Later that afternoon, sitting in his plush, windowless office at Riverfront Stadium, another man is wearing a frown. He is Dick Wagner, president and chief executive officer of the Reds. Why is this man frowning? Is it because his team has finished out of the playoffs for the second straight year? Is it because his club, as recently as 1976 hailed as the greatest team since the 1927 Yanks, will creak into the New Year with six of its eight starting players over 30 years of age unless changes are made? Is it because the Reds' "final offer" in contract negotiations with Rose was flatly turned down and that Cincy's most popular player will thus enter Friday's free-agent draft? Is it because Rose has told Wagner he wants to be the highest-paid player in baseball? Is it because the man Wagner names as most likely to fill Rose's shoes in the event of Pete's defection is a defensive specialist named Ray Knight, who batted .200 in 1978? Or is it all of the above?
Wagner sits like a man whose underwear is woolen. Perhaps it is his uncomfortable shifting that makes less than convincing his claim: "I like Pete; everyone likes Pete; how can you not like Pete?"
Wagner met with Rose and Reuven Katz, Pete's attorney, on Oct. 2. Wagner offered Rose a raise after a year in which Pete hit .302, had 198 hits, scored 103 runs and had a 44-game hitting streak that captivated the country. Rose turned him down. "He didn't even make me a counterproposal," says Wagner. "I asked him what he was thinking in terms of, and he and Katz threw phrases at me like, 'The sky's the limit.' "
That afternoon the Reds' management enraged Rose and Katz by releasing the news that Rose had turned down the highest salary in the history of the organization. Katz took the front office to task, saying, "Technically, they're right, but salary is only one part of a contract. There is also a little matter of signing bonuses. They can run into a lot of money. The Reds' release was deliberately misleading. Their offer definitely did not make Pete the best-paid Red."
On Oct. 9 Rose and Katz returned with a counterproposal. Wagner rejected it, and the next day he made his final offer, which was "around $400,000," according to Rose. Wagner wanted Rose's answer as soon as possible. "I've been here 16 years, and they wanted me to make up my mind in eight days," says Rose. "The World Series was still going on. They won't negotiate. They never have."
Rose turned Wagner's offer down, and on Oct. 18 declared himself a free agent. Shortly thereafter he named the eight teams besides the Reds that he would consider playing for: the Dodgers, Phillies and Padres in the National League; the Yankees, Red Sox, Royals, Angels and Rangers in the American. All are offense-minded teams with generous owners and/or high attendance.
Rose's serious contractual hassles with the Reds go back to 1975, when the club, according to Katz, forced Rose to take a salary cut after his batting average fell to .284 although he played in 163 games and led the league in doubles and runs. Wagner was named general manager in 1977 and promptly alienated Rose during a contract dispute that spring by taking out advertisements in two local newspapers detailing why the Reds were not meeting his demands. Rose eventually signed for a tidy $365,000 per year, but the ads left him bitter and embarrassed. "That wasn't something I was proud of," admits Wagner. "Pete is the only guy I know who uses the media to negotiate, and that's what we did. When no Cincinnati reporter would write our side of the story, we simply paid to have it told."
If Wagner is concerned that his All-Star third baseman will pack up for greener pastures, he doesn't show it. Shortly after negotiations broke down on Oct. 12, he told Katz that the Reds' final offer was "off the table" and that the next move was Rose's. "When we made Pete that offer, we tried to take all his accomplishments into consideration," says Wagner. "But he wants to be the highest-paid player in the game. He told me that." Wagner does not think Rose is worth it.
Counters Rose, "I've worked as hard as anybody in baseball for 16 years. I've been more consistent than anybody. I reached 3,000 hits faster than any guy in history. I really believe I've reached the top of my profession, and I want to be paid like it. You can agree with me or not, but I don't think you can say I should be the 15th-best-paid player."