West Palm Beach, Fla. — Pete Rose, who needs only 202 hits to break Ty Cobb's record of 4,191, is starting out anew this season with his third major league team - the Montreal Expos. He's listed as the left fielder, but in view of his .245 average with just 17 extra base hits last year, and with birthday No. 43 coming up in April, there are those who doubt that he can ever again be more than a part-time player.
''They can say what they want, but my track record tells me that I can come back after one bad year and be just as good as I've ever been,'' Rose told me during a break at the Expos' spring training camp here. ''You're going to have to take my word for this, but I handled all types of pitching last year as well as I ever did. I wasn't swinging and missing or popping up. I just wasn't getting the number of hits that I usually do.''
Rose also pointed out that he made his 121 hits count - as indicated by his 45 runs batted in.
''You know, that's not a bad ratio of RBIs to hits,'' said the switch-hitting veteran of 21 big league seasons. ''And if Philly hadn't lost the World Series, nobody would have said anything about my average.''
The Phillies did lose, though, and eventually dropped Rose - a move he hopes to show them was a mistake.
''If the problem had been a mechanical one, I'd have corrected it, because I've always been able to get out of slumps before by analyzing myself,'' he said. ''But I'm a guy who plays a lot on momentum, and getting it back after being taken out of the lineup can be tough.
''Often last year when I'd have a hot streak going, Philly would have a day game after a night game and they'd bench me. Well, you don't rest a hitter like me when he's in a groove, but they (he meant manager Paul Owens) did it anyway. Listen, I didn't get over 200 hits 10 times in the big leagues sitting on the bench.''
What bothered him more than the benching itself, though, was the impression it created around the rest of the league that he was no longer an everyday player.
''When I went looking for a job after Philadelphia dropped me, it wasn't anything like what happened when I left Cincinnati after the 1978 season,'' Pete said. ''Then everybody wanted me and were offering all kinds of good deals. But this time I had to convince a lot of people that they wouldn't be spending their money on a part-timer.
''In some ways Montreal is going to be tough for me because my leadoff years have always been my best ones, and this time I'll be hitting behind Tim Raines (who stole 90 bases last season). Even under ordinary conditions that No. 2 spot in the order is tough to handle. But when you've got a guy ahead of you who has permission to run any time he wants, you have to be ready to swing on every pitch, even if it's nowhere near the strike zone.
''That's going to hurt my chances for a high average, and also of getting the 202 hits I need to break Cobb's record. But I want everyone to know I'm not complaining. Not everyone in this league has the tools or the mental attitude to hit second, or even understands the importance of giving himself up in the batter's box to move the runner along. But I'd rather play in a World Series anytime than win every individual award in baseball.''
Rose, the only man to have played more than 500 games at each of five different positions (left and right field, plus first, second, and third base), is moving again this season from first base to left field - a position he last played regularly in 1974.
''I have to like the idea of going back to left field because it obviously is the easiest of the outfield positions and requires a lot less concentration than first base,'' Rose said. ''That means I can devote a lot more time to thinking about my hitting. Of course anytime a team plays all of its home games on synthetic turf, the left fielder, to be effective, has to charge ground balls to keep the opposition from taking the extra base. And there are days when the ball is going to bounce over your head or skip through one of the power alleys for extra bases.
''The first time this happens to me, I know somebody is going to bring up my age,'' he continued. ''It's inevitable. But let me tell you something: it doesn't make any difference on synthetic turf if you've got the world's greatest sprinter going for you - sometimes there just isn't enough time to cut the ball off.''
Rose says baseball is divided into two phases - offense and defense - and you have to concentrate on one at a time. ''You can't be thinking offense when you're playing defense, and vice versa, although a lot of guys do,'' he said.
Another thing, he noted, is that that you have to work on all aspects of your game.
''I've watched rookies and veterans work out for years, and the thing they practiced most is the thing they already do best,'' he said. ''That's why there are so many one-dimensional players - because they won't pay the price it takes in time spent with a coach to practice what they don't like. Those kinds will get by, but they won't ever be great. When I broke in as a kid, I was taught that playing good defense is an obligation to the pitcher.''
Rose says most ballplayers don't begin to reach their potential until they are at least 30, so there is plenty of time to improve along the way if they'll work at it.
''If you take care of yourself physically, there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to play major league baseball well into your 40s,'' said Pete, who still favors his Prince Valiant haircut. ''I never saw my father smoke, drink hard liquor, or argue with my mother, and I don't mind telling you he was my role model as a kid.''
Asked if he would someday consider managing, Rose, who once hit safely in a National League record 44 games, replied: ''I will think about managing when the time comes. But I don't know if I could motivate anyone with a long-term contract that pays him a million or so dollars a year. I guess my trouble is that I only admire players who give a day's work for a day's pay!''