The good news is that Pete Rose gave a virtuoso batting performance last week. The bad news is that he did it playing pepper. Rose took those artful swings in Busch Stadium several hours before a game between his Phillies and the Cardinals. He swung casually, effortlessly. No matter how bad the throw, he hit smartly to each fielder in turn. But when the game began Rose was on the bench.
For the first time since fans began to think of Rose as Ty Cobb's heir apparent as the record holder for career hits, there's doubt about his chances. Even Rose, in a rare unguarded moment, admitted as much last week: "It's obvious I can't catch Cobb if I'm not playing regularly." At week's end he trailed Cobb by 272 hits, 4,191 to 3,919—a formidable number when you are 42 years old, coming off your worst season in 18 years, batting .264—and your team's owner is talking about releasing you.
After going 0 for 20 from May 30 to June 7 and slumping to .238, Rose was benched for the first time in his 21-year career. He kept appearing as a pinch hitter and late-inning defensive replacement—indeed, last weekend he tied his personal best of 678 consecutive games played—but his run of nonstarts reached nine before he resumed, at least for the moment, his spot among the regulars Saturday night. The prospect of that start caused Rose to say, "My job is to play my tail off and get two hits a night so they won't want to take me out." Rose, starting at first base, did even better than that, getting three hits as the Phillies beat Pittsburgh 6-4. But on Sunday, in a 14-2 victory, Rose started in rightfield and was 1 for 4.
Rose isn't about to admit to anything so obvious as the ravages of age. With characteristic bravado, he has an answer for every question.
"To be honest with you, I saw the ball good," he says. "I was batting second for the first time, and I had a different role. I look at my .271 as a .291."
"When I went 0 for 20, I wasn't swinging and missing, I just wasn't getting hits. When I go into a real slump, I start topping the ball. I wasn't doing that, so I wasn't worried. I never struck out and I wasn't tentative in my swing. I could easily have had six or seven hits."
"Pat [ Manager Pat Corrales] didn't ask me. I just got to the ball park and saw that I wasn't in the lineup. It's too bad this isn't basketball, where the sixth man plays as many minutes as the guys who start."