Pete Rose accomplished something yesterday that was almost as difficult as his 44-game hitting streak.
He satisfied the demands of his simple, no-frills conscience while filling his wallet at the same time. In the process, he polished his carefully nurtured image. That's a tough triple crown.
For the past week, Rose has put himself on crude public auction, barnstormed the country playing all ends against the middle and wrung the financial arms of a half-dozen baseball owners until they nearly fell off.
Yet when Rose signed yesterday with Philadelphia for $800,000 a year for four seasons, he came out rich, happy and still smelling something like a Rose.
Once again, baseball was reminded of Rose's fascinating blend of candor and craftiness. Some call it business sense, although those in search of thorns will call it greed.
Rose lived up to every ground rule of dignity and fair play that he imposed on himself more than a month ago.
His one-week flying circus ended with an announcement at exactly the minute Rose had set as his own deadline. In fact, he signed with the very team that had been his favorite all along and for the reasons he had always given: to stay in his own league and to play with men who were already his friends.
Once again, Rose had turned a potential tub of boiling oil into a nice relaxing warm bath. With only slight air-brushing, his selling of himself could be held up to children as a model of how to conduct a Rose Bowl.
Nevertheless, Rose used an ancient ploy -- the innocent "Gee, I'm sorry" smile -- to jack up Philadelphia's "best and final" offer by more than a million dollars. Rose and lawyer Reuven Katz made themselves the most endearing city-to-city robbers since Bonnie and Clyde.
"Some people say we were a flying circus," said Rose yesterday at an Orlando, Fla., press conference. "But we never asked for anything. The offers just came pouring in. We never once made an appointment that we didn't keep. I'm very proud of the way we negotiated.
"I didn't take the best offer, not by far. The other four teams (Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Atlanta) all made higher bids. But the contract I signed wasn't too bad.If you stacked up all the cash, a show horse couldn't jump over it."
Rose's air of naivete served him well. When he met with Philadelphia last Thursday, he looked like Sad Sack telling them how miserable it made him feel to tell them that their $1.8 million offer was about half what he would consider.
At the Phils' "we-lost-Pete" news conference, Rose dragged out all the reasons why he wanted to play in Philadelphia, making it clear that cash was the only obstacle.
No one ever put on a multimillion-dollar squeeze play with greater finesse or a more insouciant smile. When Phil President Bill Giles asked Rose if he'd listen to one more offer, Charlie the Hustler said, "Golly, I'll be home Sunday."
That Sunday phone call iced the deal. The Phils, who already have baseball's highest payroll (average $139,000 a man), didn't have to match the $1-million-a-year offers of Pittsburgh and Atlanta, but they had to get into that ballpark.
Rose has already anticipated every possible scream of protest against his getting the biggest salary in baseball history -- topping new teammate Mike Schmidt's $600,000 a year.
Was he disloyal to the Cincinnati Reds?
"The Reds could have signed me in May to a nonguaranteed career contract for half what I just got. I was willing. They said I was too old. Hey, what's this talk about loyalty? Were the Reds loyal to Tony Perez or Sparky Anderson?"
Rose was asked about Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's statement on Monday that free-agent bidding would "inevitably lead to a group of elite teams controling the sport. Five teams have signed 53 percent of the free agents in three years."
Rose gave the answer dear to the heart of every lunch-pail carrier: "If the owners didn't have it, they wouldn't give it away... I've been the most consistent player of my generation. There are a lot of players better than me, but I do my job year in and year out. There must have been 15 guys getting paid more than me the last couple of years. Was that fair?
By baseball's traditional theorem that you are paid in old age for the brilliance of your youth, Rose deserves his bonanza.
His career statistics, his personality and his goodwill ambassadorship for the game are among the best in history. However, the irony of this week's bidding war is that Rose, judged on his present merits as a player, is probably not one of the 30 best everyday players in the game. Balanced against his.300 leadoff hitting, his leadership and indestructability are a glove and feet of lead. Even in a baseball attack, Rose is always the catalyst, never the explosion.
At first base, where the Phils presumably will teach Rose his fifth defensive position after they trade Richie Hebner, the switch-hitter's lack of power will also show up. A singles-hitting first-sacker is a rare baseball luxury -- especially a 38-year-old one with little range or speed.
The Phils already had more players suited to batting first or second than any team in baseball -- Bake McBride, Garry Maddox and Larry Bowa. Rose's personality, not his remaining skills, were what captivated the Phils.
"Everybody says Rose is going to do it... win it all," said Hebner, who expects a trade soon. "They must think this guy walks on water. He doesn't bring any guarantees with him... Right now, I couldn't care less. I'm just sick of everything that's gone on."
Hebner may not be alone in digging a Philadelphia grave for Rose. Manager Danny Ozark can hardly feel secure knowing that Rose said earlier this week that. "If the Phils sign Sparky Anderson to manage, I'd sign with 'em in a minute." The Phils hardly need more grist for the boobirds' mill.
Rose may find that the Phils have not gone championless for a century without a certain special knack for failure.
Nevertheless, for one day at least, Philadelphians can rejoice. It is stingy Cincinnati management that is left to grieve over an unlikely Rose epitaph: "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."