Sooner or later—preferably sooner—somebody should tell Ralph Nader about the new consumer crisis in Cincinnati. The trouble began last year when people from hundreds of miles around flocked to town to buy this hot new product called the Big Red Machine. It was a marvelous contraption, guaranteed to win pennants, wreck opposing pitchers and generally devastate the National League for years to come. But now, only a year after it first came on the market, the thing is beginning to look unsafe at any price. Instead of ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa, the now sound is more like ta-pocketa-clunk-clunk-sigh.
The sudden and premature demise of the Big Red Machine—otherwise known as the Cincinnati Reds—has been one of the puzzling developments of the season. Last week, as in the weeks before, the defending National League champions were floundering around down there only a step above the Western Division cellar. The Reds were so far behind San Francisco that their chances of a comeback seemed about as good as the Boeing SST's. Nobody had to remind Manager Sparky Anderson that at this time last year his team was some seven games ahead of the division. "I'm as surprised as anybody," is Anderson's stock reply every time a newsman brings up the delicate subject. "I never would have believed this if I hadn't seen it."
Around Cincinnati it is said that the Reds have not been the same without Centerfielder Bobby Tolan, who will now miss the entire season because he re-injured his Achilles' tendon just when there was hope that he would soon play again. Lefthander Jim Merritt is a problem. Last season he was 20-12; last week he was 0-7. Wayne Simpson, a 14-game winner as a rookie, is in Indianapolis searching for his arm. But blamed more often than any of these three for what is happening at Riverfront Stadium is the new stadium itself. Followers point out that last year's machine built its big early lead while playing in little old Crosley Field—a home run hitter's paradise.
"That's hogwash," says Anderson. "Sure, we miss Tolan. To me he was one of the top five players in our league last year. And we miss help from Merritt and Simpson, although our pitching staff hasn't given up any more runs than last year. The main thing is hitting. We're not hitting."
Indeed they are not. Shut out only once all last year, the machine has been blanked five times already. The Reds also have had 15 complete games thrown against them, indicating they have not exactly been knocking the ears off opposing pitchers. Except for First Baseman Lee May, the Reds' big guns—Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Pete Rose and Bernie Carbo—are shooting lots of blanks, especially with men on base.
Take Carbo. He hit .310 last season as a rookie and was being counted upon to compensate for the loss of Tolan. But his bat has been so impotent that the Reds had to rustle up Buddy Bradford to play center and Bradford is hitting .196.
Then there is Bench, last year's Most Valuable Player. He has 14 home runs, which is not bad, but his average dropped below .235 during a recent slump. Even more disturbing, Bench is not producing with men on base. Of his 14 homers, only six came with a man on—and none with two or three men on. In last week's three-game series at Pittsburgh, Bench was 1 for 12 and he left 12 runners stranded. "I'm not happy with the way I'm swinging," says Bench. "I started trying to hit to right field and I guess I tried too hard. Also, I've seen some awful good pitching this year."
Perhaps the most pitiful figure of all is Perez, the muscular Cuban third baseman. At the end of last May he was batting .376 with 18 homers and 53 RBIs. Now his average is .212 with six homers and 23 RBIs. "I just can't understand it," says Perez, who seems to be getting more confused and dejected every time he makes an out. "I feel great, but I can't hit."
Even Rose, the team's only $100,000 employee, is having problems, although he is not worrying. "It's this damned cold weather we've been having," says Rose. "I hit better in the warm weather because I stay looser. All I need is two or three hits in a few games and I'll be right back in there."
"I've never seen anything like it," says Reds Batting Coach Ted Kluszewski. "And I can't explain it, either. Originally, maybe, our guys were overswinging because they were trying to make up for the absence of Tolan. When you start overswinging you get in a slump and when you get in a slump it's the hardest thing in the world to get out of. But there's too much talent on this ball club for everybody to slump."
More and more it looks as if Tolan rather than Bench or Perez was the man who made the machine purr. An all-round player of the Lou Brock mold, Tolan could hit for power (16 homers) and average (.316). Once on base, he was always a threat to advance further; he stole 57 bases in 1970. With Rose batting first and Tolan second, the Reds had an aggressive, even relentless, offense that always kept the pressure on the opposing pitcher. As Rose says, "We sure miss him. How many times last year were he and I on first and third with none out and all that muscle coming up? Last year we didn't even have to give away that bunt by the second hitter to move me up."
A couple of games last week were typical of what has been going on with Cincinnati. On Monday in Philadelphia, Gary Nolan and Wayne Granger pitched a two-hitter but the offense was nonexistent and the Reds lost 2-1. Two nights later in Pittsburgh, Tony Cloninger limited the hard-hitting Pirates to only two runs—on Willie Stargell's homer—but the Reds left nine men on base and were shut out by Steve Blass 2-0. Cincinnati had a perfect chance to win in the eighth. Pinch hitter Jimmy Stewart led off with a single and May walked. With Bench, Perez and Carbo coming up, this ordinarily would have been the cue for Blass to jump into the Monongahela River. Instead, he sneaked an inside fastball past Bench for a called third strike, threw three sliders past Perez and retired Carbo on a weak pop to first.
In Bench's case, his problems may have something to do with the special pressures involved in superstardom at the age of 23—or at least that's what Anderson was saying in Pittsburgh as he watched reporters and announcers pulling and tugging at Bench from all sides. "I wish they would just let him go out there and play ball," said Anderson.
"You know, I've been afraid of failing ever since I was 18," said Bench later. "You wonder if you can live up to the expectations not only of yourself but of others. Now when I come out on the field I know I'm the target man and it's something to have all those people yelling at you. I don't know whether it's affected my play or not. I don't think I've let down on my catching. Hitting, well, it's nothing new for me to be down there and come back."
To those who claim he may have overextended himself with a weekly TV show and other business interests, Bench says: "Look, I don't know how long I'll play up here. I want to enjoy life now and do as much as I possibly can. I want to do what I want, wear the kind of clothes I want and buy what I want."
Despite all their troubles, the Reds manage to maintain a facade of togetherness and confidence. In Pittsburgh, Rose supervised a new pre-game exercise—sort of a cross between "pepper" and "hot potato"—that sent Bench and others rolling and diving on the Tartan Turf like children at play. There was a strange sense of confidence and well-being. Says Anderson: "We're going to give the Giants a run for it." Says Rose: "Hell, it's still May. School's not even out yet."
When school does let out, the Reds had better be in gear. More than 400,000 people already have passed through the turnstiles at Riverfront Stadium to watch the machine roll. But even diehards eventually give up on a lemon. It doesn't take Ralph Nader to know that.