AFTER 22 years and 3,371 major league games you'd expect it might be old hat to Pete Rose, but his eyes still light up like a little boy's at the thought of Opening Day. ``You never get over the thrill,'' he said as his Cincinnati Reds prepared to launch the 1985 baseball season against Montreal today in Riverfront Stadium. ``I know I'll have goose bumps again. I always do.''
This is a historic season for Rose -- the one in which he almost surely will break Ty Cobb's longstanding record of 4,191 career hits. Several other veteran stars begin 1985 in quest of career milestones -- Tom Seaver and Phil Niekro aiming for the exclusive 300-victory club, Rod Carew going for his 3,000th hit, and Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan seeking an unprecedented 4,000 strikeouts. But in any season, for any player, manager, or just plain fan there's a special aura of excitement surrounding Opening Day.
Rose, of course, is all three of these things. He's a manager now, as well as a player, and he's been an ardent fan ever since his boyhood in Cincinnati.
``When I was a kid, if you could show an Opening Day ticket you were allowed out of school,'' Pete recalled the other day in Tampa, Fla., while alternately sharpening his own swing in the batting cage and directing the finishing touches of his first training camp as a manager.
``I went to a lot of games, starting when I was about 8 or 9,'' he added. ``My daddy used to take me. But Opening Day was always a special occasion -- especially in Cincinnati with all that tradition.''
Indeed, as the birthplace of professional baseball, Cincinnati was long accorded the privilege of launching the season one day ahead of all other teams. The National League continues to observe this tradition, but the American League, no longer willing to let its rival monopolize the day, has four openers of its own today with the other three tomorrow.
There will be a half million or so fans at the various games, including plenty of youngsters who manage not to be in school one way or another. Not many, of course, will ever play in a big-league game -- much less star for their own hometown team. But that's what happened to Rose, and although he has gone on to superstardom, he remembers his own first opener in 1963 as ``one of the most exciting moments of my entire career.''
``I'd gone to spring training as a 20-year-old on the minor league roster, and there I was playing for the Reds,'' he said. ``I was so high I had to slap myself to make sure it was all happening. Was I nervous? I was so excited I could have been nervous and not even known it.''
Now he's managing his first opener, and, although the Reds have been doormats of late, Pete has other ideas for 1985.
``I can't go into a season thinking we can improve and get to fourth place,'' he said. ``I don't believe in being unrealistic, but there are no outstanding teams in our division. Anything is possible.
``Look at the East Division last season. The Cubs and Mets were fifth and sixth the year before. If anybody told you last spring they'd be fighting for the pennant, you'd have laughed at him.''
Indeed, the only predictable thing about baseball is its unpredictability -- especially in this free-agent era with stars constantly moving from team to team. Each spring the ``experts'' look at last year's standings when making predictions -- and usually end up 100 percent wrong.
Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, looking forward to his first Opening Day as head of the game after replacing Bowie Kuhn last October, noted as much:
``Last year's four division champions won't appreciate it, but no team has repeated over the past three years, and that's a trend that will prove challenging to them,'' he told the Monitor.
As for the World Series, no team has won two in a row since the 1975-76 Cincinnati powerhouse. Ironically, the man who managed that club -- Sparky Anderson -- will be trying for an encore this year in Detroit. And like Rose, he has a full store of Opening Day memories.
``It's always a thrill -- but especially the first one,'' Sparky said in St. Petersburg, Fla., as his team met the St. Louis Cardinals in one of this spring's final exhibition games. ``I remember mine -- 1970 in Cincinnati. At the pre-game ceremonies, Montreal manager Gene Mauch turned to me and said, `Don't ever forget this first time, because you'll never have anything like this feeling again.' I tell all my young players that now -- because it's certainly true.''
Anderson, who played only one year in the big leagues -- 1959 in Philadelphia -- has fond memories of that opener, too.
``Don Newcombe was pitching for the Dodgers,'' he said. ``I just went up there swinging and hoping. Believe it or not, in the 8th inning I got the winning hit. The reporters were all around my locker after that game -- for the first and last time!''
The Tigers have the honor of launching this year's AL season via the earliest starting time, and Sparky can't wait.
``Taking a world champion out there on Opening Day is a little something extra,'' he said. ``And this time is even more special than those in Cincinnati. After I was let go there, I never dreamed I'd win another World Series. Now I look forward to three, four, or five more. I don't say I'm gonna get 'em. You never know. But with this team I know I have a shot.''
The Tigers do look tough, but then so do a lot of other teams after a typical off-season of trades and free-agent acquisitions. Relief ace Bruce Sutter in Atlanta, All-Star catcher Gary Carter with the New York Mets, base-stealing wizard Rickey Henderson with the Yankees, and slugging outfielder Fred Lynn in Baltimore are just a few of the big names wearing new uniforms this year. And now, after a winter of anticipation, the game comes home to its fans today and tomorrow via its annual Opening Day rituals.
Indeed, the question of whether the diamond sport is really still the ``national pastime'' really needs no further answers than the ones given each year at this time. Surely no other game has anything remotely comparable to the excitement baseball is able to generate even among casual fans by the simple act of starting its season. And it all unfolds again this week, as Rose trots out to first base in Cincinnati, Anderson and his Tigers collect their World Series rings in Detroit, and all the other players and teams swing into action throughout the land.