The gentleman to your left, the one with the white-on-white hair, is George Lee Anderson, usually called Sparky, manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Try to guess his age. Nope, George Lee Anderson will not celebrate his 50th birthday until Feb. 22, 1984. And if he is having the kind of week then that he did most of this last one, he will celebrate it in a room equipped with sponge rubber walls. Anderson's Big Red Machine was beginning to look like something behind a tow truck. His big problem is not so much that seven different individuals have attempted to play right field for the Reds already this year or that the team's batting average of .236 ranks 22nd out of 24 in the majors. Those are mild problems compared with what has been taking place on—and off—the mound. The Reds' arms aren't candidates for the Hall of Fame but for the Louvre, alongside those of the Venus de Milo. "I have spent so much time up against walls," says Outfielder Pete Rose, "that I'm starting to feel like a jai alai player."
The Reds' pitching staff is a puzzle. Apparently an insoluble one. Great pitchers go to work for Cincinnati, and as quickly as you can say Ewell Blackwell they are gone. While winning the National League pennant in 1972 the Reds compiled some unusual statistics, including only 25 complete games. More than any other team in the majors, the Reds believed in the theory of Getting Six Good Innings from the Starter and Turning Over the Rest of the Game to the Bullpen. When things go right under this system, championships can be won. Let one little crack develop, however, and the Ohio River is in your living room.
Anderson could feel the Ohio last week, up to his shoulder blades. "I've done some things with our pitching this year that I really didn't want to do, and others I had never done before," he said one night in his office just off the Cincinnati clubhouse, his head down because the Reds had been pounded by the St. Louis Cardinals 11-5. In the third of three losing games in a row he had used live pitchers and none had been effective. Over the span his staff gave up home runs, granted walks freely, balked runs home, threw wild pitches and allowed a horrendous number of extra-base hits. "It's a situation that will have to get better," said Anderson accurately, "because it can't get any worse. The Cardinals had four errors and we never even got close to them."
Any team that gives Cincinnati four errors in a game should end up a loser; the Reds' batting order is built to produce runs in clumps. When Cincinnati's pitching allows the opposition to get a big lead, however, the team's speed is minimized and the enemy pitchers are able to work around the Johnny Benches and Tony Perezes. It is then that real frustrations set in.
The Reds are frankly amazed that they have not drifted so far down in the standings that a pennant run would now be hopeless. "We had a spell during which we couldn't hit," said Rose, "then this spell in which we aren't pitching well at all. The two things have not come together so we could make any kind of a move up in the standings. But we're still only a few games out of first place."
As the week ended, Cincinnati was in fourth place, 5½ games behind front-running San Francisco. But between the Reds and Giants were Houston and Los Angeles, both very good teams. It seems that everybody except the Giants themselves considers the Giants a myth, but they keep going on with an admirable tenacity.
The Reds' pitching woes began early in March, when their top man, 25-year-old Gary Nolan, found that he couldn't throw. An examination by Reds' doctors proved so discouraging that other opinions were sought, and when they agreed with the team physicians Nolan was placed on the disabled list. He remains on the disabled list. Last week he reportedly was throwing at three-quarter speed in workouts at the Reds' minor-league field in Tampa. When and if he comes back it will still take him at least three weeks to build his arm to the point where he could be sharp. Nolan has had arm miseries before: his present condition is a mystery.
Nolan, youth and a trade for K.C.'s Roger Nelson, as well as an outstanding bullpen, were supposed to give Cincinnati its best pitching in several years. The loss of Nolan proved to be a hint of what was to happen, which included an elbow injury to Nelson, who joined Nolan on the disabled list last Wednesday. Not that Nelson had been overwhelming batters; he had a record of 2-2. But he did have a 2.06 ERA, lowest on the staff.
From May 7 through June 13—a period covering 33 games—the Reds got but one complete game out of pitchers not named Jack Billingham. This put a heavy strain on the bullpen, and Clay Carroll, the Reds' foremost reliever, was having his own problems. "I really find it hard to explain just what happened to me," he said. "My control was messed up from the start of the season. I went to Sparky at a time when our starting pitchers weren't going too well and asked him if I could start to see if things could be worked out that way."
Carroll is a friendly, 32-year-old Alabamian who pitched in 330 games over the past five seasons, but only in five as a starter. As a relief pitcher Carroll would come out of the bullpen to smother enemy uprisings time and again. In 1972 he made 65 appearances and set a major-league record with 37 saves. As a starter Carroll threw very well, but how do you relieve a Clay Carroll with a Clay Carroll? "I wanted to get a complete game," he says wistfully. "It would have been the first one for me since 1967."
Sensing that Carroll had regained his control, Anderson last week dropped him back into the bullpen—only to have the Cardinals score three earned runs off him in two innings. "This could drive a man crazy," said Anderson.
Not far from where Anderson was trying hard to remain sane, the St. Louis manager, Red Schoendienst, sat on a couch with a can of Budweiser in his hand. "That pitching staff is tired," Schoendienst said. "You can tell it because they look tired when they walk to the mound. The pitchers seem to be working the way the Japanese pitchers work: all the time. When these things happen they drive managers wacky because then all sorts of other things seem to start to happen." (One of the oddest things to happen to Anderson last week confirmed Schoendienst's point. Sparky went out to argue with home-plate umpire Tom Gorman Monday night and during the discussion somehow pulled a muscle in his neck.)
"What you hope for," Schoendienst continued, "is to get a couple of complete games in a row so you don't have to use either your short or long men for a day or two. That way they can be rested and go out and do the job they can do. But it's no easy thing. You just have to hope you can ride it out."
The riding just got rougher the next evening. Anderson sent Billingham to the mound against St. Louis' Rick Wise. Billingham had a record of 8-2, with six complete games in 15 starts, and he was the only Reds starter who had not doubled as a reliever. Never was there a better time for a complete game. So in the third inning familiar disaster struck. Wise trickled a ball up the third-base line and Billingham threw it away, allowing Wise to go to second. Jim Dwyer, a young Cardinal outfielder brought up from the Tulsa farm club, where he was hitting over .400, and in the lineup because the regular leftfielder, Lou Brock, had jammed his fingers, hit an opposite-field single to left to move Wise to third. Sparky Anderson squirmed in his dugout. Billingham then hit Ted Sizemore with a pitch to load the bases, with Joe Torre, Ted Simmons and Tim McCarver coming up. Billingham walked Torre to force in a run, gave up a hit to Simmons and then walked McCarver to reload the bases.
Three runs were already in the Cardinal dugout and four more joined them when Luis Melendez hit a grand-slam home run. Under normal conditions, Anderson probably would have taken Billingham out after McCarver was walked. But this was June 1973. The game irretrievably lost, Billingham worked eight innings and at least made it possible for the bullpen to get some rest.
There was none for Anderson, who had some bad reading at hand. In four games Cincinnati pitchers had given up 40 runs and 52 hits. In each of those games they had been behind by at least four runs at the end of three innings. Of such statistics are few pennants won.
But things can change quickly in baseball, particularly in the National League. Sensibly enough, Cincinnati went out looking for a pitcher. It had to be someone who could step into the starting rotation as quickly as he could get to Cincinnati. "When you go after a pitcher at this time of the year," Anderson said, "you can end up stripping your ball club. People know you are hurting and want everything they can possibly get."
Anderson's outlook brightened somewhat at midweek when the Reds obtained lefthander Fred Norman from the San Diego Padres for Outfielder Gene Locklear and a minor-league pitcher. At the first opportunity Anderson put Norman on the mound and the results were most encouraging. Although his record was 1-7 on joining Cincinnati, Norman shut out the Pirates Friday night 6-0. When a club is in so much distress that it goes to the trouble of picking up a pitcher with a 1-7 record, the normal tendency is to laugh. But Fred Norman, all 5'8" of him, is not that easily laughed away. Last year he pitched six shutouts for San Diego. Only Don Sutton, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Wilbur Wood and Mel Stottlemyre had more.
"Norman is the kind of pitcher who can step in here as a starter and win games," said Pete Rose, upon learning of the trade. "His lifetime record against us is 5-1. He also gets me out."
Rose, of course, is one of the Reds' great natural resources. Last week he was moving toward his 2,000th hit, and only 11 men ever achieved 3,000 major-league hits: Cobb, Musial, Speaker, Aaron, Wagner, Collins, Lajoie, Mays, Waner, Anson, Clemente. And of these, only one—Paul Waner—ever reached 2,100 hits by the end of his 11th season, a plateau Rose is virtually certain to reach this year.
Rose is off to a good start (.306 at the end of last week), though it would be nice if he could come to bat occasionally with men on base. Because the eighth and ninth spots in Cincinnati's batting order have been so unproductive, Rose, hitting in the leadoff spot, has only 19 runs batted in. The Reds' pitchers have a total of 11 hits all season, every one of them a single. On Opening Day, Don Gullett batted in a run; no one on the pitching staff has yet been able to duplicate that feat. The pitchers are batting .081, as good a case for the designated hitter as can possibly be made.
Johnny Bench is leading the league in RBIs but early in the season it seemed that Tony Perez might lead the world in RNBIs (Runs Not Batted In). Perez has since moved up into respectable figures. Because of the overall pitching problem, Bench has caught in all but three of the team's games, taking a beating that could conceivably wear him down.
Early last spring Anderson was the first major baseball figure to say publicly that he thought one of the biggest challenges in the West Division this year would come from the young Giants. Beleaguered as was this perspicacious man last week, he still felt that his club could patch up its pitching staff and regain the form that has made it one of baseball's most dramatic teams. "But if we are going to win this time," he said shortly before his Reds made Father's Day memorable for him by sweeping the Pirates 3-1 and 5-1, "it won't be like it was for us in 1970 and 1972. It will come late for us. Maybe very late."
Or, if Cincinnati's pitching doesn't start improving pretty quickly, not at all.