School opened for the Cincinnati Reds in Florida last week with a few lessons in the three Rs. Remorse and regret were old companions from 1971. Everybody got an A. Redemption was the tough one. Pete Rose stood in the third-base dugout of Tampa's Al Lopez Field one afternoon and put it up on the blackboard. "To me," Rose said, "it looks like the teams in the Western Division of the National League are so equal that if you get four games behind anybody you can just about forget it. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and Atlanta have good clubs. I think we've got a heck of a club." Rose paused and looked out at the empty field. "But it won't make any difference how many hits I get or how quick little Joe Morgan is on the bases if Tony Perez and Johnny Bench (see cover) don't knock us in. If they don't there won't be a Big Red Machine again."
Bench, sitting quietly beside Rose, scratched his spikes across the cement floor of the dugout and looked down. "Those runs," Bench said, "will be driven in."
Rose and Bench are two of baseball's most attractive performers and the leaders of a team that spent the spring and summer of 1971 making a colossal mess of a very fine game. "We committed every crime possible," said Rose. "Ran the bases like idiots. Didn't field. Couldn't bunt. Left guys in scoring position. Hell, we should have been put in jail!"
Bench cleared his throat. A faint smile parted his lips. "We have been," he said.
March 13, 1972
Neither man exaggerated. The Big Red Machine of 1970, winner of 102 games and a National League pennant while drawing nearly 3.5 million people, came to a blushing halt in 1971. And this spring it is paying the price in sweat and grunts. Manager George (Sparky) Anderson carries a watch in his back pocket but seldom looks at it; often the Reds' drills have stretched to five hours. Morgan, the second baseman acquired from Houston in the off season, calls Redsland, Cincinnati's training ground, a "concentration camp."
Redsland is a huge complex of four diamonds built in a cloverleaf with an observation tower in the center. Four batting cages are in constant use. Written in red behind each Iron Mike pitching machine is a message worthy of IBM's THINKsmith: KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL. Whenever the Reds are not eyeing, they are running.
A grid of chalk lines has been put down in the outfield on one of the diamonds and the distance between the markers gets longer as the grid stretches out. The players start running in strides of 6' and continue on to 6½', 7', 7½', 8'. They huff. They puff. They sweat. They swear a lot.
If a player is seen out after 11 p.m. it is assumed that he must be walking in his sleep. Other excuses are not acceptable. Anderson has made it clear to each man in camp that he will "try to give everyone a chance. I did not say I would give everyone a chance. All I said is that I would try. I'm not going to mess everything up by being a good guy. I made that mistake last spring. I want the players' respect, but I'm not stupid enough to think that they are just going to give it to me. Maybe I've got to work harder than they have to get it. That's O.K.
"I've grown to believe that too many people in sports today face up to a problem by walking out the back door. To heck with that. When these men go out on a baseball field they are representing the Cincinnati Reds and I'm the man with the job of manager. They have a debt to the organization and the fans to look like people who care deeply about what they are doing."
Anderson himself cares deeply about a lot of things, including garb and grub. "If the players are so worried about their bell-bottomed trousers, let them join the Navy," was his winter advice to mod-squadders. The subject of food makes him gag.
It has been suggested that the only sparks given off by the Reds of 1971 came from their knives and forks. A cast of heroes gifted with humor and good looks, the Reds of 1970 had been hits on the subsequent banquet circuit. And hogs. When they got around to spring training they were overweight and undereager.
Near the end of the 1971 season Anderson drew up a list of weights for the Reds for 1972. With the list came a warning: it would cost $50 for each pound of overweight lugged to Redsland. In 1971 Bench reported for spring training at 215 pounds. Anderson told his catcher to come in this year at 202. His instructions to Perez were to go from 211 to 195. Don Gullett, the 21-year-old lefthander who had a 16-6 record last season, is on the Reds' roster at 190 pounds. Anderson suggested 185. Gullett weighed in at 180. Of the 37 players working out last week the total overweight poundage came to only 27.
"The eating thing got out of hand," says Anderson. Like many clubs, the 1971 Reds had a splendid buffet set up for the players after every game. The food kept getting better, and the players learned to handle it in championship form. "One night we lost a game and looked terrible doing it," Anderson recalls. "I followed the team into the clubhouse and instead of sitting down and thinking about how poorly they had played, they just kept peeling off to the left in front of me and going into the food room. The next day I overheard one of the players asking Bernie Stowe, our clubhouse man, 'Bernie, what's to eat after the game?' That did it.
"This year there will be food on the road in the clubhouse only in those few cities where you don't want the players walking the streets at night."
Which can't hurt Bob Howsam, Cincinnati's general manager, in his new quest for speed. He has added plenty in Outfielders Ted Uhlaender and Cesar Geronimo and Infielder Morgan. All three are left-handed hitters, joining a team that had only Rose and Bernie Carbo batting left in 1971. Uhlaender has been a swift baserunner in both Minnesota and Cleveland. Geronimo, it is said, is one of those phenoms who can turn off the light switch on the wall and be under the covers before the room gets dark. Morgan has stolen 131 bases in 166 attempts over the last three years.
Getting to second was never Morgan's problem; he couldn't get to first with Manager Harry Walker. "I don't know how I could have been considered a troublemaker in Houston," he says. "All I ever seemed to be doing with the Astros was breaking up fights in the clubhouse. I'm not a real fast runner like Lou Brock or Maury Wills. I never ran the 100 in a time even worth talking about. I rely on my quickness in breaking away from the bases."
It was Howsam, along with Spec Richardson, general manager of the Astros, who started the cascade of major trades at the winter meetings last November in Phoenix. Cincinnati dispatched the right side of its infield—Lee May and Tommy Helms—plus Utilityman Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for Morgan, Third Baseman Denis Menke, Pitcher Jack Billingham, Geronimo and minor leaguer Ed Armbrister.
The trading of May raised some eyebrows—-and hackles. In three seasons he had 111 home runs and 302 RBIs. His majestic three-run homer in the 1970 World Series saved the Reds from being gobbled up in four straight by Baltimore. With Bobby Tolan, Rose, Perez and Bench hitting in front of him, May was often denied the publicity he should have received during the 1970 season. "They got all the handshakes," Lee used to say, "and I got all the knockdown pitches."
Last year May was Cincinnati's best player and, despite missing most of the first month of the season, he accomplished a career high of 39 home runs, plus 98 RBIs. Only Henry Aaron and Willie Stargell hit more homers. Had Howsam given up too much?
"I knew it was a controversial trade," Howsam said last week, sunning on a bench at Redsland. "But we didn't get as many letters of criticism as I thought we would. Only about 60. We answered each one and explained that we traded May and Helms for four reasons: to acquire speed, to get some left-handed hitting, to help our pitching by giving it more depth and to help our defense. When we explained our points 60% of the people wrote back to say they agreed with us."
May, working out with the Astros at Cocoa Beach, Fla., denied any feeling of bitterness. "Look," he said, "I just accept it as part of the game. I can make money in Houston just as well as in Cincinnati."
May ruefully reviewed the decline and disintegration of the Big Red Machine. Some problems had appeared in the last half of the pennant year. By June 9, 1970 the Reds were 10 games up in their division and merely awaiting the victory party. At the halfway point Starting Pitchers Jim Merritt, Wayne Simpson, Jim McGlothlin and Gary Nolan had a combined won-loss record of 49-16. But in the second half they came in at 17-16.
Helms saw the loss of Bobby Tolan last season as particularly injurious. "Losing Bobby upset the balance of the whole team," Helms said. "He did so many things so well. We were never out of a game when he was in there because he could get on base and then the bombers—Perez, Bench and May—would bring him in."
Tolan believes he can be in center field on Opening Day in Cincinnati. Maybe he will. Maybe not. He tore the Achilles' tendon of his right leg while playing basketball in January 1971. After an operation there was hope that Tolan could return to the Cincinnati lineup by June. Instead of staying in Florida to run in the sunlight and try to restore strength to his leg, Tolan accompanied the team on road trips and ran in the outfield. During the first week in May he was doing just that in Dodger Stadium. "I was just running and it felt like someone threw a ball and hit me. I heard a big thump." Tolan needed a second operation and was gone for the entire year.
How good a ballplayer was Tolan in 1970? Only spectacular. He scored 112 runs, stole 57 bases, had 56 extra-base hits, 80 RBIs and an average of .316. How good is Tolan now? Only as good as a question mark. While his teammates run and grunt, he has been told to go slowly. His hope of playing the opener may be only the dream of a competitive athlete stung by the frustrations of 1971.
It has been more than a year since Tolan faced "live pitching," for which there is no substitute, as Curt Flood discovered when he stayed out a year fighting the reserve clause and then tried to make a comeback with Washington.
"I know I have to get in against real pitching to find out about things," Tolan says. "In batting practice I'm sure some of the guys will throw so that they try to make me look good. That's just what I don't want."
One of the Reds' duller training drills pits them against phantom pitching. The batter steps into the box and imagines that a pitcher is throwing a ball into the strike zone. The hitter takes his best swing and then breaks for first base as fast as he can go. After four hitters had tried it during the first full day of workouts, boredom was setting in. Then Johnny Bench's turn came. He measured the phantom pitcher, waited for the make-believe ball, took a big cut and stood on tiptoe watching it fly over the fence. The team roared. And Johnny Bench ran like fury toward first base.
Despite the preliminary high jinks, he was running a little bit scared. It was Bench who slumped from a Most Valuable Player season of 45 home runs, 148 RBTs and a batting average of .293 to 27 homers, 61 RBIs and .238 in 1971. "They have been playing pro baseball in Cincinnati longer than any other city," he says, "and I don't think anyone ever got more boos in one year than I got last season. You try to say to yourself, 'Well, the fans paid to get in, so they have the right to boo.' You try to say that you don't hear it. I heard it. Boy, I heard it, and it hurt. I heard all those noises of feet hitting the ground from people jumping off that bandwagon."
Bench admits that he got into some awful hitting habits last season, so bad that he went to the Florida Instructional League for 10 days of work in the fall. He had been trying to pull nearly every pitch and frustration compounded his troubles. "I have to get it corrected,"' he says, "and I'm going to keep at it until I do."
In the early workouts Bench goes through all the demanding running exercises, plays a little first base and outfield and then catches batting practice in addition to hitting.
"I have to find out," he says, "which was Johnny Bench—the one in 1970 or the one last season. I think I have a pretty good idea now which one it is."
Your third R, Mr. Anderson?