This could be the last big bash, the final vast chunk of baseball fun, that Pete Rose can grab and gobble like a greedy child. He knows it, of course. But, for the first time, he will almost confess to it, admit that the 40-year-old body has whispered something to the man inside it.

"I probably should have taken some days off this year . . . like the day in Atlanta when it was 104 degrees and I played both games of the doubleheader," said Rose, who, in two years as a Philadelphia Phillie has never missed a game. "I had the worst September of my life . . . and I've always been a strong finisher . . . yeah, maybe it's time to take a few off days next summer. s

"But, you know, the older you get . . . well, the days are coming to an end, so you want to enjoy them. You can't bear to give one away . . . not even one."

Rose is savoring this World Series. Here we thought no living man could enjoy a game, or embody it, more than Rose-in-bloom did baseball. And now we discover that a fading Rose loves it even more.

The 100 million eyes that watch Rose these days see no difference in him. Perhaps you would have to live the game to the bone -- live for the game, as he does -- to know the tiny telltale differences that speak only to him. It isn't the gray steaking into his hair more each year, or the way his upper trunk seems slightly less imposing now, or even the wrinkles in his weather-beaten skin that makes the sweat, when it is pouring down his face, look like rain running down the bark of a tree.

It isn't the mirror that concerns Rose. He has never been handsome, neither has Joe Crewcut or Prince Valiant. The best that can be said is that, with age, he has become powerfully ugly, along the lines of Lincoln, and that, when his mug lights up, the true innocent, infectious enthusiasm and confident simplicity of the man bursts through. Often now, Rose sits alone on the bench, leaning forward with his bat, handle up, between his knees so that his chin rests lightly on it. In repose, his face looks almost sad. Pete Rose would never pass for The Thinker, but he seems to be taking an interminable time-elapse photograph of the scene before him, one that will be etched into his memory for life.

"Everything's real vivid these days," he says. "I kinda look at things from the inside and the outside at the same time. Like when we played Houston, I was playing the game, you know, but I was also thinking about me trying to lead the Phillies into the Series and Joe Morgan trying to lead the Astros. You know, us two old buddies, who know how, trying to help these two teams that have never been there.

"Joe was limping, and I knew how he felt. I knew how bad it hurt him to be taken out for defense in the late innings of the last game. Playing hurt, that's one thing I've been trying to show to these guys (the Phils) for two years. This year I played with a hyperextension of the elbow for a month and with a broken toe for six weeks. In two years, I've never missed a game.

"Jeez, there are guys who think they're toughin' it out if they play with a headache. You can only lead one way -- 'Do as I do or as I did.' If players were paid by the game, not by the season, and they got docked every game they sat out . . . " Rose laughed, because this is one of his favorite notions, "then they'd say, 'God, it's gonna cost me a thousand bucks not to play today -- or two or three thousand bucks.' Then I bet I wouldn't be the only guy who's missed 10 games in 10 years."

Would Rose play for nothing, comes the stock question? Rose, a gent who appreciates money, fame, good clothes, cars, race tracks and women almost as much as baseball, isn't phony enough to swallow that line. "Maybe I would," he says, "if I didn't have those letters with the little windows (bills) coming to my mailbox every month."

Rose talks about leadership now because he knows it is what he does best. He is an institution -- a walking baseball way of life -- as much as a mere .282-hitting first baseman with one home run in 655 at-bats. Rose has a long speech ready about how he had as good a year this season as in '79 when he hit .331. And it is true that he had more runs produced (159 to 145) and made fewer errors. But Rose has always lived by statistics, so he won't deny them now. "You can interpret stats," he says, "but they never lie."

That's why, when the Phils clinched the division last week, Rose said quietly, off in a corner, "Maybe now I can redeem this season."

Already, he is doing it. "Yeah, I may have had the worst September of my life," his new song-to-himself begins, "but I'm also having the best October, so far."

True.

The switch-hitting baseman batted .400 in the playoffs, fielded brilliantly at the position that probably suits him better than any he has ever played, and could easily have been the NL Championship Series MVP.

On Sunday, Rose was leading the bench-jockeying against Houston's Nolan Ryan and eventually knocked him out of the game by drawing a dramatic bases-loaded full-count walk. "If you're so proud of that hook (curve) why don't you throw it?" taunted Rose, who hit .545 off Ryan this year. So, Ryan threw curves, got behind in the count and ended up walking to the shower as Rose walked to first.

In the Series opener Tuesday, he was screaming at Kansas City pitcher Dennis Leonard after deliberatley getting hit by a pitch, pointing his finger at the mound and generally leading the Phils to their comeback victory by his example. From first base, Rose pointed at Leonard twice and yelled, "You better stop throwin' over here. I ain't gonna steal second. You just don't want to throw to that guy at the plate (Mike Schmidt) 'cause he can tie this game up with one swing."

"I needle," says Rose, "but I don't hit below the belt. Ryan, for instance, is just a guy who knows the game, understands his (historic) place in it. I enjoy people who enjoy the game."

And this is the time of year for those people. "I'd like to see K.C. have a good Series, too, not just us," said Rose. "I never had more funthan in that '75 Series against the Red Sox. I'm a baseball fan. I believe that the best Series brings out the best players. This is the week that sells the season tickets next year . . . I want the game to do well. When I'm done playing, I'll still be in the ballpark most every night."

If a career that already has 3,557 hits, and probably won't stop this side of 4,000, can be said to have a high point, then this Philadelphia story may be the apotheosis of Rose's career. "I want to bring the World Championship to a town that hasn't won it in over 100 years," said Rose, half-kidding, when he signed as a Phil free agent. "If I can get the Phillies to win the World Series, I can do anything."

Now, he thinks that is coming to pass. "You have to lose a World Series before you realize how much you really wanted it," says Rose. "I keep tellin' these guys not to be satisified with just being here. I had to lose two ('70, '72) before I found that out. Then we won two ('75, '76 with Cincinnati).

"The statistics are just something that piles up with the years. You use those records as a way to motivate yourself day to day. But the only satisfaction that really stays with you is winning it all. After you've won the Series, nothing else is enough. It's all been disappointment since '76."

Rose has never been more satisified in his profession than now. "People just expected us to win in Cincinnati," said Rose, born and raised there. "People in Phillie are slapping themselves in the face asking if it's real. I must have had 100 people come up to me today and say, 'Thanks.' They didn't have to explain. That never happened in Cincinnati.

"Well, this is no dream. It's true. And it makes you feel proud as a peacock."