Tampa, Fla. — While most of Pete Rose's headlines last season came for breaking Ty Cobb's career record of 4,191 hits, he had quite a debut as a manager too. Many baseball people thought Rose was the best pilot in the National League for the job he did coaxing 89 wins and a runner-up finish out of a Cincinnati team that had finished next-to-last the year before. Now everybody seems to be wondering if he and the Reds have a second act -- or could 1985 have been a kind of wonderful fluke? Rose, of course, believes his club will be right in the thick of things again. In fact, thanks to the addition of two starting pitchers via off-season trades, he thinks the 1986 Reds can mount an even sterner challenge to the defending division champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
The newcomers -- 1983 Cy Young Award winner John Denny, acquired from Philadelphia, and veteran ex-Montreal right-hander Bill Gullickson -- both have been solid winners in the past. But when Rose says this pair added to 1985 starters Tom Browning (20-9) and Mario Soto (12-15) puts his front-line pitching on a par with that of the Dodgers, you have to wonder how much is sizzle and how much is steak.
Although Denny, who has a history of elbow and shoulder problems, worked 230 innings last season to lead the Phillies in that department, he finished just six of his 33 starts while winning 11 games and losing 14. Still, it's the kind of trade a general manager makes for an established pitcher if he thinks his club has enough of everything else to win a division title. Meanwhile, Gullickson, who posted 14 victories in '85 with Montreal, figures to do at least that well with the Reds.
Ted Power, who had 27 saves last season for Cincinnati, as well as eight victories, should again relieve in somewhere between 60 and 70 games.
What Rose wants most from his troops, he says, is consistency. That is, a team without peaks or valleys but aggressive in all aspects of the game and especially sharp on defense.
``While everybody seems to agree with the statement that pitching is 75 percent of winning, that's not really true unless you've also got a team that is sound fundamentally and plays good defense,'' Pete explained.
``Pitching and defense are always going to keep you in a game longer than your offense, no matter how many good hitters you have,'' he continued. ``To win you need pitchers who can make batters consistently hit the ball on the ground, especially with runners on base.
``As for the Dodgers, who beat us by 5 games last year, I'd say that they have fewer problems than any team in the NL West, including us. But that doesn't mean we won't win the division. And since we don't play our first series against the Dodgers until June 9, we won't worry about them until June 9. I'm also glad that Dick Williams isn't with the Padres anymore, because I think he's one of the best managers in baseball.''
While the Reds will have several time-tested hitters in their starting lineup, there is definitely more sand in the bottom of the hourglass for Rose, Tony Perez, Dave Parker, Buddy Bell, Bo Diaz, and Dave Concepcion than there is at the top.
Parker, who came to Cincinnati in 1984 after three so-so seasons for him with Pittsburgh, had a remarkable '85 in which he batted .312, hit 34 homers, and drove in 125 runs. While Dave gives Rose a bona fide No. 4 slugger, the hitters who will probably hit before and after Parker (outfielder Nick Esasky and Bell) don't figure to have Dave's consistency.
Then there is Rose, the eternal imp who still gives the impression of being stalled somewhere between the time a kid gets his first two-wheel bicycle and his early 30s. In fact, though, Pete will turn 45 a week after the season begins. And while he did break Cobb's record last season, his .264 batting average prompted some people to wonder if it might be time to turn to managing full time.
But Rose, who played in 119 games in '85 (platooning at first base with Perez), says he wants to appear in at least that many this season. He justifies his worth by pointing out that the Reds were 64-46 in games that he started, and that he still has a quick bat. Even counting rookies, Pete still acts like the team's hungriest player.
``I'm not happy when young writers who have only seen me perform a few times look at my age and say that if I play this season I'll be hurting the club,'' Rose said.
``Everybody knows I'm always in shape. This winter I bought a commercial gymnasium in Cincinnati and worked out there every morning. There is also an indoor soccer stadium right across the street from my business, and almost every afternoon I played either five- or six-man touch football there on AstroTurf.''
The Reds are taking a long look at rookie Kurt Stillwell as their potential shortstop of the future, but Rose says for now the position still belongs to Concepcion, with Ron Oester at second base and Bell rounding out the infield at third. Diaz (a former teammate of Rose's at Philadelphia) will do the bulk of the catching; and in center field, between Parker and Esasky, it will be Eric Davis if he hits, and probably Eddie Milner if he doesn't.
As for the division race, it seems reasonable to assume that if Denny and Gullickson produce in their new surroundings, if Soto regains the form that made him one of the game's top pitchers the previous few seasons, and if Browning comes anywhere near duplicating his outstanding first-year effort, the Reds will indeed make things tough for the Dodgers.
Browning, who relied chiefly on a screwball last year to become the first National League rookie since 1945 to win 20 games, basically had trouble in only one department: He threw the home run ball 29 times. But then Catfish Hunter and Robin Roberts also had this problem and still won plenty of games.