The Yankees do not subscribe to the notion that, while they are but flesh and blood, the Reds are precision parts in some kind of mechanical device. Even after the Big Red Machine had rolled over them 5-1 in the opening game of the 1976 World Series, the Yanks remained unconvinced that they were competing against indestructible automatons. Consider the reaction of the all-too-human Yankee catcher, Thurman Munson, to the suggestion that the Red Machine seemed to "execute" well. "You talk about execution," he said. "If some of the balls we hit in the alleys had fallen in like theirs, you'd have to say we executed well."
Alas, balls hit by Yankees found only culs-de-sac in the indifferently played and strangely undramatic opener at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. The Reds, chastised afterward by Manager Sparky Anderson for nonaggressiveness, did execute, and the Yanks for the most part did not. The events of the sixth inning, when Cincinnati was nursing a 2-1 lead, were representative. In the New York half of the inning, Fred Stanley led off with a walk. He was forced at second when Reds starter Don Gullett made a fine play on Mickey Rivers' bunt try for a base hit. Cincinnati Catcher Johnny Bench then easily threw out Rivers on an attempted steal. Roy White hit a drive to left center that should have been the third out, but it was dropped by the ordinarily impeccable Cesar Geronimo for a two-base error. When Munson singled to right, White was wisely held at third in deference to Ken Griffey's formidable throwing arm. Lou Piniella finally ended the inning by blooping to Joe Morgan near second. The scorecard showed that the first four batters all had reached base—and that none had scored. In the bottom half of the inning the Reds worked with typical economy. Griffey reached first on a fielder's choice, stole second as Morgan struck out and scored the Reds' third run on Tony Perez' third straight hit.
The Reds rarely waste a scoring opportunity, and at least in this regard they were their usual selves. In the first inning Morgan hit one of surprise Yankee starter Doyle Alexander's infrequent fastballs into the right-field stands; in the third Dave Concepcion tripled down an open Yankee alley in left center and crossed the plate on Pete Rose's sacrifice fly; and in the seventh George Foster singled and scored on Bench's triple off the right-field wall. Bench came in with the fifth run when Yankee reliever Sparky Lyle wild-pitched. The mechanized win was not without its human consequences. Pitching to Rivers in the eighth, Gullett twisted an ankle and left the game after White's subsequent single. The injury was diagnosed as a tendon dislocation, and Gullett's leg was placed in a cast. He was through for the Series. That Gullett, who has been the Reds' best pitcher in the last month or so, would not work again was the one encouraging result of the opener for New York, which had reached him for only five hits.
The lone Yankee run, scored in the second, was efficient, if insufficient, Piniella led off with a double to right and was advanced to third when Chris Chambliss grounded properly to the right side. Graig Nettles then brought Piniella home with a sacrifice. At that point the Yankees—in years past the team everyone wanted to break up—seemed on the verge of earning for themselves some modern technological appellation.
It was ironic that the only machine the New Yorkers employed all day was shut down by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. It had been the Yankees' practice in the American League playoffs against Kansas City to place one of their functionaries in the stands with a walkie-talkie, the better to advise Manager Billy Martin on the positioning of his outfielders. The "audio communications system" was approved for the Series by the commissioner after the Reds had agreed that it could do no appreciable harm. Unfortunately, the grandstand communicators on this day, Scouts Clyde King, Birdie Tebbetts and Karl Kuehl, did not seat themselves among the paying customers. Instead they moved into a CBS booth, far too close, the commissioner decided, to television monitors. Even though skulduggery was never seriously alleged, the scouts were taken off the air just in case the temptation to pick up Bench's signs on TV and relay them to Yankee hitters became impossible to resist.
The silencing generated a predictable squawk from the contentious Martin. It also produced some rare humor in this otherwise solemn event. Bench, who often is heard on the airwaves around Cincinnati using the handle Sidewinder, suggested that he might bring his own CB to succeeding games, tune Martin in and inquire of his "good buddy" what traffic conditions were like around second base. And Martin allowed as to how the next time the commissioner was on the premises, he would advise his broadcasters, "There's a Smokey on the line."
The matter was resolved later when all parties conceded that the Yanks could take the air if their men sat in locations away from the press box.
The Yanks needed a lot more than a walkie-talkie in the stands on a day in which they played listlessly. It was agreed even by the most spirited among them that their frantic clash with the Royals in the playoffs had sapped them of much World Series pizzazz. "This game didn't seem like anything compared with the last one [the 7-6 playoff climax two days earlier], and that wasn't all that long ago," said Munson. "This game was flatter. There was a lot of pressure in the last one. This was my first Series game, but it was not what I felt it would be. The last game of the playoffs is what I thought this Series game would be like."
Indeed, no fan demonstration comparable to the one that had all but dismantled Yankee Stadium accompanied this match at Riverfront. The Cincinnati papers had devoted much space before the opener to scolding New York fans for their destructiveness and applauding the Reds' fans for their mannerliness, GOOD THING SERIES OPENS HERE!, headlined The Cincinnati Post. And fans at Riverfront responded to the opening win with commendable decorum. Oh, there were incidents. Rose observed that disorderly spectators had tossed two hot-dog wrappers onto left field late in the game. "But," he hastily added in their defense, "the hot dogs weren't in them."
"You should be careful not to think too much of yourselves," Cincinnati players were counseled at prayer services only an hour before this historic contest. "And," the Rev. Jerry Kirk intoned, covering all bases, "you must be careful not to think too little of yourselves." The Reds nodded their assent, and in the space of the next two hours and 33 minutes they found the truth of this ambiguous message.
They began the game as if not even Catfish Hunter, unbeaten till then in World Series play, could impede them. They finished it awash with humility. In truth, their 4-3 win was not so much the product of their own skills but of Yankee bad luck in both tactics and execution. Compared with the previous day's pallid encounter, this game, the first played on a Sunday evening in Series history, was a thriller reminiscent of the Reds-Red Sox matches a year ago.
It was played in temperatures better suited to ice fishing. It was a comparatively moderate 43° at game time—despite forecasts that had predicted temperatures in the 30s or even the 20s—but by the climactic ninth inning the thermometer had dropped perhaps five degrees. That baseball is not meant to be played after 8 p.m. anywhere north of St. Petersburg, Fla. after Oct. 15 had been ignored by the commissioner and the television executives who were responsible for such bizarre scheduling.
The guilty parties were reprieved by some superb play on the gelid AstroTurf. The Reds began as if to hammer Hunter into the ice floe. For four innings they launched his fastball into all the crannies of Riverfront, hitting, as it were, frozen ropes. In this productive stretch, they reached the multimillionaire, whose previous Series record was 4-0, for five singles, two doubles, a triple and three walks. And yet they scored only three runs, all in the second inning.
Dan Driessen, the first designated hitter in National League history, led off with a double to dead center field. Foster singled him home, then was erased when Munson tossed him out on a steal attempt. That did not seem to be an important gaffe at the time, but Bench followed with a double that would have eliminated the necessity of later heroics. Geronimo walked, Concepcion singled to score Bench and, after Rose walked, Griffey flied to shallow center. Geronimo tagged up and scored as Rivers' throw from the outfield bounced twice to Munson. All of this came so easily that Reds' fans, shivering in their seats, expected to see much, much more. But thereafter, Hunter, pitching expertly to the corners and inducing a succession of impressive but harmless fly balls, shut out Cincy until the bitter end.
The Yankees, meanwhile, pecked away at the Reds' starter, graying lefthander Fred Norman. In the fourth, Nettles singled home Munson, who had reached first on an infield hit and advanced to second on Chambliss' single. In the seventh, the Yankees tied the game. Willie Randolph led off with a single to center, little Stanley of subsequent woe looped a feeble but well-directed double down the left-field line and Randolph, who had been running with the pitch, scored. After Rivers flied to center, White singled sharply to left—too sharply to score Stanley. This finished Norman and brought on righthander Jack Billingham. He got Munson to bounce a little nubber to Morgan, whose only play was to force White at second as Stanley crossed home with the tying run.
An impasse seemed to have been achieved as both sides fended off the other with acrobatic defenses. Munson, who earlier had fielded a Morgan pop foul against the stands, outdid himself in the seventh, leaning into an enclosure bristling with cameras to capture another off the same victim. And in the eighth, Perez leaped high to deprive Nettles of an almost certain double down the right-field line. In both games, Nettles sent scorchers about the ballpark, but each somehow found a Reds' glove. As a result, he had only one hit, prompting from Martin the sour grapes observation, "Every time we hit a line drive, it's caught. Every time they hit a blooper, it falls in."
Billingham extinguished the Yankees easily in the top of the ninth, and it appeared that Hunter, who had allowed but one hit from the fifth through the eighth, would achieve similar results in the Reds' half. Concepcion lofted to center, and Rose, who endured a fate similar to Nettles' through the two games, flied out to left. The next hitter, Griffey, slowly bounced what appeared to be the third out toward short. Every Yankee infielder had been amply briefed on Griffey's considerable talent at beating out infield hits; he has had more than 30 of them in each of the last two seasons, and Stanley must have been tossing this over in his mind as he scurried toward this hopper. "The only thing I can do is try to get rid of it," he was to lament later. "If I take another step, he's safe. I'm throwing across my body. I don't have a chance to plant my feet. I could have taken it easy, taken an extra step and been surer of my throw, but then he would have been safe. I tried to get him out."
It was an unhappy gamble. Stanley's hurried throw sailed past Chambliss, and Griffey went to second base. It is here that Yankee tactics came a cropper. Martin decided to walk Morgan in the hope that Perez could be induced to make the third out. "Hunter was having pretty good luck with Perez, and he wanted to pitch to him," said Martin. "I'd rather pitch to him than to Morgan, too."
The walk seemed well advised. Morgan had reached Hunter for a single and a triple, while Perez had singled, popped up twice and flied out. The first pitch Hunter threw to him in the ninth was a high fastball. Perez lined it into left, and Griffey sped home as the chilled 54,816 fans screamed with pleasure. Their team had won and taken a 2-0 lead in the Series. And now they could go home to warm beds and curse those who had kept them out so late on such a night.