Pete Rose still puts team first heading into 21st season

After playing exclusively at first base the last few years, Pete Rose has been asked to demonstrate his famous versatility once again this spring by getting ready for possible outfield duty as well. Meanwhile, after not missing a game since 1978, he will almost certainly have to go against his own wishes and take a rest now and then.

Many players with his veteran status and superstar reputation would balk at either or both of these plans, but Rose has always taken such things in stride.

''I come to the park every day. If my name's in the lineup, I try to contribute. If it isn't, I just root as hard as I can for the guys who are in there,'' Pete said when asked his reaction to Philadelphia Manager Pat Corrales's announced intention to rest him occasionally this season.

''Nobody wants to sit out,'' he added. ''When a guy misses 80 games in 20 years it should give you the idea that he wants to play. But I'll do what they want. If I can help this club by playing eight games a week, or two games, or one game, that's what I'll do. I know the best way to stay in there is to get in a groove where I'm getting one-and-a-half hits a day - and that's what I'm going to try to do.''

The idea of giving Pete an occasional breather stems from his dropoff to a . 271 batting average last season - his worst since 1964 and a far cry from both the sizzling .325 he hit in 1981 and his lifetime .308 mark. It was the fourth straight year that Rose had played in every one of the Phillies' games, and before that he had put in similar stretches at Cincinnati while building toward his current place as the National League's all-time leader in games played.

Many observers think such a pace is just too much for a player Pete's age (he'll be 42 on April 14), and that last year's batting average proved it was wearing him down. Rose, not surprisingly, disagrees. He thinks 1982 was just one of those years when he didn't get his share of breaks - when too many hard hit balls went right at somebody. But as he says, it's not his job to write out the lineup, so he's not going to worry about it.

Then there is the possibility of outfield duty - this one brought about by injuries to a couple of regulars plus the acquisition of free agent Tony Perez to spell Pete at first base. Whether it actually happens in the regular season depends upon a variety of factors, but Corrales wants to have the option, and consequently has been playing Rose out there in exhibition games to get him ready.

''I'm the first baseman,'' Rose said when asked if he had a preference. ''Defensively, I can help the club most there. But if they need me to play the outfield, okay. I just want to play and help the team.''

And despite his relative lack of speed along with an arm that is adequate at best, Pete has no doubts that he can do the job.

''People forget that even though I play aggressively out there, I still have the highest fielding average among outfielders who played 1,000 or more games (a major league record .9919 in 1,264 games),'' he said. ''And I'm not worried about my arm. I can hit the cutoff man, and anyway, I can make up for a lot with my aggressiveness.''

Rose's willingness to move around for the good of the team is already legend, of course, and has led to what is arguably the most impressive of all his many records - starting at five different positions in the All-Star Game (second base , left field, right field, third base, and first base in that order).

''It didn't just happen, though,'' Rose pointed out.''I worked plenty hard every time I went to a new position. That's the only way to do it.

''It also helps if you have enough time to get comfortable in the new spot. That's why it's good to get me out there now in spring training.''

Ironically, in view of his subsequent successes, Rose's first attempt at a position switch was a disaster.

''It was 1966, and I was coming off my first really good year at second base, but they wanted to play Tommy Helms there so they moved me to third,'' he recalled. ''All it did, though, was weaken both positions offensively and defensively. I went 0-for-April and he did too. Finally they put me back at second and him at third and we both played much better.''

The Reds still wanted Helms at second, though, so they moved Pete to the outfield, which worked out a lot better. He played there until 1975, when the development of slugger George Foster brought about another change.

''That one was the hardest because I didn't have any time to get ready,'' Rose recalled. ''Sparky (Manager Sparky Anderson) came to me one day during the season and said, 'I've got to get another hitter in the lineup. Can you try third base?' I thought he meant in a month or so, and I said, 'Sure. When?' He said, 'Tomorrow night!' That was tough.''

It worked, though, putting the finishing touches on the Big Red Machine that won two straight world championships. Then in 1979 it was on to Philadelphia, where a guy named Mike Schmidt plays third, and where they had plenty of outfielders, so he moved again to first base. And now it looks as though he could be playing two positions this year.

It also looks as though Rose and the Phillies, who won the World Series in 1980, took first-half honors in the National League East in the split 1981 season, and finished a close second to the eventual world champion St. Louis Cardinals last year, should be top contenders again. And Rose says he isn't worried by the fact that they play in a division so strong that it has produced three of the last four World Series winners.

''If you have a good team with good players, being in a division like ours should bring out the best in you,'' he said. ''We know the only way we're going to win against that kind of competition is if we go all-out.''

Two of the ''good players'' Rose was talking about - Perez and second baseman Joe Morgan - are new to Philadelphia this year but no strangers, of course, to Pete. Much has been made, in fact, of the way these acquisitions have reunited three-fourths of the old Cincinnati infield.

''Well, we gave 'em a lot of thrills in those days,'' said Rose. ''And I'm happy to be with these guys again. But I know the team didn't get them just to give us a reunion. It got them because they can still play and help us win. You can reminisce about the past, but you have to think about the future.''

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