The good news is that Pete Rose gave a virtuoso batting performance last week. The bad news is that he did it playing pepper. Rose took those artful swings in Busch Stadium several hours before a game between his Phillies and the Cardinals. He swung casually, effortlessly. No matter how bad the throw, he hit smartly to each fielder in turn. But when the game began Rose was on the bench.
For the first time since fans began to think of Rose as Ty Cobb's heir apparent as the record holder for career hits, there's doubt about his chances. Even Rose, in a rare unguarded moment, admitted as much last week: "It's obvious I can't catch Cobb if I'm not playing regularly." At week's end he trailed Cobb by 272 hits, 4,191 to 3,919—a formidable number when you are 42 years old, coming off your worst season in 18 years, batting .264—and your team's owner is talking about releasing you.
After going 0 for 20 from May 30 to June 7 and slumping to .238, Rose was benched for the first time in his 21-year career. He kept appearing as a pinch hitter and late-inning defensive replacement—indeed, last weekend he tied his personal best of 678 consecutive games played—but his run of nonstarts reached nine before he resumed, at least for the moment, his spot among the regulars Saturday night. The prospect of that start caused Rose to say, "My job is to play my tail off and get two hits a night so they won't want to take me out." Rose, starting at first base, did even better than that, getting three hits as the Phillies beat Pittsburgh 6-4. But on Sunday, in a 14-2 victory, Rose started in rightfield and was 1 for 4.
Rose isn't about to admit to anything so obvious as the ravages of age. With characteristic bravado, he has an answer for every question.
"To be honest with you, I saw the ball good," he says. "I was batting second for the first time, and I had a different role. I look at my .271 as a .291."
"When I went 0 for 20, I wasn't swinging and missing, I just wasn't getting hits. When I go into a real slump, I start topping the ball. I wasn't doing that, so I wasn't worried. I never struck out and I wasn't tentative in my swing. I could easily have had six or seven hits."
"Pat [Manager Pat Corrales] didn't ask me. I just got to the ball park and saw that I wasn't in the lineup. It's too bad this isn't basketball, where the sixth man plays as many minutes as the guys who start."
"I'm not worried about the Cobb record. I know I'll get it. Why should I sit here and talk about 1984? You put too much pressure on yourself. I don't smoke or drink, and I keep in great shape. In 20 years I've only missed 80 games. I'll be all right."
Was this positive thinking or wishful thinking by Rose, the ultimate optimist? The truth is, Philadelphia President Bill Giles almost decided not to renew Rose's contract at the end of last season. "Late in August the thought crossed my mind," says Giles. "At the time he wasn't hitting, but he was playing with a bad heel. He recovered and hit well in September, and we were happy to keep him."
Rose has passed the point, however, where he can get either leg hits or homers. In spring training he had an inordinate number of weak grounders, to the second baseman. He started the season in rightfield and was cruising along at .277. Then came the slump, which was more serious than Rose lets on: He didn't strike out, true, but he didn't hit line drives, either.
Pitchers are throwing him inside fastballs, challenging him to get around on them. He hasn't been successful, and when he gets pitches on the outside part of the plate, he has been popping them up instead of driving them.
"He approached me the other day and asked me, 'Do you think I'll break Cobb's record?' " says Hank King, a former minor league pitcher who is Rose's confidant and the team's batting-practice pitcher. "I said, 'Sure, you just need a few days off.' He jokes about breaking the pinch-hitting record, but he has to be hurting inside."
Nonetheless, it's too early to be writing Rose's obituary. A victim of circumstance as much as poor play, he went bad when the Phillies were going bad and was on the bench when they started hitting. And few Phillies have been hotter than Rose's competition for starting spots, First Baseman Tony Perez and Right-fielder Von Hayes.
After batting only 196 times for the Red Sox last season, Perez, 41, signed a one-year contract with the Phillies and sharpened his skills playing winter ball. At the end of last week he was batting .291, with five homers and 35 RBIs. Hayes, 24, whom the Phillies acquired during the winter from Cleveland in return for five players, missed most of spring training and the first two weeks of the season with a pulled hamstring muscle. He then developed tendinitis in his right shoulder. His average of .259 isn't spectacular, but in the last six games through Sunday he had hit .414, with two doubles, three triples, one homer, five RBIs and eight runs.
No wonder Rose rests. "I got a telegram from a fan saying I was ruining the history of baseball," says Corrales. "I'm sorry. When I came here in 1982, I told everybody, 'If you don't hit, you're not playing.' But Pete will be in there more often because Tony has to be rested."
"I think Pete should be playing every day," says Second Baseman Joe Morgan, Rose's longtime buddy and former Cincinnati teammate. "He was in rightfield when we were in first place at the start of the season." Rose won't be drawn into the debate, at least not in so many words. "The manager isn't paid to be popular," he says.
Ever the consummate professional, Rose has played well coming off the bench. In his nine-game reserve stint he went 5 for 11 and contributed to two winning rallies. "He beat me with a single on a bad pitch, up and away," says Pittsburgh's Rod Scurry. "He still hits those." Some scouts maintain that Rose's stroke is sound and his average will climb. "He was hitting .238 in June of 1979 and he finished at .331," says King.
But if his season-long pace doesn't pick up, Rose would need 180 hits in 1984 to pass Cobb. "I'd love to see him break the record while playing for Philadelphia," says Giles. "But if we didn't anticipate playing him every day, in fairness to him we'd have to release him."
"He's got a lot of pride," says Umpire John McSherry. "In San Diego they walked the man in front of him with a runner on third. I could see the look of anger in his eyes. He hit a long sacrifice fly and got the job done."
But it wasn't a hit.