TAMPA, Fla. — Ty Cobb's eyes peer out of a pinched face, his thin lips curled in a humorless smile, as if to dare Pete Rose to break the record.
Cobb stands in a traditional pose in this picture, wearing his Detroit Tigers uniform and holding a baseball bat, choked up about three inches from the bottom, his hands slightly apart.
The pictures, accompanied by stories in magazines and books, and numbers in the record book are all Rose knows of Cobb, except for what his late friend, Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt, told him: "That he was the meanest man he ever met in a fight."
"Cobb was a great hitter," Rose says, "but the thing that's always surprised me is that I don't ever read much about his defensive ability. I know the other players like me a little bit better than they liked Cobb."
In addition to being player-manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Rose is a baseball fan. He reads baseball, studies baseball, lives baseball, and now teaches baseball. And when it comes to Cobb, Rose certainly knows the mathematics.
He knows, for instance, that Cobb had 4,191 hits in his career, which ended in 1928 after 24 major league seasons. He knows also that after his 22 seasons, he is 95 hits away from breaking the record, which, like Babe Ruth's home run mark, once was thought unassailable.
"Most longevity records are hard to break," the 44-year-old Rose says. "Players don't think about playing that long anymore. Owners don't want to pay them that long. When I get that record, I think it'll be pretty hard to break."
Rose says "the record will fall," predicting Aug. 26 as the most likely date. But when the hit mark is his, Rose adds, it won't diminish anything that Cobb did.
"When I get that record, all that will make me is the player with the most hits," Rose says.
Rose spent the first 16 years of his major league career with the Reds, three times leading the National League in batting and getting more than 200 hits in nine seasons. He played on four National League pennant-winning Reds teams and two World Series champions.
After joining Philadelphia in 1979 as a free agent, he played for two more pennant winners and won another World Series ring. Cut loose by Philadelphia after the 1983 season, Rose joined the Montreal Expos. Reds President Bob Howsam finally brought Rose back as player-manager in a trade for Tom Lawless last August.
"The interesting thing about being a baseball player for a long time is that you always have to prove you can do it," Rose says. "When I came back here, I knew I could still hit. I told Bob Howsam, 'If I think I can hit, and you think I can hit, why shouldn't I be out there hitting?' "
As player-manager, Rose will be the master of his own destiny as he chases Cobb's mark. Between Montreal and Cincinnati last year, Rose had 121 hits and a .286 batting average. Rose played in 26 games for the Reds in 1984, getting 35 hits in 96 at-bats for a .365 average.
If he keeps up that pace, the record probably will fall.
At his age, most people expect Rose to play himself a couple times a week at first base, but Rose indicates he may play more often.
"If I hit, I play," Rose says.
The question, then, is will Rose's drive as a player--his desire to break the record--interfere with his judgment as a manager?
"I don't worry about that," Rose says. "As far as I'm concerned, the record is only a matter of at-bats. . . . I've always been able to put the team ahead of the individual. I don't think I would ever use myself or another player in a wrong situation."
With a lifetime batting average of .305, Rose has a great deal of experience in breaking records. His 4,097 hits already are a National League record. He hit in 44 consecutive games from June 14-July 31, 1978, for a modern NL mark.
He also holds the major league records for games played (3,371), at-bats (13,411), singles (3,082), most seasons with 200 or more hits (10), consecutive seasons with 100 or more hits (22), highest lifetime fielding percentage for an outfielder (.991), and most winning games (1,870).
Of all of these, Rose sometimes seems most proud of the record for playing in 1,870 winning games. That may provide a key to understanding his mental makeup--for understanding how he could put the team before records.
"Forty years from now, when I'm gone, do you think anybody is going to remember that I played in more winning games than anybody else?" Rose asks."People will remember what is written about me. I don't know how I'll be remembered. I don't think about it. I don't think about things that I can't do anything about."
Rose also knows he will be unable to control the mounting attention that his record assault will create. As he gets within striking distance, he can call upon his experience from the 44-game hitting streak.