He's accomplished almost everything that's possible in baseball -- broken Ty Cobb's career hit record and Hank Aaron's National League mark for runs. He's gotten his 1,500 walks, 1,000 extra-base hits and played in more winning games than anybody ever. Every attainable record is his by now and nothing fresh is even on the horizon. He's even been manager of the year.
So, now, Pete Rose is really hungry.
Now that he's rich beyond dreams, famous beyond ego and the father of a new baby son -- now that he has every conceivable reason to mellow -- Rose is wired tight.
Now that he's just days from his 45th birthday and everybody says he's finally finished -- yes, washed up and on his last gimpy legs -- Rose is ready to accomplish something truly difficult.
He's gonna show 'em. Play some hardball. Turn back the clock. Play every day. Hit .300 again. And lead his Cincinnati Reds to the World Series.
As a player.
Nobody assigned him this impossible task. He picked it out all by himself. Hubris and heroism aren't far apart.
This year, Manager Rose says his everyday first baseman against both left- and right-handed pitching will be player Rose. Tony Perez, who hit .328 as a platoon first baseman last season, is now just an occasional starter. Rose is going with Rose against southpaws, too. Why not? The few times he played against 'em last year, Rose hit .354.
Rose's hair is no longer gray. It's more orange. And, just lapping over his collar, is a small piratical pigtail worthy of some punk rocker like Billy Idol. What, no skull-and-crossbones earring? "The Grecian [Formula] is just workin' better," said Rose. "Ya don't think I'd endorse something that don't work, do ya?" As for the pigtail, Rose would have you believe it was there last season. Riiiight.
What's more glorious than total self-delusion? Especially when you make it come true. Shape up, Pete. Cooperate. Act your age. Limp a little.
All winter, folks have been on Rose's case. The writers, radio and television pundits and baseball insiders who loved him during The Chase changed their tune and started saying he should retire as a player because he was an old Punch-'n'-Judy clogging up a power position.
The best thing about the Reds, they said, was their young manager named Rose who inspires his players and stomps his foot until owner Marge Schott opens her purses and spends for big-name players like Buddy Bell, Bo Diaz, John Denny and Bill Gullickson. But the worst thing about the Reds, they also said, was that ancient first baseman Rose. Two homers last year. What a joke. Get him gone.
"Grrrrrr," says Rose.
The whole situation got on the great man's nerves so badly that he had to go to the hospital this month for X-rays and tests to make sure all those stomach pains didn't signal an ulcer.
"Just a bellyache. There is nothing wrong with me," said Rose, ever so slowly, with such a glare it seemed tantamount to a threat.
Earlier this month, Rose sent a message through the grapevine to a veteran National League writer: "When it's time for me to retire, I'll know it. Nobody will have to tell me."
For those of us who wished he would retire after he hit .245 for the Phillies in '83; for those of us who gnashed our teeth when he embarrassed himself by forcing his free agent services on the Expos in '84; for those of us who wrote that he had degenerated into the worst offensive first baseman in the NL in recent years, Rose has two responses.
A defiant grin and a laugh.
Rose is in his element again this spring. If you thought he had a goal last year when Cobb was finally in his sights, you should see him now. That was for glory. This is survival. If you want to cross Rose's name off the lineup card, bring a gun.
"I'll be better this year," vowed Rose, who had one of the best old-age comebacks in history last season when his on-base percentage was fourth best in the league (.395). "I was up to .301 [batting] last year when Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News all camped out with me for about two weeks. I cooperated the best I could, but I might have done too much. My average went down to .270 and stayed.
"In our lineup, I'm perfect to hit No. 2. I can advance runners, hit through the open hole [off first base with men on] and take a walk [86 last year in just 495 plate appearances]. People say we need a slugger at first base," said Rose, gulping down enough salad with dressing that you wonder why he doesn't just go ahead and eat two steaks. "Well, playing one run at a time helps this team because we have such good pitching. We had the best record in the league last year in one-run and extra-inning games."
Now it can be told: Rose never intended to platoon himself last year. "Perez just got so hot that I couldn't take him out of the lineup. That could happen again. Hey, I manage one way -- win. Nothing gets in the way of that."
When Rose arrived late in '84, the Reds looked like a ruined franchise. Rose spotted kids who could play, inspired veterans who had ceased to care, got career seasons out of unknowns and made trades for just the people he wanted.
"Nobody seems to notice it, but I played with Diaz, Gullickson and Denny when I was in Philadelphia and Montreal. I know their habits, their pride."
Some may see Rose as a man on a bizarre quest to prove he alone can ignore the aging process. With Rose, simpler explanations usually work better.
"It shouldn't be an effort to get to the park. I've seen guys making a million who were grouchy all the time," said Rose. "You want to enjoy your business. This game should always be fun."
Since it still is, Rose intends to keep playing. Just about every day.