Pete Rose wants to be baseball's best-paid player. His once—and perhaps future—employers in Cincinnati demur, so Pete, now a free agent, has named eight teams he'd like to join. There may be surprisingly few big bidders
November 06, 1978

It is the middle of last week, and in the exercise room adjacent to the Cincinnati Reds' locker room, 37-year-old Pete Rose is mugging for the camera. Over his stocky frame he wears a T shirt similar to the ones he gave President Carter's Softball team during a recent visit to the White House. Across the back of the shirt in bold lettering is written: PETE ROSE—3,000—HUSTLE MADE IT HAPPEN. Rose likes being photographed. A vain man without a trace of self-consciousness, secure in his image, Rose is the Muhammad Ali of baseball.

On his head is a Phillie cap. "What do you think of the Phils, Pete?"

"They need me." Rose points to his chest and grins. Click.

Someone hands him another cap. Rose removes the small, plastic insert from the front of the Phillie cap and puts it in the new one, so that it will sit on his head just so. "O.K., Pete. The California Angels. What do you think of?"

"Gene Autry." Rose grins, baring the gap in his front teeth. "Maybe he'll give me his horse if I sign. What was the name of that horse? Champion? Champion!" Click.

Next cap. It bears the interlocking "S" and "D" of the Padres, owned by McDonald's magnate Ray Kroc. "San Diego had two Pete Rose Days this year," Rose divulges. "Two. Ray Kroc likes me because I'm a self-made, aggressive guy like he is, and he likes me because I help his younger players. I go to the park early and work with them. He appreciates that." Rose grins and bites into an imaginary Big Mac. Click.

He slips on the next cap, and a bystander says, "The Dodgers, Pete. National League champs. Los Angeles."

"Ahh, endorsements!" says Pete. Click.

"O.K., Pete, how about a frown?"

"You want a frown? I'll give you a frown. Give me that Reds cap."


Later that afternoon, sitting in his plush, windowless office at Riverfront Stadium, another man is wearing a frown. He is Dick Wagner, president and chief executive officer of the Reds. Why is this man frowning? Is it because his team has finished out of the playoffs for the second straight year? Is it because his club, as recently as 1976 hailed as the greatest team since the 1927 Yanks, will creak into the New Year with six of its eight starting players over 30 years of age unless changes are made? Is it because the Reds' "final offer" in contract negotiations with Rose was flatly turned down and that Cincy's most popular player will thus enter Friday's free-agent draft? Is it because Rose has told Wagner he wants to be the highest-paid player in baseball? Is it because the man Wagner names as most likely to fill Rose's shoes in the event of Pete's defection is a defensive specialist named Ray Knight, who batted .200 in 1978? Or is it all of the above?

Wagner sits like a man whose underwear is woolen. Perhaps it is his uncomfortable shifting that makes less than convincing his claim: "I like Pete; everyone likes Pete; how can you not like Pete?"

Wagner met with Rose and Reuven Katz, Pete's attorney, on Oct. 2. Wagner offered Rose a raise after a year in which Pete hit .302, had 198 hits, scored 103 runs and had a 44-game hitting streak that captivated the country. Rose turned him down. "He didn't even make me a counterproposal," says Wagner. "I asked him what he was thinking in terms of, and he and Katz threw phrases at me like, 'The sky's the limit.' "

That afternoon the Reds' management enraged Rose and Katz by releasing the news that Rose had turned down the highest salary in the history of the organization. Katz took the front office to task, saying, "Technically, they're right, but salary is only one part of a contract. There is also a little matter of signing bonuses. They can run into a lot of money. The Reds' release was deliberately misleading. Their offer definitely did not make Pete the best-paid Red."

On Oct. 9 Rose and Katz returned with a counterproposal. Wagner rejected it, and the next day he made his final offer, which was "around $400,000," according to Rose. Wagner wanted Rose's answer as soon as possible. "I've been here 16 years, and they wanted me to make up my mind in eight days," says Rose. "The World Series was still going on. They won't negotiate. They never have."

Rose turned Wagner's offer down, and on Oct. 18 declared himself a free agent. Shortly thereafter he named the eight teams besides the Reds that he would consider playing for: the Dodgers, Phillies and Padres in the National League; the Yankees, Red Sox, Royals, Angels and Rangers in the American. All are offense-minded teams with generous owners and/or high attendance.

Rose's serious contractual hassles with the Reds go back to 1975, when the club, according to Katz, forced Rose to take a salary cut after his batting average fell to .284 although he played in 163 games and led the league in doubles and runs. Wagner was named general manager in 1977 and promptly alienated Rose during a contract dispute that spring by taking out advertisements in two local newspapers detailing why the Reds were not meeting his demands. Rose eventually signed for a tidy $365,000 per year, but the ads left him bitter and embarrassed. "That wasn't something I was proud of," admits Wagner. "Pete is the only guy I know who uses the media to negotiate, and that's what we did. When no Cincinnati reporter would write our side of the story, we simply paid to have it told."

If Wagner is concerned that his All-Star third baseman will pack up for greener pastures, he doesn't show it. Shortly after negotiations broke down on Oct. 12, he told Katz that the Reds' final offer was "off the table" and that the next move was Rose's. "When we made Pete that offer, we tried to take all his accomplishments into consideration," says Wagner. "But he wants to be the highest-paid player in the game. He told me that." Wagner does not think Rose is worth it.

Counters Rose, "I've worked as hard as anybody in baseball for 16 years. I've been more consistent than anybody. I reached 3,000 hits faster than any guy in history. I really believe I've reached the top of my profession, and I want to be paid like it. You can agree with me or not, but I don't think you can say I should be the 15th-best-paid player."

That Wagner would risk losing Rose is all the more surprising in the light of the summer past, when Rose enlivened what threatened to be a dull season of baseball in Cincinnati by first becoming the 13th player to get 3,000 base hits and then by putting together his hitting streak. When the Reds visited Philadelphia, attendance increased an average of 11,000 per game. In New York, where Rose passed Tommy Holmes' modern National League record of 37 straight games, Mets fans bought seats that had rarely been sold since the pennant year of 1973, and Shea Stadium's concessionaires sent Rose a giant card thanking him for salvaging their summer; In Atlanta, where Rose's streak ended, 45,007 people saw him tie Wee Willie Keeler's all-time National League record by hitting in his 44th straight game. That was 33,000 above the Braves' season's average. With an average ticket of $4 and assuming a modest $3 per fan for parking and concessions, Rose added about $231,000 to the coffers in one night. Two weeks later the Padres had their second Pete Rose Day, celebrating the date when he would have had a shot at tying Joe DiMaggio's record of hitting in 56 straight. Asked how he could afford to lose such a popular personality, Wagner replies, "Johnny Carson's a personality, too, but I don't know if he can play third base."

Most general managers feel that Rose is just testing the free-agent water and that Wagner will sign him in the end for whatever the market demands. After all, as Manager Sparky Anderson is fond of pointing out, "Pete Rose is the Cincinnati Reds."

Come Friday, Cincinnati will begin to find out what Rose's market price is. A maximum of 13 teams, plus the Reds, can draft negotiating rights to him.

Pete is the most notable of this year's free agents. Three Dodgers—Lee Lacy, Billy North and Tommy John—will attract some attention, as will pitchers Luis Tiant of Boston, Jim Barr of San Francisco and Elias Sosa of Oakland. But the day should belong to Rose.

It is unlikely that as many as 13 teams will draft him. At 37, he is too old and too expensive for most clubs. "The team that I should go to is one that was expected to do well last year and didn't," says Rose. "Who comes to mind?"

Just about every one of Rose's favored eight except the Yankees and Dodgers. And Rose is adaptable to a team's needs. Although he believes that playing in the outfield might extend his career, he can still play third base and has no doubt that he could master first base in spring training. For example, if he were to go to Boston, Rose could replace sore-armed Butch Hobson at third base, making Hobson the DH. Or he could play left field, enabling Carl Yastrzemski to take over first base from slumping George Scott. Or he could play first. It is unlikely he will get the chance to do any of these things. Boston's new owners are probably going to use their estimated $3.5 million 1978 profit to pay off loans and to attempt to re-sign younger stars such as Jim Rice and Dennis Eckersley.

Both Texas and California would seem to have been too badly burned by high-priced free agents the past two years to test the water again so soon. Angel Executive Vice-President Buzzie Bavasi has even said, "As far as I am concerned, Pete Rose belongs in Cincinnati."

Kansas City has the most to gain by acquiring Rose, who could help them at first or in left. Rose would thrive on Royals Stadium's artificial surface, and he might help the Royals finally make it to the World Series. But the K.C. management has made no noises about pursuing Rose, and the Royals' record does not show them entering the free-agent market with any relish.

If anyone is likely to lure Rose into the American League, it will be those damn Yankees. Owner George Steinbrenner is not one to tip his hand, but if he is interested in Rose—and he will only say he is interested in every free agent—he is not likely to be outbid. However, Rose seems less than enthusiastic about sharing the stage with the defending champs. "They've won two years in a row now," he says. "That's not easy. They may be due for a disappointment."

Another reason that Rose is not likely to sign with the Yankees—or with any other American League team—is that the only thing he loves more than money is records. And the record he would most love to break is Stan Musial's National League career hit total of 3,630. Rose now has 3,164. He would need at least three seasons to pass Musial, and Rose points to this fact as proof that he will produce for whatever team signs him—at least if it's a National League team.

But if a three-year contract is a necessity, the Padres are not likely to be the team, although of the eight clubs Rose named, San Diego is in greatest need of a third baseman. "Pete Rose would be good for the San Diego Padres," says Kroc, "and I would be willing to pay a substantial sum to him for one year or, under certain conditions, two years. He would be a big attraction for one season." But Kroc has also stated that he would be "disappointed if Pete Rose wasn't considerate of the fans in Cincinnati." He adds, "This is a country where people say, 'If you are successful, why aren't you rich?' Rose wants to certify his success with a fancy salary. We know he's accomplished more in the past than he will in the future, but he doesn't want to be paid on that basis."

So it seems that almost all of Rose's listed choices have been eliminated, which may help explain why he suddenly brought up the Braves last week. Sixth-place Atlanta may be more an offensive team than an offense-minded one, but it is also owned by Cincinnati native Ted Turner. "I was just on the phone with Ted," said Rose as the camera clicked.

What the two talked of was not divulged—and for good reason. Two years ago Turner was suspended by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for tampering with prospective free agent Gary Matthews before the draft was held. If he is discovered to have been dealing prematurely with Rose, he might face similar disciplinary action. No wonder the Braves were denying any knowledge of conversations between Turner and Rose. Besides, the Braves' director of player personnel, Bill Lucas, thinks it would be incongruous for Atlanta to sign Pete, even on the off chance that Rose would play for a non-contender. "We're committed to youth," he says. "Our average age last year was 24.6. Rose would provide spark and leadership, and people would come out to see him once. But after that we'd have to start winning."

Which teams does that leave? Rose has an answer. "The Phillies," he says. "All they lack is a team leader. Two of my three favorite people in baseball are on the Phils—Larry Bowa and Greg Luzinski. And they need a leadoff hitter. They need me."

The Phillies are no less enthusiastic. "There isn't much doubt in my mind that he can play another three years," says Paul Owens, the Phils' director of player personnel. "He's got the kind of body that doesn't wear down. And he has so many intangibles. He's proud. He works hard. He's a leader. And the son of a gun can still hit. He and Bowa on the same team would be contagious. By himself, Pete Rose couldn't turn a club around, but with a contending team he could be the difference between a winner and a bridesmaid." Having watched his team catch the bouquet three straight years in the playoffs, Owens knows of what he speaks.

Because of tampering rules, no one in Philadelphia will say whether Rose's salary demands will be an obstacle for owners Bob and Ruly Carpenter, though that sort of thing has never made them back down before; they have the highest payroll in their league.

Where the Phillies would play Rose is of greater interest. Luzinski came up as a first baseman, but his knees are too bad for him to return there. He will surely stay in left. That would leave Rose at first, and the incumbent first baseman, Richie Hebner, on the trading block. Another intriguing possibility would be to move Gold Glove Third Baseman Mike Schmidt to second base, installing Rose at third and leaving Hebner at first.

In the end, the club that signs Rose will probably be the one willing to—surprise—pay him the most money, even if that team is not on his preferred list. Lest anyone still think that Charlie Hustle is not a man of material concerns, this season, when he could not take advantage of a free trip to Hawaii that the Padres gave him for appearing on a pregame show, he tried to sell the trip. No philanthropist he.

Thus it is unlikely that recent moves by Cincinnatians will tie Rose's heartstrings to Riverfront. Broadcaster Bob Trumpy first vainly tried to have the Cincinnati zoo declare Rose an endangered species. He then asked that Rose be declared a historic landmark. That was rejected, because historic landmarks must be at least 50 years old. But the City Planning Commission did designate Rose as a "listed property," which prohibits "demolition, displacement, or relocation...alteration to the exterior appearance of the property, including the preservation of the following characteristics: red on white uniform, the insignia 'Cincinnati Reds' on the cap and shirt; number 14 on the shirt; and large lettering on the posterior portion of the shirt spelling out the word ROSE." Should Rose want to grow a beard, he must first obtain a building permit from the city's architectural board of review.

"The fans of Cincinnati have been wonderful to Pete," says Katz. "But he's been pretty wonderful to them, too. I don't think anybody owes anything to anyone else."

Not even Rose will know what he is going to do until all the bids are in, which might not be until after Dec. 1. Most general managers feel that inertia and loyalty will keep him in Cincinnati, but still Wagner's squirming—"I'm not particularly optimistic about signing him anymore"—has a ring of truth to it. As Rose said after his recent talk with Turner, "Wouldn't it be nice to work for somebody that really appreciates me?"

Smile when you say that, Pete. Think green. Click.

The sound you just heard was the time lock releasing on the vault.

The Angels?
PHOTOTONY TRIOLO[See caption above.]
The Phillies?
PHOTOTONY TRIOLO[See caption above.]
The Dodgers?
PHOTOTONY TRIOLO[See caption above.]
The Red Sox?
PHOTOTONY TRIOLO[See caption above.]
The Yankees?
PHOTOTONY TRIOLO[See caption above.]
The Rangers?
PHOTOTONY TRIOLO[See caption above.]
The Padres?
PHOTOTONY TRIOLO[See caption above.]
The Royals?
PHOTOTONY TRIOLORose might actually be keeping his fingers crossed that he can remain with the Reds.