Pete's Out To Prove He Can Pull His Weight

At 42 going on 4,000, Pete Rose has a new team, the Expos, and a new challenge—lifting yet another club to the pennant
February 13, 1984

The Nautilus showroom just off the lobby of the Vernon Manor Hotel in Cincinnati isn't what you'd call your basic gym. Nearly life-size photo cutouts of King Kong are on the walls, and a vintage jukebox is situated incongruously amid the $80,000 worth of workout devices. The showroom is rarely used, and then by only a handful of pro athletes. On this particular Tuesday, a lone man strains against the diabolical contraptions as Kong stares balefully down on him, and the Wurlitzer plays, with stunning appropriateness, Edith Piaf's La Vie en Rose. Indeed, these off-season workouts on the Nautilus machines are supposed to keep the bloom on a Rose named Pete, who will play this season for the Montreal Expos and their largely French-speaking fans. It will be a season to determine just how much vie is left in this old Rose.

Pete Rose's 20 previous major league off-seasons were spent mostly on the banquet circuit, with some tennis, basketball and touch football thrown in to keep the aging body trim. But Rose the fading superstar no longer is in that much demand, and though he still plays tennis, basketball and touch, he's supplementing these exertions with thrice-weekly workouts at Vernon Manor. They aren't light workouts. Under the supervision of Larry Starr, the Cincinnati Reds' trainer, Rose pits himself against 16 machines in each of his one-hour-and-20-minute workouts, half of the machines attending to the upper body, half to the lower. In between machines he does a total of 140 situps, 50 side-bends and 50 trunk twists. He skips rope for two minutes and does bench step-ups for another two. He hasn't eaten red meat since October, when the workouts began, and he neither drinks nor smokes. "No one could have worked harder than he has," says Starr. "He may be in the best shape of his career."

Rose knows he'd better be. He'll turn 43 in April—how fitting that Pete Rose and baseball should begin each year together—and for the first time since he was a rookie he isn't guaranteed a position. He'll also be playing for a new team, one with more than its share of stars and with a baffling history of near-misses. And he'll be in a new city in a new country where a foreign language is spoken. Rose had never before worked out with weights, but he's eager to show skeptics that he's not too old to learn new tricks. "I never had to change before," he says, forearms bulging against the pull of Nautilus weights. "My way was working. But .245 [his batting average last year with Philadelphia] will wake anybody up. If my way doesn't work anymore, I'll try Larry Starr's. I can change."

Rose, as proud as any who ever played the game, will come to Montreal with enough motivation to fuel a space shuttle blast-off. He'll try to prove that in middle age he can still play every day. He'll try to show the Phillies, who let him go, and the Reds, who let him go to Philadelphia in the first place and then wouldn't take him back so that he could finish his career in his hometown, that they were dead wrong about him. Rose isn't merely disappointed by these snubs from his old teams; he's seething with bitterness and resentment. "The Reds didn't even try to sign me," he says. "Dick Wagner [then the general manager] was always worried about image, and, sure, I had a divorce and a paternity suit. Well, a lot of guys have divorces. I'll agree that not many have paternity suits, but I never let that affect my concentration."

Rose is only 10 base hits shy of his 4,000th, and he'd like nothing better than to lace that landmark bingle either in Cincinnati on April 9, 10 or 11 or at home against the Phillies on the 13th, 14th or 15th. "I'd just as soon get that hit in about the third game or maybe in extra innings in the second," he says, "but if I have to wait...." And finally, of course, there's The Record. Rose needs 202 hits to surpass Ty Cobb's career hit total of 4,191, but time is running out on him. His contract with the Expos is for one season only, and, as Rose learned to his embarrassment this past winter, his services are no longer in wide demand.

He began shopping for a new team after the Phillies failed to renew his contract on Nov. 15. In 1983 he was paid $1.2 million in salary and a $300,000 incentive bonus for having appeared in more than 130 games. He won't approach those figures this year, although, with various incentives and an attendance clause that begins paying off if the Expos surpass last season's home total of 2.3 million, he can earn somewhere between $700,000 and $1 million. Not bad at all for a fellow who was having trouble finding a job.

The Angels were interested in him until they re-signed Rod Carew. The Mariners were intrigued (mainly by his drawing power) until they reached the decision to get out of the rent-a-player market and go with youth. Atlanta twice called Rose's agent, Reuven Katz, then never called again. Cincinnati never even made an offer, though both Rose and Katz live right there. The Reds, for sentimental reasons, were Rose's first choice, but, says Katz, a low-key lawyer, "Montreal was where he really wanted to be. Pete doesn't like to leave teams. He never left one because he wanted to. It was always because he didn't fit into their plans. But he wants to go with a winner, and he knows that John McHale [the Expos' president] wants a championship team. McHale wasn't interested in Pete because of the Cobb record. He was interested in him because he wanted a championship."

The question remains whether a 43-year-old who hit .245 with only 17 extra-base hits last season, a player who was reduced primarily to pinch-hitting in the final, critical month of the season and who was humiliated by being benched in the third game of the World Series, can help a team that hasn't been able to help itself when it counted. The Expos, loaded with such brilliant young stars as Andre Dawson, Gary Carter and Steve Rogers, were being acclaimed as the Team of the '80s after they won 95 games in 1979 and finished second to the Pirates in the National League East. In the strike-truncated '81 season, they lost to the Dodgers in the ninth inning of the final National League playoff game when Rick Monday hit a game-winning homer off Rogers. After that, the Expos indulged in an orgy of wheeling and dealing, but nothing seemed to help. They came in third in both '82 and '83, finishing only two games above .500 last year while trailing the Phillies by a disappointing eight games—this with a strong pitching staff and a lineup that included centerfielder Dawson, a perennial MVP candidate; Carter, considered the game's best all-around catcher; first baseman Al Oliver, a lifetime .305 hitter; outfielder Tim Raines, a .298 hitter who scored 133 runs and stole 90 bases in '83; and Tim Wallach, a brilliant young third baseman who hit 47 homers in his first two seasons. This year they've added lefthander Gary Lucas, acquired from San Diego, to a bullpen that already has righthanded stopper Jeff Reardon. What more could they possibly need? Maybe Rose.

"We've been analyzed by everyone and his dog," says Rogers, the pitching ace, "but I would characterize the Expos as a ship without a rudder. Pete Rose could be that rudder. He can bring another dimension. We have a strong nucleus, but nobody from that nucleus can assert himself as a leader. We're equals. You can't be a leader to your peers. Hell, we all grew up together. We're brothers. How can any of us be the dominant brother? We need somebody above that, a Pete Rose."

"Pete's the missing ingredient," says second baseman Doug Flynn, a former teammate of Rose's on the Reds. "We need leadership, not so much on the field as on the bench and in the clubhouse. Our club has been too laid-back. Pete's not going to let anybody relax. I don't care if he hits .240, he can help us. He looks hungry and good. He has that look in his eye."

"He represents professionalism and enthusiasm and a winning attitude," says McHale, the man who signed him. "We're betting that he has a breath or two left. Peer pressure, I think, is more effective than pressure from the manager or from management. Players respond more to it. As the crowds get bigger, the prizes larger and the races closer, we need someone to get up and say, 'Let's do it!' "

Rose sees some similarity between the Expos of '84 and the Phillies he joined in '79. Both teams had a wealth of talent, but neither could win a pennant. The Phillies had won three straight National League East championships in the mid-'70s but couldn't get past the playoffs to the World Series. One year after Rose joined them, they won their first Series in 30 years.

The Expos want to play Rose in leftfield and bat him second, behind Raines and in front of Dawson. Raines, who has developed into one of the game's better leftfielders, will shift to right. Warren Cromartie, who had been the third outfielder, with Raines and Dawson, has defected to Japan, thus creating a vacancy.

If Rose, the only man ever to have participated in more than 500 games at five different positions (first, second, third, leftfield and right), is supplanted in left, he's prepared to play where needed. "I told Bill Virdon [the Montreal manager] that I've got gloves of all sizes and I know how to use all of them," he says. The Expos seem not in the least concerned, as some teams apparently were, about Rose's announced intention of playing every day. "The Phillies almost ruined me by getting people to believe I was only a part-time player," says Rose. "I had to re-sell myself. When Virdon asked me how many games I wanted to play, I told him every one. He said, 'That's the attitude.' "

"Bill feels he'll not be disruptive to our club," says McHale, "that he'll understand if he's asked to be a super-sub."

Some baseball people and newsmen have interpreted Rose's desire to play every game as pure selfishness. They see him as a man whose principal concern is getting his record before it's too late, not helping his team win by playing the role assigned him. Rose pooh-poohs such talk. "I could've gone to the American League as a DH," he says without adding, "if they'd wanted me." But he insists that it's not so much the record but his personal makeup that drives him. "What kind of player would I be if I said I wanted to play on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays? I'm not made that way."

Rose is supremely confident that he can make it as his new team's regular leftfielder. "I'm not going to embarrass anybody out there," he says. "What people don't realize [a recurring phrase these days] is that I have the highest fielding percentage [.992] of any outfielder who's played at least a thousand games. And my arm is as strong now as it was when I led the league in assists [15 in 1972]. Heck, you can count the strong arms in our league on one hand, and most of them can't hit the cutoff man. I'd rather run on a strong arm than on a guy who's fundamentally sound any day. I told Virdon I don't even want to play if I'm not doing the job."

For now, Rose, the irrepressible Rose, is riding high. He has bought a magnificent new house, which looks like something out of a ski resort, in the exclusive Indian Hill suburb of Cincinnati—"Garage doors open and Jags jump out"—where he and his fiancée, Carol Woliung, 29, live. Daughter Fawn, now a sophomore at Franklin College in Indiana, and son Pete II, 14, a budding baseball star at Bridgetown School, are frequent visitors. Rose is in remarkable shape for an athlete his age—"Doctors tell me I have the body of a 30-year-old"—and his confidence, sorely tested last year, is unwavering. Introduced by McHale at a sports banquet in Montreal the day of his signing, Rose stepped briskly to the microphone and greeted his new fans with "Bonsoir, mes amis." McHale is convinced that Montreal will clasp Rose to its bosom. "Canadian fans identify with what they call diggers," he says. "They like guys who work hard. It's their hockey heritage. They like team men. Pete's their kind of guy." The public reaction to the signing wasn't as positive, however, as McHale would have liked. In a poll run by Montreal radio station CFCF a week before the signing, the response was 540 against hiring Rose to 510 in favor. After he joined the team, the station posed the question, "Can Pete Rose help bring a championship to Montreal?" The response was 229 yes, 224 no.

His new teammates seem solidly behind the oldtimer, but even among their optimistic number there are questions. Rogers, who served up Rose's 3,000th hit six years ago, is certain that if any 43-year-old can make it, Rose is the guy. But he does have some second thoughts: "This game is so darn unforgiving that if he doesn't pull his weight, anything he might say in the clubhouse will become hollow. Even if you've had 45 years of excellent service, you can lose your influence. The numbers you've put on the board over the years give you a look. Your performance now gives you the forum for leadership. You just don't walk in and lead. And there's the inescapable physical fact that slumps are harder to get out of when you're older. Here's a guy who's never had to worry about not playing if he goes 0 for 4. That's no longer true. Now he's got to have some rookie-type worries."

Rose, as always, has an answer to all that: "I just want to be treated as Pete Rose, the baseball player, not Pete Rose, the 43-year-old." Alas, this is easier said than done.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERNow that Pete's an Expo, it's "La Vie en Rose." PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERWorking on weights for the first time, Rose hopes to make Montreal "ichiban"—No. 1. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIEROpen the garage doors at Rose's new house and a Rolls-Royce and a Porsche jump out. TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERRose and Carol have taken a shine to their new kitchen, not to mention one another.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)