Footloose Pete Rose, baseball's fancy-free agent, continued his whistle-stop auction of himself yesterday with a shocking rejection of the Philadelphia Phillies' final multimillion-dollar contract offer.
The folding of the Phils, previously the favorites in this fiscal Rose Bowl, opened the gates for the wildest one-man bidding war in baseball history.
"The offers are getting bigger and bigger. They're offering me the world," the ecstatic Rose told his former manager, Sparky Anderson, yesterday.
Like a Caesar inspecting the gifts strewn before him in the provinces of his empire, Rose has narrowed his choices to Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Atlanta and St. Louis -- all cities that have paid him obeisance this week.
Pittsburgh management has offered to sweeten the pot with an expensive brood mare; St. Louis has proffered a beer dealership; Kansas City's enticement has been a pharmaceutical deal. Atlanta's owner has simply said, "Write your own ticket."
Against these lures, Philadelphia's largest-ever contract offer of $2 million for three seasons was not even in Rose's ballpark.
"We're 'out,' repeating 'out,' with Pete Rose," announced stunned Phils owner Ruly Carpenter.
"Good Lord," said a Phils front office man, "we thought we were going to sign him today."
"The Phils made a tremendous offer... much, much, much, much more than Cincinnati offered," said Rose. "But I've had offers this week that are tremendous, tremendous, tremendous, tremendous.
"All my head-first sliding, all the gut-busting, is paying off," said Rose, who just hours before at midnight had flatly rejected a similar $2 million for three years bid by the New York Mets.
"I'd like to make a decision by Sunday," said Rose, heading for the Philadelphia airport and his seventh city (unnamed) of the week. His next specified meeting is with the Galbreath brass of Pittsburgh at 4,200-acre Darby Dan Farm on Saturday.
"I thank God every morning for being alive," said Rose. "Then I thank Dick Wagner (the Reds' general manager). He made all this possible.
"For two months, I tried to talk with the owner of the team I played for for 15 years and never got a chance," said Rose. "Then these men (other owners) treat me like a son."
Rose, who has 3,164 major league hits, got a hit in a National League-record 44 straight games this year and has made All-Star teams at four different positions, seems to be leaning toward Kansas City.
"It might all boil down to which manager lets my kid on the field to practice," laughed Rose, whose son, Pete Jr., was barred from the Reds' field. "When I left home, Petey said, 'Gimme five (a hand slap), Dad. Gimme for Kansas City.'"
The Royals have promised that Pete Jr. can carry the lineup card and sing the anthem if he wants.
K.C. also has realistic lures:
A hitting-oriented, contending team with high attendance that specifically needs a leadoff hitter and a left fielder (a favorite Rose position). Rose would be welcomed, not resented by other players.
A slap-hitter's AstroTurf field.
A four-year contract with the promise that Rose can become the designated hitter, the better to assault Ty Cobb's all-time career hit record. That mark, not Stan Musial's NL hit record, has always been Rose's dream of dreams.
Just as important, the Royals are called "the Reds of the American League" -- a spit-in-the-eye bunch that takes its cue from scrappy Hal Mc-Rae, a former Rose teammate and idolator.
The clean-cut Midwestern Royals, a poor man's version of the once mighty Big Red Machine, even look like a lineup of Rose clones. Former hitting instructor Charley Lau unashamedly modeled the whole team's batting style after that of Rose.
Nevertheless, all those inducements are as nothing to Rose if the Royals do not offer him a stack of cash as high as their center field waterfall.
After all, Rose has learned that his biggest coast-to-coast hitting streak did not take place in July. It's happening now in November as baseball's most marketable man hits the banks of one town after another like a nineday Dillinger.
And has his choice of which one to clean out.