When they win they refer to themselves as The Big Red Machine, as in, "The Big Red Machine won again. Let's hear it for the machine! Yeah, machine!" When they lose.... But that's the point. When do they lose? A straining National League has been asking itself the question through spring and into early summer. As of last weekend the Cincinnati Reds were 32 games above .500 and 9½ games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The longest losing streak they had known all season had stopped at two.
Now, the Dodgers are a good baseball team. Were they in the Easy, Easy East this year they would be running away from all those Metsies, Pirates, Cubbies and Cardinals. But they are in the West, and their view of the pennant race is not remarkably different from the one greeting visitors to Cincinnati: a forest of BIG RED MACHINE stickers pasted on the rear of what seems like every car in town.
Not since 1955 and the old Brooklyn Dodgers has a club in, traditionally, baseball's tightest league entered the month of July playing over .700 ball. Yet last week, as the Reds transferred from Crosley Field to their new home in Riverfront Stadium, the San Francisco Giants, who had not begun their desperate flight to (as always) second place, were so far out of the race that their franchise was barely breathing, and supposedly contending Houston was 20 games out of first place. Most of baseball was in awe of the machine, and well it should be. At a time when expansion has obviously thinned out the talent in the majors the Reds have arrived with a busload of stars. By last weekend they had hit 110 homers. Tony Perez, with 27, and Johnny Bench (see cover), with 25, are close to the pace that Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle set back in 1961 when they collected 115 between them. Perez is known as a big RBI man, having driven in 122 runners in 1969 (he has 84 so far this year), but Bench, at 22, is now in the same class. Not only can he hit, but he is a superb fielding catcher. Only 16 bases have been stolen against Bench and his infrequent substitute, Pat Corrales, this year. They have thrown out 20 runners. An aggressive running team counts on succeeding in at least two out of every three attempted steals. "When John Bench throws," says Harry Dalton, the director of player personnel of the Baltimore Orioles, "everybody in baseball drools."
As a matter of fact, it is the Reds who have been stealing the bases. Ted Williams, a close observer of talent and styles, noted the other day, "Sure they can hit. Anybody can see that. But what most people do not realize is how well the Reds run." Pete Rose always seems to be sliding headfirst into some base, and Bobby Tolan, the .300 hitting centerfielder, has stolen 26 bases.
Wes Parker of the Dodgers, a realist, examined the plight of his club recently and said, "It's possible for Cincinnati to be caught, but someone else is going to have to start beating them. We're not going to take them down alone. We've jelled now, but a lot depends on how well they stay together. They got out quick and good and we've yet to have our run."
Last week the Reds opened their new stadium to a crowd of 51,050, the largest ever to see a sports contest in Cincinnati, and next week the team will play host to the annual All-Star Game. After that, the Reds must face up to the most trying part of their season, one that will test a pitching staff that some consider still questionable. Beginning on July 16 they play 27 games in 25 days. The experience could be excruciating.
One Dodger who thinks the schedule might prove too much for the Reds is Claude Osteen, a thinking man's pitcher. "Their pitching has been great to date," he said last week, "but I felt that the last time we faced them it was starting to fade a bit. Their pitchers weren't as sharp; they didn't have as much control as they had the first time we faced them. We had a clubhouse meeting to talk over what could be done about catching them and we decided we're going to have to play our game and forget what they're doing. When it's all over we'll look up and see who's in first."
Osteen believes that the move to Riverfront Stadium from cozy little Crosley Field with its short fences could hurt the Reds. "They're a power club and power is great in the big-scoring games. But when things are tight, power hitters begin to press and are not always consistent. You're going to see a tremendous number of one-run games, and those cheap shots over that left-field fence will be gone. This will bother them. The closer games make your approach to pitching to a batter totally different."
The other day Manager Sparky Anderson was sitting in his accustomed seat—front row, right-hand side—on the team bus, and smiling his accustomed smile as he thought about his club. "It's a young team," Anderson said, "and this has helped our rookies to come along as well as they have. Most of the veteran players have not been around so long that they've forgotten the problems a rookie has to go through. I suppose a lot of people were surprised when I named Rose the captain of the team as my first move. The Reds hadn't had a team captain in nearly 40 years, but I thought that Rose deserved it. I don't think I have ever seen anyone who loves to play baseball as much as Pete does. He's always looking, listening and learning, and he can be a manager if he wants to when he is through playing. I feel the same way about Bench. To me it is an enormous thrill just to be able to manage Johnny Bench, and I really get a kick out of him. He calls me John McGraw."
At 36, Anderson is the youngest manager in the major leagues; in five seasons of handling teams in the minor leagues he never had a losing record. His intent this spring was to get the Reds into first place by the time the club moved to Riverfront. "I believe," he said at the time, "that if we can go into our new ball park in first place the excitement and enthusiasm of the fans in the new park will help keep us there."
The Reds did better than Anderson had hoped, using Crosley Field almost to perfection by winning 28 games there and losing only eight. Only 10 lefthanders opposed Cincinnati in the old ball park. Eight of them lost, and the other two pitched to no decision. All season long only two lefthanders, Bob Veale of Pittsburgh and Denny Lemaster of Houston, have pitched complete games against the Reds.
The big surprise, however, has been the Reds' own pitching, which looked fine from the outset but impressed nobody. (The world is full of men who have gone broke betting on Cincinnati pitching.) With Lee May, Bernie Carbo and Bobby Tolan hitting homers and Bench and Pete Rose doubles, the Reds beat Montreal on opening day 5-1. Jim Merritt allowed only three hits, but with the Expos being the Expos nobody noticed. They should have.
Merritt had been Cincinnati's biggest winner in 1969 with 17 victories. This February, however, while trying to rescue his son's stray kite, he fell off the roof of his West Covina, Calif. home and fractured his right elbow. If one is a left-handed pitcher and has to break an elbow while falling off a rooftop, then the right one is certainly preferable, but the Reds themselves were shocked that Merritt was able to pitch a complete game so early in the year. Not an overpowering lefthander in the sense that Sam McDowell is or Sandy Koufax was, Merritt is an intelligent pitcher with excellent control, walking only about one batter every seven innings. The last time the Reds won a pennant back in 1961 Merritt was drawing a salary from the Dodgers as the visiting team's bat boy in the Coliseum.
Merritt's roommate is Jim McGlothlin and the two have a pact that the room will produce 40 wins this season. McGlothlin, who resembles an old-fashioned illustration of Tom Sawyer, came in a winter trade with the California Angels in which Cincinnati gave up Alex Johnson. McGlothlin won only eight games last year, but he has already won 10 games for the Reds. "The difference between pitching for this club and the Angels," he said recently, "is that they score runs for you here and you are not always coming out of games in the sixth or seventh inning for a pinch hitter or being taken out when you get in a jam with a short lead. It's a joy pitching for this team."
It is quite possible that the Reds will produce not two but three 20-game winners this year and conceivably even four. (The 1923 Reds with Dolf Luque, Pete Donohue and Eppa Rixey were the last National League club to have three 20-game winners and, oddly, Cincinnati that year finished 4½ games behind the pennant-winning New York Giants. No National League team has ever had four 20-gamers.) Following an extensive tutoring program in the Puerto Rican Winter League, 21-year-old Wayne Simpson went to spring training this year and won a starter's job. So far he has the best winning percentage (12-1, .923) of any pitcher in the majors. He resembles Bob Gibson of the Cardinals right down to wearing the same uniform number (45), and he has been the most discussed new pitcher in opposing dugouts all season.
Another righthander, 26-year-old Gary Nolan, has been almost as important to the Reds as Simpson and could be that fourth 20-game winner. Bothered by a sore arm in 1969, he has developed some excellent off-speed pitches in his comeback. He has won nine games, but only twice has he finished a game he started, and it is felt that he may represent the first crack in the Cincinnati armor. Whether he does or not, he is only one of the many players acquired by the Reds in the free-agent draft. In 1965 the team drafted Carbo first, Bench second and Hal McRae, who switches in the outfield with Carbo, sixth. Nolan was picked first in 1966 and Simpson in 1967. Can so young a team win a pennant so easily?
Henry Aaron wonders. The Braves' outfielder of 17 years said a few days ago, "It's too easy to recall when clubs looked like they had it wrapped up and still didn't win it—the 13-game lead the Dodgers had in 1951 and lost it in a playoff to the Giants and the big lead the Cubs had last season before losing out to the Mets.
"Cincinnati has a real good club. I've said for a number of years that they have had one of the best-balanced teams in baseball, and this year they have finally put it all together.
"But the thing about Cincinnati is the kids. It's real unusual for a team to come up with three pitchers in one season that can help them as much as Simpson, McGlothlin and Don Gullett have helped the Reds." The club's top draft choice in 1969, Gullett was pitching for McKell High School in Lynn, Ky. last year; after his first 20 innings of relief work this year he had an ERA of 1.35.
"And," Aaron continued, "the other young players like Dave Concepcion, Carbo and Simpson have put even more drive into that club because they feel like they have more to prove than the established players. And that might just continue. But it might go the other way, too. Another thing is the injury situation, the fact that the Reds haven't had any injuries yet and the fact that the teams that should have a chance of catching them have had real serious injuries.
"Moving into the new ball park could help their pitching. They won't have to worry as much about the home run in close games in that park as they did in Crosley Field. But it also could hurt the hitters. They have guys like Perez, who can hit home runs in any park, but some of his home runs earlier this year in Crosley Field might have been caught in the new stadium. It's the same way with their other good hitters.
"Defensively, the new park, with its covered infield, may hurt them. The Reds don't have the fastest infield in baseball, and some of the balls they've been knocking down are going to get through on the AstroTurf. I don't care how you cut regular grass, long or short, AstroTurf is still faster."
As of last weekend, the effect of the new park on the Reds was inconclusive. Home run production dropped off in the first few games, but this was offset by strong pitching. Merritt shaded Aaron and the Braves 2-1, and Nolan shut out Houston 3-0, permitting only one runner to reach third.
Because of their capacity to hit, the Reds had been favored by many to win the West Division in 1969, but weak pitching dragged the team to a third-place finish. Last year's Reds could do remarkable things—like score 19 times against Philadelphia in one nine-inning game, yet win by only two runs. Twice Cincinnati's pitchers allowed nine runs in one inning—and to Houston and San Diego, no less. From the middle of August until the completion of the season Cincinnati, despite its hitting, was capable of putting together only one winning streak as long as five games and that came at the most futile time, right when Atlanta was winning 10 in a row and on its way to the playoffs.
In 1969 the Reds lost only one season series in the Western Division, to Atlanta (6-12); this year the Reds beat the Braves seven times in their first nine meetings. Following the first two games between the teams in April, Luman Harris, the wry manager of the Braves, sat in his office at Atlanta Stadium and said, "If they are this good they might just as well go right on from here into the World Series." Harris had watched the Big Red Machine at its devastating best. In 18 innings Cincinnati had hit 10 homers, seven different players doing the damage.
The fact that Rose, Bench, Perez, May and Tolan have variously been up among the league leaders in runs batted in, home runs, batting average, hits, doubles, triples and stolen bases has tended to draw attention away from what is going on in Cincinnati's left field. With any other team the accomplishments of the two platooning rookies, Carbo and McRae, would be cause for large quantities of both joy and news coverage. Each is hitting around .300; collectively Carbo and McRae have 19 homers and 43 RBIs while playing errorless ball.
"The most important thing for both Hal and me," Carbo said recently, "is that with all the really good hitters on this team we have been able to break in without too much pressure. With a club that didn't have the kind of players the Reds have, the pressure would be on us almost all the time. These are probably the best conditions for getting a start in the major leagues while contributing to the team."
Manager Gene Mauch, Expos, sat on the bench one calm evening in Montreal's Jarry Park watching the Reds take batting practice. "Let's put aside certain parts of the game," he said, "and examine the Reds in the one area where it can be done realistically. For sustaining an inning there has not been a National League team like this one since the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers. Gil Hodges, Jim Gilliam, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Carl Furillo, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella could murder anybody. Only the Reds have shown me that they have the ability to sustain an inning like that Dodger team.
"So far, though," Mauch continued, "Cincinnati has not gone through a bad streak, and in the National League everyone goes through at least one major bad streak. A lot of people, you know, arc still not convinced that the pitching is quite as good as their record might show."
One of the bigger jokes among the Reds is that Clay Carroll, who together with Wayne Granger gives the Reds a fine one-two relief punch, has put the heat on the team this year by going out and buying himself a $9,100 Continental Mark Ill. "Arc you trying to drag us down by spending the money before we've got it, Hawk?" Bench asked Carroll recently. Then Tommy Helms, the second baseman, came over. "Hawk," Helms said, "it isn't right for you to have a Mark Ill. You're country, Hawk! You have a Mark III is like putting earrings on a hog."
Good country humor. Good ball team, too. Quite a machine.