In his suffering he was visited by a ghost. "Ooooh," moaned Sparky Anderson, staring at the specter beyond the upturned faces of his interviewers, "if Branch Rickey was alive today to see that play...." He shook his head in lament. Then he rose from his chair, something of an apparition himself in underwear and shower clogs, brandishing a half-eaten ham sandwich, and he seemed to address the spirit of the old Flatbush Mahatma directly. "Yes, that's right," he said to the wall of his office. "In a situation like that, when the runner is picked off clean, you show him the ball, and if he doesn't stop, you throw. Simple as that, eh?" Anderson laughed, a Pagliacci in briefs. "If Mr. Rickey had been alive today and seen that play, it would've killed him."
The play Anderson had in mind indeed would have done in the old Dodger boss. After all, Anderson, manager of the Cincinnati Reds and a Rickey disciple, barely survived it himself, typical though it may have been of the Reds' dolorous season. In the third inning of a critical game last week before the usual packed house in Los Angeles, Fred Norman, the plucky if star-crossed Reds' lefthander, spotted Dodger base runner Davey Lopes napping off first base and threw to Dan Driessen. A perfect pick-off play? No, more like opéra bouffe. Driessen threw the ball to Second Baseman Joe Morgan, who returned it to him as the fugitive Lopes skittered between them. Driessen shoveled the ball to Shortstop Dave Concepcion, who tossed it again to Morgan, who flipped it underhand and low to a fifth member of the Cincinnati comedy act, Third Baseman Pete Rose, who dropped it. Everyone in and about the infield, with the exception of Catcher Johnny Bench, had handled the ball, and still Lopes had reached second base safely.
From there, Lopes was sacrificed to third by Bill Russell and brought home by Reggie Smith's single to left. So Lopes scored the only run of the game, pinned yet another defeat on the Reds, who finished the evening 12½ increasingly hopeless games behind the Dodgers in the National League West, and summoned for Anderson his admonishing specter. "Mr. Rickey believed in schooling," said Anderson. "Maybe that's what we need, more teaching around here. You don't see a rundown that bad in Class A ball."
Had the low-down rundown been the only gaffe of this season—or even of the week—it might have been forgivable. Alas, it was all too representative of the Reds' deplorable play in 1977, a startling turnabout after Cincinnati had won two consecutive world championships, including a seven-game sweep of the playoffs and Series last fall. In the preceding game, for example, Ken Griffey led off the fourth inning for Cincinnati with an infield single, his specialty. Morgan then looped a soft single to right. Now, this looked to be the start of a typical Reds scoring drive. Griffey, naturally, would race to third on the right-field hit, putting runners on first and third with nobody out. And because the runner on first would be the larcenous Morgan, he would naturally steal second, putting two runners in scoring position for George Foster, the major leagues' leading RBI man. Presto, a big inning.
But not on this night—and not in this season. Griffey unaccountably stopped at second on Morgan's hit. In fact, he stopped a little beyond second and was nearly thrown out hustling back to the bag. Morgan, startled by his teammate's mental lapse, stood with hands on hips at first base, the game plan ruined. For his part in the sorry scenario, Foster bounced a perfect double-play ball to Russell at short. The Reds did not deserve it, but this time they got lucky. Lopes misplayed Russell's throw and only Morgan was erased, with Griffey finally reaching third. He scored on Bench's single, and Cincinnati went on to win the game 4-0 behind the brilliant one-hit pitching of young Doug Capilla and his reliever, Pedro Borbon. The Reds won, but certainly not by playing alert baseball—except where they are not supposed to play it, on the mound. They salvaged a split in the four-game series with the Dodgers, gaining no ground and losing more time in their quest for a third straight championship.
There were other excursions into the bushes during the week. In the Wednesday game, Rose and Concepcion nearly collided on a pop-up back of third, and Foster and Centerfielder Cesar Geronimo almost bumped heads on a routine fly ball to left center. On Thursday, Morgan and Concepcion played who's-on-second in a double-play situation before Morgan finally accepted the responsibility. The Reds were not even especially taken aback when the landing gear on the plane carrying them from Los Angeles malfunctioned on the approach to the San Francisco airport. The upset was that they landed safely. It has been that kind of a season for the champs. "Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong," says Rose. "Last week Frank Taveras of the Pirates—you know what a power hitter he is—hit a ball off the end of his bat that bounced around the outfield and went for an inside-the-park grand slam."
Funny bounces do not account for all that has been happening to the Reds. Nor does bad pitching. In the past it has been fashionable to blame the Reds' staff for anything untoward that occurred during their relentless pennant drives. And by Anderson's assessment, the pitching was indeed horrible during the first three months of the season. Even now, after considerable improvement of late, the staff earned-run average is nearer five than four. The mighty Red sluggers have scored 10 or more runs three times and still have been beaten.
Through a series of bewildering transactions, the Reds lost what few quality pitchers they did have, Starters Gary Nolan and Don Gullett and Relievers Rawly Eastwick and Will McEnaney. What remained was a slow-pitch softball staff. But in recent weeks the pitching has been dramatically better. In its most recent 15 games, Cincy's staff has had a 3.65 ERA. Capilla, a promising 25-year-old lefthander with a history of wildness, was acquired from St. Louis in a trade for Eastwick, who had criticized the Reds' management for penuriousness. At the time of the deal, the trade itself seemed to be Capilla's biggest achievement. "It's an honor to be traded for a pitcher that good," he said. "Rawly is a better pitcher than I am right now. But not for long."
Arriving with Capilla on the June 15 trading deadline was Tom Seaver, whose departure from the Mets received no more media notice in New York than V-J day. Then 21-year-old Mario Soto, who shut out the Pirates early last week, and 23-year-old Paul Moskau were brought up from the minor leagues in July. Of the starters who began the season for Cincinnati, only Norman remains in the rotation. Anderson insists that the new staff—two veterans and three youngsters, all of whom have good stuff—gives the Reds what they have always lacked, "pitching respectability." Says Griffey, "The only positive thing about this season is the young pitchers."
So the Reds are no longer losing games by scores of 16-15; they are dropping them 1-0. By the end of last week they had been shut out six times in the space of a month, four times since the All-Star Game, eight times during the season. The 4-3 defeat by the Giants on Friday night was their 22nd one-run loss against 14 wins. When poor Norman is pitching, the once sturdy Red bats become strands of pasta. In his last seven starts, a period covering 41 innings, Norman's teammates have favored him with exactly one run. The Reds had a team batting average of more than .290 before the All-Star break. Since then, they have been hitting .250. The splendid Seaver, grown accustomed to pitching for a team that scored a run a week, found himself, to his consternation, with another team that scored a run a week. Aware that his strong right arm was supposed to hoist his new team past the Dodgers, he wryly observed last week, "When I came here, we were 8½ behind. Now we are 12½ back. It's absolutely amazing what one man can do for a team." In truth, Seaver has done as well for Cincinnati as could be expected. He was 5-2 as a Red after beating L.A. 5-4.
Among the Reds' hitters, only Foster has been reasonably consistent, but even he has suffered dry spells, including two singles in 14 at-bats against the Dodgers last week. But he considers himself to be in "the age range"—he is 28—where he can perform steadily. With a major league-leading 38 homers and 109 RBIs, and a .314 average, Foster's steady hitting approximates the sensational.
Even when the Reds were hitting, they really were not. Holding before him a statistics sheet that showed five starters—Rose, Griffey, Morgan, Foster and Driessen—batting more than .300, Anderson snorted, "This might be the most deceiving thing I've ever seen." And he dropped the offending document to his desk as if it were an obscene letter. "Look at these home runs. We have 138, but only about 38 of them meant anything. Throw out the other hundred, and we'd still be where we are. All we do is thunder away in games that don't mean anything. We get our hits when we're ahead by four runs. We don't get the clutch hits, the two-out hits. There is only one figure on this page that means anything, and it shows us having lost as many as we've won." In fact, the only consistent thing about the Reds all season has been their record. Except for a couple of weeks in July, they've never been more than seven games better than .500. At the end of last week, they stood 58-57.
But what disheartens Anderson more is something that cannot be compiled statistically. "What's it say here—58 errors? Heck, that doesn't tell the half of it. It's the mental errors that hurt. We're just not doing the things we did before. Moving runners along. Making the right plays in the field. I'm embarrassed; I feel like walking around in back alleys. I sure don't feel like going out socially."
Anderson is not the only one disheartened by Cincinnati's comatose state. Morgan, the perfectionist who prides himself on being the compleat player, is appalled by it. "I never thought this would happen to us," he says. "No one's doing it on purpose. You can get angry when you see people who aren't trying, but we've still got a lot of character on this team. So I'm not angry, I'm disappointed. You can't look at other people. You just have to look at yourself. Sure, I'm hitting .300 and blah, blah, blah, but I haven't been hitting in the clutch as often as I did last year. The difficult thing is knowing that we're so much better than this. That's the thing that gnaws at Sparky. He looks out there and sees the best eight men in baseball. Then he looks and sees where we are in the standings."
Morgan suspects the team lacked the steadying influence of the traded Tony Perez during the early weeks of the season, when the Reds let the Dodgers break to a big lead. "Tony was always the same, never excited," Morgan says. "He's the only player I know who looks the same when he's gone 0 for 4 as when he's gone 4 for 4. We missed him early, but Driessen has done a super job since."
Bench feels the Reds may be suffering from something he calls "mental drain." He is convinced that the pressure of playing at the top of one's game week after week against opponents who are always "laying for you" can exact a grievous toll. There comes a time when one cannot get out of the doldrums, says Bench, "simply by taking it for granted that you will. You can't be a fatalist, either, and say that's the way the ball bounces."
The Red players angrily deny that their absentminded play is an indication that they have become complacent now that they are rich and famous. They fall back on the professional athlete's familiar defense that pride, not worldly goods, is the prime motivator in sports. But Anderson is not so certain. Although he wished Capilla well in his bid for a no-hitter against the Dodgers—which the youngster lost in the seventh on a controversial infield hit by Ron Cey—Anderson confided that he was just as happy Capilla did not get it.
"If he gets the no-hitter now, this early in his career, he'll be getting calls from New York," Anderson said. "He'll be on all the TV shows. Well, we've had too much of that. We've become more show business than baseball. The limelight is wonderful, but maybe if you stay out of it for a while you'll realize how wonderful it was. My guys are good people, but anytime you give anybody total security—lots of money and long-term contracts—you don't walk away from a losing game saying, 'That's terrible.' You don't have the same get-up-and-go. You can say all you want about people not changing, but I wonder. I wonder if I haven't changed. I'm wearing clothes now I've never worn before. I know famous people. I just wonder...."
Whatever they have lost—games, concentration, prestige—the Reds have retained their laudable sense of the absurd. They continue, as Rose puts it, "to agitate" one another and outsiders as well. And they are premier anecdotists. On the bus from Dodger Stadium to their hotel in Los Angeles one night last week, Rose and Bench exchanged stories about Frank Howard, the amiable giant who hit home runs for the Dodgers and the Washington Senators. Bench, employing Howard's husky voice in the dialogue, described a night he and Howard spent in a Los Angeles hotel following an off-season banquet. They were awakened in the middle of the night by a mild earthquake. Howard, looking even more mammoth than usual in nothing but his shorts, appeared in Bench's doorway. "What's up, John?" he asked.
"I think we're in an earthquake, Frank."
"Well, what d'ya think we oughta do, John? Go downstairs or what?"
Bench had no answer for that one.
"I mean, what d'ya think we oughta do?"
There was laughter on the bus, but the story also provoked some thought, for the question was a good one. What d'ya think we oughta do, John? Go downstairs or what?