At most of America's megahype sporting events, the stage is dominated by peripheral debris.

To some extent, that's true here, too, with the inevitable Pete Rose T-shirts and buttons and posters. Even Andy Warhol has his palm out with what amount to baseball cards blown up to painting size being passed off as art.

Nonetheless, the centerpiece of Rose's pursuit of Ty Cobb's hit record has been Rose himself. He's been jock, entertainer, comic, pundit and celebrity all rolled into one.

Three hundred writers are here, covering Rose, but the best columnist might be Rose himself. A transcript of his daily press conferences would shame most of what's being produced by the fourth estate.

Pick any subject and Rose shines.

Anticipating a phone call from President Reagan, Rose recalled his 3,631st hit in 1981 (the National League record) when he was chastised by some for disrespect and flippancy. "The last time the president called, he couldn't get through. I was talking to the press about something it took me 19 years to accomplish and somebody says, 'Hold for the president,' then nothing happens. I hang up. Three times, 'Hold on for the president.' And nothing," said Rose.

"He finally gets on the line and says, 'Hi, Pete, it's the president.'

"What the hell are ya supposed to do? I said: 'How ya doin'?' I mean I couldn't get down on my knees. He couldn't see me. Should I say, 'Okay, I'm down on my knees now'?

"With those phones," added Rose, "I was gettin' worried. I was thinking, 'I'm glad there ain't a missile on the way.' "

This time, the Reds had three phones installed just for such a call. "Yeah," said Rose, "but what if, about 9:30 (p.m.), the ayatollah decides to go crazy? He already knocked me off the cover of Time magazine once."

Rose was asked if "it was hard to get a phone call through in Philadelphia (in '81)."

"From what I read (about court testimony in the Pittsburgh cocaine trial), it's pretty easy to get through to the Philadelphia clubhouse," quipped the 44-year-old player-manager.

Pressed about his feelings about the way drug scandal news is challenging him for headline space, even in his hometown Cincinnati papers, Rose said, "It's obvious that some guys made a mistake three, four years ago. Take my man (Dave Parker). I see no reason why he should have to defend himself . . . It's the same five, six names that get mentioned over and over. How many people care?"

Some, who don't know Rose well, ask him if he'll become depressed or have a letdown after finally catching Cobb. Rose looks at such folks with sympathetic bemusement.

"The next week or two, I think I'm going to go on a hot tear," he says. "After I get the hit, I think I'm going to slap myself in the face and say, 'You're supposed to get hits now, boy.'

" . . . I'm fifth in the league in on-base percentage, but I think I can get up to second.

" . . . (After 4,192) I'll just keep addin' on. Make it as tough as possible for the guy who tries to catch me. I don't know if anybody in this room will be around then . . .

"I'd like to pass Cobb (for the No. 1 spot) in runs scored, if I can. I think I need, how many, about 100 now?"

The answer: 101.

That should answer any queries about when Rose intends to retire. He'll score about 60 runs this year, so he'd need at least two more years as a platoon regular getting 400 at bats.

When people joke about him playing in some capacity until he's 60 years old, or getting 5,000 hits, he laughs. But he never says he won't.

"Pete's had good luck on his side," said former Reds star Johnny Bench. "If the Reds didn't need a manager (in '84), I'm not sure he'd even be close. Maybe it was fate or destiny."

The last two days here have been one long Rose-colored party. The sign on a bar called Caddy's said it for many: "After The Hit, It's Time To Party For Pete Sake."

Rose lovers have come from as far away as Japan. Hiroto Seki, 21, a student from Ichikawa, may hold the distance record. "I have wanted to see major league baseball for 19 years," he said. "There is no player like Pete Rose in Japan."

The festive mood even has swept up the Padres, who should be glum about the fact that they're one game behind the Reds for second place and about to be dethroned as NL champs. To a man, the Padres pitchers say they don't want to give up the historic hit, but wouldn't be much disturbed if they did, provided it didn't cost them a victory.

The Padres even have joked about holding the 4,192nd ball hostage -- throwing it back into their dugout -- until Reds owner Marge Schott (who made her money in selling cars) agrees to give a free car in return for it.

At the center of the hurricane, yet almost outside the storm, is Rose, the man that Tom Seaver once said "reacted to pressure in an almost saintly way."

Asked if he were worried that a San Diego pitcher might cheapen his moment by deliberately grooving a pitch, Rose was off on one of his wonderful tales.

"It might mess me up," he said. "Back in 1963, I had gone about 25 for 35 against the Phils. I stepped up one day, turned to catcher Mike Ryan and said, 'Mike, how ya doin?'

"All Ryan said was, 'Gene says to tell you what's coming.' "

The Phillies' brainy manager, Gene Mauch, thought that Rose might be distracted by worrying about whether the catcher's information was true. For three at bats, it worked, as Rose thought too much and made outs. Once, Rose even turned to umpire Jocko Conlin and said, "Jocko, I don't need no help."

Finally, in the ninth inning with the game on the line, catcher Ryan said, "Curve ball."

"I've never been a guess hitter," said Rose. "Always look for a fast ball, then react. But that time, I said, 'I'm looking for this fast ball.' I hit it off the top of the scoreboard to beat 'em, 2-1.

"Well, the next day, I lead off the game," Rose continued with a grin. "Ryan's catching and I tap the plate, look back and say, 'Mike, how you doin?' Ryan just looked up at me and said, 'Mauch told me to tell you to go to hell.' "