The scenario was perfect.
Pete Rose, the protagonist, had likened it to a Hollywood script. The matchup was as he had predicted it would be: Rose, about to become the National League's all-time hit leader, against Nolan Ryan, one of history's great strikeout pitchers. There were 57,386 in the audience, and the threat of a strike, making the future uncertain, only added to the plot line.
But tonight, on a cool, breezy evening, the scriptwriter struck out. He left the audience wanting more, demanding a conclusive ending. Instead, all the audience got was a tie.
In the first inning, Rose lined a single to left center to tie Stan Musial's all-time National League hit record of 3,630. He then struck out three times, the last time in the eigth inning, leaving Rose so frustrated that he slammed his bat to the ground in disgust.
"If everyone I ever faced pitched me like he did tonight, I'd be going for my 1,000th hit, not my 3,631st," Rose said. "He threw just so hard. When I got that hit in the first, I felt about 20. But the time I struck out in the eighth, I felt my age, 40."
The fact that Rose's Philadelphia Phillies rallied after his final strikeout for five runs against relief pitcher Frank LaCorte to be Ryan's Houston Astro's, 5-4, was incidental. It was so incidental that the Phillie fans cheered in the top of the ninth when the Astros' Harry Spilman singled and thoughts of a Houston rally that would have required a Phillie ninth and another Rose at bat danced through the minds of the suddenly unfaithful.
The game tonight was Rose versus Ryan. Period.
Rose had predicted two weeks ago that he would break the record tonight against Ryan. When Judge Henry F. Werker ruled against the players association this afternoon, meaning this might be Rose's last chance at the record for a while, the stage seemed set.
Musial, who had been in Philadelphia since Monday but had not sat through a game, was here early, glancing at the rainy skies that wiped out batting practice and threatened the game. "I hope he breaks it tonight, I really do," said Musial.
Rose's mother Laverne Noeth had flown in from Florida and she joined Musial in a box next to the Phillie dugout. Rose's daughter Fawn also flew in, from Cincinnati, on a private plane. His son Petey was in his accustomed spot in the dugout wearing uniform No. 14 and taking plate umpire Doug Harvey the baseballs, one of which he presumed would end up in the Hall of Fame after his father set the record.
But Ryan, who had the misfortune of leaving the game to LaCorte because his back stiffened one batter after Rose's last strikeout, did not want to become part of history.
"When he got the hit in the first inning, I thought I was going to go down as the pitcher who gave up the record breaking hit," Ryan said.
"We didn't talk but I nodded to him when he got the hit and he tipped his cap at me after the last strikeout. I was up, way up. There were 50,000 people here and I knew they weren't here to see Nolan Ryan pitch, they were here to see Pete Rose break the record off Nolan Ryan."
It started out as if it would be just that way. By the time Rose stepped into the batter's box in the first inning and went into his deep crouch, the crowd was standing, reacting to every pitch.
Ryan fell behind, 2-1, and came in with a high fast ball, away. Rose slammed it on a line to left-center field. For a split second it appeared that center fielder Tony Scott might get to it. But he pulled up short and played the sinking ball on a short hop.
Rose got a three minute standing ovation for equaling the record and he happily shook his fist and tipped his hat. "I was thinking maybe I'd get two or three hits," he said.
In the third, the anticipation was electric. Ryan quickly unplugged it with three fast balls, all of which Rose looked at for strikes. "That was good morning, good afternoon, good evening and goodbye," Rose said. "I've never seen anyone throw that hard."
In the fifth, the count went to 2-2, then Ryan fooled Rose, throwing a hard curve that Rose started to swing at about the same moment Ryan took his third step to the dugout.
In the eighth, Ryan finished the competition. By now, the crowd was pleading with Rose to get a hit, something no one had done since Rose in the first.
Rose stepped in, took off his helmet to shake out his shaggy, graying hair, and dug in deep, his back foot all but out of the batter's box. Ryan, recognizing the dramatic situation, turned toward center field and took a deep breath before turning to work.
First, a fast ball. Called strike. Rose spat a few words at Harvey. Then, another fast ball, high and outside. Another fast ball. Rose made contact, fouling it down the left field line.
Now, it was 1-2. Rose knew it would be a fast ball. It was, up and in. Rose swung so hard he almost jumped in the air. But he wasn't even close. Angry, disappointed, he slammed the bat to the ground.
Rose was down, but certainly not out. "I hope there's no strike," he said.
"I'm planning to come to the park Friday to play an 8:05 game and face Gaylord Perry.
Suddenly, Rose smiled. "Maybe," he said, "I can get a hit off him. He's older than I am."