The night could have been historic for Pete Rose; he made it better, indelibly memorable, by being himself during one of those rare moments when a man shows his personal and professional priorities. With him, the cliche is genuine: what his team does is more important than what he does.
If Rose knew that Wednesday night in Veterans Stadium would be the last baseball game of his life, he might have acted differently. Knowing that if he did not get another chance against the Houston Astros he would share the honor of having the most hits of anyone ever in the National League, Rose might not have been so happy at not getting one more at bat.
Still, that was important. Wednesday night in the Vet was his. The second largest crowd of the season had gone out of its way after a heavy rainstorm to see him; his mother had come from Florida; Stan Musial had been on hold for three days; worse, Nolan Ryan had struck him out three times after surrendering a first-inning single.
Rose could use another swing. With an off day today and a player strike threatened for Friday, it was not certain when his next one might come.Suddenly, it seemed just minutes away, if the Phils tried very hard to tie the Astros in the eighth inning but not to go ahead.
They had been down, 4-0, but Ryan left the game with a two-hitter and a sore back after striking out Rose the third time and giving up a pinch-hit single. Against reliever Frank LaCorte, the Phils fired grenades all over the park. With two on and two out, what everybody except Rose rooted for was anything but a home run.
Even the hitter, Garry Maddox, wanted less than he delivered. His fantasy was to drive home both runners and then be stranded to end the inning with a 4-4 tie. That meant Rose would bat in the bottom of the ninth.
Rose had a different dream.
"Just after that one he fouled off," Rose said, "I had a feeling he'd hit one out. I told somebody, 'This one's out of the park.'"
It was, a prodigious blast that caused both a celebration and a letdown. Rose's chance probably would not come after all. But the first Phil out of the dugout after the Maddox mash was Rose, jumping and high-fiving it, hair flapping, a 40-year-old acting 14. And in character.
"It would have been better to have been a triple," Maddox said.
"That's just what I don't want," Rose snapped at the other end of the clubhouse. "I don't want anyone on this team thinking or acting like that. The main thing here is to keep winning. I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do."
That Rose is no fake baseball flower took many inside the game considerable time to realize.
"I remember (as a Met) other players getting on him," said teammate Tug McGraw. "I didn't agree, but I had to keep the thoughts to myself. I knew he was doing something they were too lazy to do. They were too hung up, too inhabited to be the player he is.
"Guys got on me for my enthusiasm. I knew they didn't understand; I understood Pete."
"They called me 'Hollywood,'" Rose said. "It stopped when I started throwing those .330s up there (in the late '60s). It never bothered me. I just laughed at 'em. All those guys are workin' for a living now. I'm still havin' fun."
Chasing Musial's record of 3,630 hits has been more pleasure than ordeal for Rose. He relishes such pressure, even thrives on it. Most athletes in his position work to avoid the ceaseless glare of the public spotlight; Rose rushes toward it.
"Glad so many care enough about me," he keeps saying. "I must hold the all-time record for having my picture in the paper on consecutive days."
It was tougher for Musial to set the record than for him to tie it, Rose volunteered.
"Hitting third or fourth," he said, "You don't get as many at bats. (Rose took three fewer seasons but 728 more at bats to muster as many hits at Musial.) Leadoff is ideal, if you can hit a baseball. Being the No. 1 hitter in the history of the league has been the ultimate goal, to this point."
That was an admission that 4,000 hits, even Try Cobb's major league record of 4,191, has been more on his mind of late than Musial's record. Musial thought the Cardinals' Garry Templeton has the best chance of any active player to catch Rose, if indeed he ever wilts. Rose sort of agreed.
"A fine hitter," Rose said, "and he doesn't walk much. But I don't know if he's gonna play 20 years or not. And let's wait and see how many hits I get. He got over 1,000 hits his first five years. But can he average 210 hits for 16 years, like I've done?"
Rose's schedule today was to include hustling his book and making a commercial for Grecian Formula Somethingorother, "so I won't have any gray when you come by and photograph me next week."
This was a half-hour after the game and Rose was relaxed in an interview room filled to World Series capacity. Earlier, he had been frustrated to the point of bat slamming at being so futile against Ryan after three record-tying single.
The nearly peerless contact hitter against the ultimate fireballer had heightened the drama. Rose had predicted weeks ago that he would break the record against Ryan during this game. Until Wednesday, he had struck out eight times.
As Ryan, his back having stiffened, walked off the mound in the eighth to a warm ovation from the crowd, Rose came to the top step of the dugout, pointing toward Ryan.
Astro pitcher Joe Niekro, seeing Rose, tapped Ryan on the shoulder. Ryan turned around and Rose tipped his cap to him. Ryan pointed at Rose, and returned the salute.
"Over the course of a season," Rose said, "I'll strike out 25 to 35 times.
I might do it all next week, or next month. But tonight don't mean I'm gonna strike out 15 of the next 20 times. I conceded tonight to him. He struck me out with a pitch on the outside corner, with a pitch on the inside corner and a curve ball down. Usually, he bounces the curve to me. Overthrows it. And he got ahead of me the last times.
"But he won't face us next week in Houston. I already got that figured out."
What will baseball face before then? Strike or no strike?
As always, Rose is being practical.
"A layoff'll help me," he said, "because I have the discipline to go someplace and work out. I just don't know any places here."
No coin-operated pitching machines?
"Nope. But there's one in Cincinnati. Real nice. It's for members only."
And what if Rose is refused admission shoud he need a BP fix?
"I'll buy the place if they don't let me in."