"The Cobb record is not taking me away from my job as a ballplayer. It's not like I'm concentrating on anything I shouldn't be. I'm concentrating on getting hits--and isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing out there?" --PETE ROSE, Cincinnati manager. From Sandy Koufax to Dwight Gooden, Pete Rose has solved the deliveries of the best pitchers his generation had to offer. Now, after a record 13,411 at-bats, he's readying himself for the challenge of his baseball life.
Are you willing to bet against him?
Rose enters the 1985 season as Cincinnati's player-manager, needing 95 hits to break Ty Cobb's cherished all-time mark and needing a minor miracle to place the Reds in contention in the National League West.
The man who has "never felt overmatched in any at-bat during my entire career," says he can do both.
"I've played in more winning games than any player in history," he says. "That makes me a winner. I've won every award except the Cy Young and I hold a lot of records, but my three proudest possessions are my three World Series rings.
"Stranger things have happened in baseball than us contending or winning in '85. I'm not going to be surprised; the so-called experts will be surprised."
When Rose rejoined the Reds last Aug. 16 after a trade with Montreal, he and the team enjoyed a renaissance. Cincinnati played 15-12 ball in September to finish 70-92 while Rose batted .365 in his 26 games with the Reds to end his season at a respectable .286. The lifetime .305 hitter, who boasts 10 200-hit seasons, is stressing aggressive play in spring training as he tries to get a young club to believe in itself.
"My job is to keep these guys from accepting losing," Rose says. "We have some young players who need to start playing with positive attitudes. I was always thinking about a double when I hit a single and even the pitchers on this team will know how to run the bases aggressively. Maybe we can steal a game or two by playing smart on the bases. In 1964, I learned how important one game is because we lost the pennant by one lousy game out of a 162-game schedule. It's not only the games in September that matter."
Rose says he won't need any gentle reminders from management about when to sit himself down and Reds' general manager Bill Bergesch isn't worried about No. 14 being mesmerized by the specter of Cobb.
"Pete wants to win much more than get that record," Bergesch says. "He's not looking for the record--he's looking to win. Naturally, it would be nice to break that record at home, but neither Pete nor the ballclub can worry about that. Dave Concepcion was going through the motions until Pete came, then Pete reminded him of the great years.
"From that point, he played like a whirlwind. This is what Pete did to all our players . . . he woke 'em up. They played very well those last six weeks."
After 16 consecutive seasons with at least 44 extra-base hits, Rose has been reduced to singles-hitter status the last four years. He's still hoping to set the table for Dave Parker, Cesar Cedeno and young slugger Eric Davis to feast on in '85.
"There was never a time last year when I didn't think I could still hit," Rose says. "I know more about pitchers than any manager in baseball. (Los Angeles Manager) Tom Lasorda can tell you someone is throwing 90 m.p.h. because he's got a radar gun in the dugout, but I can tell you if he's throwing straight. I'll be batting second and I'm really not worried about my stats. Hitting No. 2 means you have to give yourself up a lot for the good of the team and young players sometimes have a tough time doing that.
"I'd like to play in every game, but obviously I won't. Don't forget, I had seven three-hit games for the Reds last year in those last six weeks."
Three straight dreadful seasons have knocked the Reds off their perch as one of baseball's premier organizations. Riverfront Stadium eyes will be on Rose and his Western wallflowers.
"Ill never criticize anyone for being too aggressive," says the legend dubbed Charlie Hustle. "That's gonna be our style of play--fundamental, aggressive baseball. Not reckless, but aggressive."
That's a pretty good summation for the man's unparalleled career.
In addition to his record 13,411 at-bats, Rose has played in more games (3,371) and has hit more singles (3,085) than any major leaguer in history. He is second in doubles with 726 to Tris Speaker's 793 and is fourth in runs scored with 2,090, behind Ty Cobb (2,245), Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth (2,174 each).
"The two biggest changes since I broke into the big leagues are salary and the maturity of pitchers," says Rose, a 16-time All-Star who won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1963 . . . before many Reds' players could even talk. "I've played more games than anyone who ever put on a uniform and it took me until last year to realize the hardest thing is to get players to accept their roles. We've got six good outfielders on this ballclub and only three will play at any one time. My biggest problem as manager will probably be going with the starting pitchers too long."
Cincinnati president Bob Howsam, who engineered the deal to bring Rose back to the Reds after nearly a six-year absence, can't stop smiling about the new kid in town.
"The most important thing about having Rose as manager is that Pete will lead by example," Howsam says. "What better model can a young ballplayer have? Quite frankly, I wanted Pete as strictly a manager, but somehow he talked me into accepting him as player-manager. He's quite unique among all the players I've been around in more than 35 years in baseball. Pete has a chance to be the kind of ambassador for the game that a Casey Stengel was."
But Rose, who will be 44 years old a week into the season, isn't interested in public relations quite yet. There's a man named Cobb hanging around his neck and a pennant to be won.
"I picked late August to break Cobb's record because I knew we had a 15-day road trip (Aug. 8-22) and I didn't want to put it on the road," he says of future hit No. 4,192. "The Cobb record is not taking me away from my job as a ballplayer. It's not like I'm concentrating on anything I shouldn't be. I'm concentrating on getting hits--and isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing out there?"
Howsam is impressed with Rose's willingness to delegate authority to his coaches and additional input will come from 42-year-old Tony Perez, who is virtually assured of a spot on the roster as a younger replacement for Rose at first base. Jim Kaat is the pitching coach.
"When the Reds first approached me about coming here as just a manager, I really wasn't interested," Rose says. "I think I can still play this game. When I convinced Mr. Howsam to let me act as a player-manager, we had a deal. When Sparky Anderson called me to congratulate me last August, I asked him for some advice to be a good manager. He just told me to trust my instincts and manage the way I feel. That's exactly what I intend to do."