around all the time. I don't want him growing up without the chance to see at least some part of his life from a rumble seat."
Baseball players like Pete Rose, of course, are turned out at a rate of about one a decade, and they are worth considerably more than $7,500. They have a style, a verve, some inner compulsion to push themselves so hard that it gets transmitted to the kids in the bleachers and into the fantasies of aging men as well. With 20 games remaining in what by last weekend had developed into the most astonishing of all National League Septembers—eight of 12 teams were still legitimate contenders—Rose, now 32 and in his 11th major league season, had already driven himself to 204 hits as well as a league-leading batting average of .344. Since July 1 he has hit .385 to help hoist the Cincinnati Reds, the team he captains, up through the standings and into first place in the West Division. "We are seeing now the best Pete Rose anyone has ever seen," says Red Manager Sparky Anderson.
Twelve weeks ago the Reds appeared destined to ride out the summer in the rumble seat of a division they had dominated in two of the past three years. At the time they could barely see the Los Angeles Dodgers off in the distance. The San Francisco Giants, a team that seems to have the best eight-man lineup extant—and eight fans in the stands—were also making things uncomfortable. But over a sustained period the Reds have been winning better than seven of every 10 games, and by last week they not only had taken over first place but had a 2½-game lead over the Dodgers and four over the Giants, with 10 of their final games to be played against those pursuers. Anderson, who spent much of the season looking through a periscope, was certainly not about to admit that his new vantage point meant the enemy was in his bombsight and could easily be destroyed. "The race in the West," said Sparky, "is a long, long way from being over."
The race for the batting title, however, is not—Rose was 26 points up on the next chap—and for the second time Pete is a prime candidate for the National League's Most Valuable Player award, which he lost to St. Louis' Bob Gibson in 1968. When the batting title comes it will be Rose's third. What's more, this season is the sixth in which Rose has collected 200 or more hits. He will end the year with nine consecutive .300 seasons, but he has also accomplished a number of other things that have drawn scant attention. Last Friday, for example, Rose lashed out his 30th double of the season, which made him the alltime two-base hit leader for the Cincinnati franchise with a grand total of 343. Lest anyone forget, Cincinnati's is the oldest franchise in professional baseball.
That record was merely the fourth achieved by Rose in 1973. Previously he had become Cincinnati's leader in games played, runs scored and times at bat. Although certainly not known as a home run hitter, sometime early next year he will surpass Frank Robinson as the team's alltime total-base leader. And earlier this season he got his 2,000th hit. As the season ends he should have around 2,150 hits. At the end of his 11th season, Ty Cobb, the most prolific hit-maker ever, had 1,938.
The fortunes of contending teams often swing on the results of one or two games won under desperate circumstances. Rose and most of the Reds consider one they played on July 1 against Los Angeles as the turning point of their season. In the first game of a doubleheader at Cincinnati, they trailed 3-1 with two men out in the home ninth. A pinch-hit home run by Hal King with two on won the game for the Reds. Thus, instead of falling 12 games behind the Dodgers, the Reds were 10 out. Their drive then became a relentless thing which by last Sunday enabled the Reds to claim the best winning percentage in the majors (.599). How many more games might they have won if Gary Nolan, their top pitcher, had not missed almost the entire season; if Shortstop Dave Concepcion, hitting .287 and driving in key runs, had not broken his ankle on the weekend before the All-Star Game; if Bobby Tolan were not suffering at the plate (.207); and if Pitcher Roger Nelson, supposedly a big pickup in a trade with K.C., had not spent more time on the disabled list than Venus de Milo?
When the Dodgers were riding high in first place before their recent losing streak of nine, Rose said, "The Dodgers are in first place, but they are chasing us." To some that seemed a feisty remark, something to be put up on a clubhouse wall to inspire the enemy. "I meant," says Pete now, "that we had won last year and thus were still the team that had to be beaten." It turned out he was correct.
The head-first slide, running out walks and catching fly balls in such a way as to make it appear that he is yanking them down from the sky are by now well-known Rose-isms. Rose also is something of a baseball memory bank. "If somebody doesn't know something, they ask Pete," says Coach Alex Grammas. "He will get on the bus and say, 'A week from now so-and-so will be pitching against us and I'll go 2 for 4.' Well, a week goes by and so-and-so pitches and Pete goes 2 for 4. He resembles no other player I have ever been associated with or even seen. Recently in Houston, Doug Rader told me, 'Just playing against that guy inspires me.' "
When Rose first went to the Reds' spring training camp in Tampa in 1963 he was given little chance of making the club. "The team was cliquey," Rose says, "and the white guys for the most part wouldn't have anything to do with me. I hung around with the blacks. Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson helped me tremendously."
One night in a bar in Tampa a group of white Cincinnati veterans took a vote on Rose's chances. Everyone voted nay, except Don Blasingame—the man Rose was to replace on his way to Rookie of the Year honors. Joe Morgan, Cincinnati's second baseman, was an opponent of Rose's for nine seasons before being traded to the Reds last year. "When I played against him," Morgan says, "I assumed that nobody went that hard all the time, that he just did that against us. You can't judge a player when you only see him a few games a season. Now that I have seen him day in day out, I find him amazing. Sure, he hasn't got the talents in any one phase of the game that other players might have, but nobody gets more out of what they've got. I always wanted to hit behind him in the batting order because he gets a lot of hits and we can play hit-and-run. That opens up two holes for me to try and hit the ball through. He'll go from first to third and that leaves second base open and gives me a chance to steal and set up a big inning for us. We have been able to do that quite often."
Nothing in Rose's baseball existence irritates him more than reports of players declaring that they find themselves unable to play their best for a certain manager. "When a man says that," Rose says, "I wonder what he is talking about. In the first place, you don't play for a man, you play for a team. Yet it comes up more often than some might think. A player says, I can't hit for this guy; I can't pitch for this manager.' That's just nonsense."
Rose has played for five different managers in the majors. "If you look at it overall, you would have to say I played worst for Fred Hutchinson—and he's the guy who gave me my start. But I won the Rookie of the Year award under him. I remember we stood together on the foul line in St. Louis the day Stan Musial retired and they drove Stan around the ball park in a convertible. We were so excited we were shaking. Then Musial went into his last game and he got himself 2 for 4. He singled to my right and to my left. When it comes time to go, that's the way to go."
For some reason Rose is a very strong finisher in the hot months of July, August and September when others are tiring. At 5'11" he is not terribly big, but he is a solid 196 pounds and he keeps his weight there by eating a salad and a steak every day. He seldom leaves his hotel room when the team is on the road, except to go to the ball park. "I am neither a big drinker nor a big eater," he says. "When I go to banquets I don't eat. In spring training, I'll report five pounds overweight because I want the training to mean something. When I take 20 wind sprints at the end of the day, I want the last three or four to hurt. I think it would be silly not to be stronger at the end of the season than at the beginning. When August comes around the pitchers have had their 25 to 30 starts and they can't be as strong as they were in April. If a hitter is strong, he has to have a bit of an advantage.
"And I love to get my hits. I don't want to be one of those guys who has to wait for the Sunday papers to find out what his batting average is. I want to be able to see it every day."
These days all Rose has to read is the top line.
Like daredevils of other days, Rose gives his all—which may well earn him the MVP award.