At 2 o'clock in the morning, Pete Rose was out on the town, trying to drown his sorrows.

Well, not exactly out on the town, and not exactly drowning his sorrows.

Actually, Rose, just hours after having his 44-game hitting streak stopped, was sitting on a stool of an all-night lunch counter ordering a glass of milk.

All around Rose were not the celebrities of this world, but whoever happened to be awake at 2 a.m. and wanted to find a cleam, well-loghted place.

With a half-dozen just plain folks around him, Rose stood up and began showing anyone who cared to watch just how Larry McWilliams had speared his lien drive and just how Gene Garber had fanned to end the game with a wicked submarine changeup.

As Rose, dressed nattily in a three-piece suit, open-necked shirt and medallion (Telly Savalas style), strolled out of the restaurant and off to bed, shaking hands, winking to friends all the way , his new stool companions shook their heads.

"So that's Pete Rose," said one middle-aged man, trying to pick his jaw up off the floor. "Good Lord, he's just like he seems. That's a star."

Rose is far off from being the best player in baseball. But he may be the best thing his game has to offer.

Defense, speed, power - Rose lacks those.

Humor, character, generosity - Rose is always on a streak in those areas,

Rose is not a man for all tastes, just most. Atlanta catcher Joe Nolan, for instance, put himself in the running for the Crusty Curmudgeon Award by saying, "I'm happy as hell we stopped Rose and his streak.

"I personally don't like the guy. Last year, the Reds beat us 23-to-something and they were laughing and shouting at us. We owed him one."

However, for most baseball fans, Rose captures the best of their game's traditional values.

Perhaps no other player in the game could have brought the richness to a batting streak that Rose did.

Would any other active star have had the innate sense of history, of respect for his predecessors, to read the life stories of the men - Ty Cobb and Wee Willie Keeler - that he was chasing.

Rose greeted pressure with a serenity that other found, in Tom Seaver's words, "almost saintly."

Rose would never accept such a flowery tribute. "If you always give your best, then, hell, man, you deserve what you get. Go ahead and enjoy it," it said Rose.

Nobless oblige comes naturally to Rose. He would rather talk baseball with the guy on the next luncheon counter stool than chant mantras or study EST.

WHen asked if a dozen interviews a day did not exhaust him, make him lose sleep. Rose said , "Those aren't interviews. They're conversations . . . Reporters don't make me lose sleep . . . I'm not sleepin' with any of 'em.

"In fact, I'm gonna miss somebody buying all my meals . . . ABC for breakfast, NBC for lunch, CBS for dinner," said Rose. "Yeah," he said, looking over the assembled media, "I'm gonna miss all you . . ."

The above dissertion was doubly interesting, doubly typical of Rose, since it was carried live on cable TV into parts of 40 states. Unexpurgated Rose is always best; leave a few thorns in the bouquet.

The euphemism is unknown to Rose, who, like Thurman Munson in the American League, is the master of the needle - baseball's truth told in jest.

For others, that needle turns back in the form of publicly self-inflicted wounds. The world champion Yankees have mastered the trick.

But for Rose, the joke almosworks. No face ever looked less like a rose and no player ever needed Aqua Velva more to cover his hustling scent. Yet Rose is surrounded by a sweetness that comes directly from a gentle, compassionate disposition.

Rose fights to keep a certain childlike exurberance. When asked where grew up, Rose loves to say, "I was raised. I never did grow up."

From every team against which Rose extended his streak, the same comments were heard.

"What Rose is doing brings our game into focus for people who never appreciated it before," said Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt.

Baseball's greatest charm may be its relationship to theatre. The actors' faces are always visible, always recognizably human in every gesture.

For the last two weeks of his streak, every Rose night was a four-hour play with distinct acts: Rose's batting practice performance ("Is he still hot?"), followed by the mounting tension of hisfour or five at-bats.

Where football means hidden faces, camouflaged cruelty, where basketball is a welter of action, that sometimes cancels itself out, baseball at its best is a titillating buildup to an inescapable crisis.

Rose brought the perfect day-to-day dramatic form, the long hitting streak, to the perfect stage, the clear focus of pitcher's mound and batter's box.

Baseball, so simple, so out in the open, is only brought to its finest stage of appreciation when every detail, every slider low and away is studied in the midst, of a crackling tension.

Rose brought that intensity, that passion for baseball's richness of detail and subtlety, with him to the plate every day for nearly seven weeks.

Even in his final swing and miss that ended his streak, Rose illuminated the elaborate, unwritten codes of the game: what is permitted, what is "bush" and what will get you a fast ball in the ribs.