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Almost all of Philadelphia was wondering last week if Pete Rose would win the coveted Aqua Velva Cup. He had already put away Honus Wagner and was about to do the same to Ty Cobb, and now all that stood between Rose and this prize of prizes were those two immortals, Dan Meyer and John Grubb.
The Aqua Velva Cup—do you smell something?—is awarded to the player with the longest hitting streak in the majors each year. Actually, this is the cup's inaugural season. Last spring the aftershave people had Rose announce that, henceforth, a handsome trophy plus $1,000 for each game of the streak would be given to the winning player to remind America of Rose's 44-game streak of 1978—and also of what he splashes on in the morning. "I tried to get them to make it retroactive," says Rose, "but they wouldn't go for it."
So Rose decided to win it for himself. By last Sunday he was at 20 games and counting, which put him just one shy of tying Meyer of the Mariners and Grubb of the Rangers for the longest streak this season. More significant, Rose has been on such a tear the last two weeks that he has raised his average 24 points to .332, an astonishing feat this late in the season. "Nobody does that," says Rose, "not even me." But Pete has been hot since the last week in August, having hit in 28 of 29 games, and since new Manager Dallas Green put Rose back in the leadoff spot on Sept. 11, he has been batting .560. Let that sink in.
Green shifted Rose from the No. 3 spot, where he'd been hitting most of the season, to perk up the Phillies' offense and give Pete a chance at 200 hits for the 10th time, which would surpass the major league record of nine he holds with Cobb. At the time Rose needed 32 hits in 20 games, and that, of course, was impossible. But Pete began to unload base hits like a machine gun gone berserk, and last Sunday he picked up No. 199, giving him six more games to get the big one.
Even more amazing—and that's the one word everybody utters in describing Rose nowadays—he just may win his fourth batting title. Two weeks ago he trailed Keith Hernandez of the Cardinals by 24 points. With a week to go, the margin is down to 12. When Rose arrived in St. Louis last week, he found a note in his locker that read, "You're not going to catch me, old man." The clubhouse man, Buddy Bates, not Hernandez, had left the note, but Hernandez was well aware that he was being pressed. He was visibly upset when St. Louis writer Jack Herman gave Rose a hit on what should have been an error in a Phillies-Cardinals game last Tuesday. "I can't believe they gave you a hit in my hometown," Hernandez told Rose.
"It would be nice to go home to Cincinnati this winter with a batting title," says Rose. "If the Reds win their division, the pennant and the Series, and with Ray Knight [his Cincy replacement] batting .319, they won't let me into town if I don't win it."
It can be argued that Rose's season, his first in Philadelphia, has been his best ever. In addition to the 200 hits he's almost certain to get, he will probably draw at least 100 walks, having had 94 as of last Sunday. The only other year he had that many walks was 1974, which was the only season since 1965 that he hasn't hit .300 or better. His on-base percentage of .422 is his best since 1969. If he stays hot, he could have the second highest batting average of his career, his best being .348 in 1969. Although 38, Rose has a career-high 17 stolen bases. He is the first one to the ball park every day, he hasn't missed a game, he even busies himself retrieving balls during batting practice. And he has performed capably in his initial season at his fifth position, first base. "I have as much confidence in him as I've had in any first baseman," says Shortstop Larry Bowa.
Rose was plucked away from Cincinnati for $3.5 million so that he would lead the Phils not only to their fourth straight division title, but also into the World Series and ultimate victory. So why is Philadelphia fighting for third place in the NL East? Count the ways. There's the injury factor: Rose is the only regular who hasn't missed at least several games. There's the pitching factor: the staff ERA is 4.20, 11th in the league. And there's the windpipe factor. Rose passed Honus Wagner last week for fifth place on the career runs list, but he has scored only 82 runs this season, a figure he calls "a mystery statistic" out of politeness. There's no mystery at all. Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski and the other guys who were supposed to knock in runs did it. Or didn't do it.
Fourth place aside. Year 1 in Philadelphia has not been an easy one for Rose. There was a paternity suit, the separation from his wife Karolyn, her intimate revelations about Pete in print, a session with a mean-spirited interviewer in Playboy and recent divorce proceedings. "I don't do anything but pick up the papers and read about what I'm supposed to be doing," says Rose. "The easiest way to handle it is base hits. Batting .330 is less trouble than batting .230." Of course, nobody cares what .230 hitters do off the field.
On the field he is still a marvel. "He is the most exciting ballplayer of this age," says Phillie Catcher Tim McCarver, who's been watching Rose for 17 years. "He's one guy I would pay twice the admission price to see. He's an easy guy to praise from a ballplayer's point of view because he truly puts forth that extra effort day in and day out. His concentration at the plate is about as pure as a hitter's can be.