The battery was dead on the Big Red Machine. This was no joke, as Arnie Metz could have told you at the time. A member of the Cincinnati Reds maintenance staff, Metz had to drive team mascot Mr. Red in the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade. But once Metz got to the starting point, the van, officially designated Big Red Machine No. 3, refused to start up. So the van sat on Race Street, hood up, as the parade of sausage companies, breweries and politicians floated by. At one point a parader looked at the Big Dead Machine and said, "Uh-oh, I think we're in trouble."
Cincinnati has been fretting about its Reds since the end of last season, the one in which they finished with the best record in baseball (66-42) and—just in case anybody wants to hear this again—DIDN'T MAKE THE PLAYOFFS. Cincinnatians have every right to worry, because they invest an inordinate amount of civic pride in the team. And five starters from the team with the best record in baseball are gone. The town wants to make sure the man with the jumper cables—Reds President Dick Wagner—has connected the positive to the positive.
Wagner is commonly portrayed as being forbidding and cold, which may stem in part from the fact that he used to run the Ice Capades, but nobody has doubted his acumen. At least it hadn't been doubted until he let Ken Griffey, Dave Collins and George Foster all go to one team or another in New York.
Wagner kept Bernie Stowe, the equipment manager, busy in the off-season. "Very busy," says Stowe, who had to order uniforms for seven new players. Having already lost Collins to free agency and having virtually given Griffey to the Yanks a week before he was to become a free agent, Wagner needed outfielders. He traded Third Baseman Ray Knight to Houston for Cesar Cede√±o and Pitcher Scott Brown to the Royals for Clint Hurdle. Wagner hated to lose the hard-nosed Knight, but that trade also opened up a position for Johnny Bench to play. Then, on Feb. 10, Foster was dealt to the Mets for pitchers Jim Kern and Greg Harris and Catcher Alex Trevi√±o. Trevi√±o was needed because opposing runners were taking liberties with Joe Nolan's arm. Nolan has since been shipped to Baltimore.
Wagner is the cover story in the April issue of Cincinnati magazine, which bills him as "The Man Cincinnati Loves to Hate." After all, he also let Petey Rose, hometown hero, go, as well as Joe Morgan and Tony Perez. On the other hand, Wagner has rewarded two leftover parts of the Machine generously. Last year he gave the Reds' first guaranteed contract to Shortstop Dave Concepcion: five years for $4.5 million. Last week, at the risk of being labeled a silly sentimentalist, he signed Bench to a three-year pact worth close to a million a year.
Why did he break up the team with the best record in baseball? "If you sit on your tail, you get beat," says Wagner. "I remember all hell broke loose after the 71 season when Bob Howsam [Wagner's predecessor and mentor and still the Reds' vice-chairman] traded Lee May and Tommy Helms for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, and Jack Billingham.
"I think we had become too staid last year. Everybody knew who was going to play. We were very mediocre defensively, and the players were running base to base—nobody was going from first to third. We wanted to get people who love to play."
Baseball people are forever arguing whether they'd rather have a team with great talent or a team with great character. How well the Reds do this year may help settle that debate. Cincinnati can crow forever about how it was robbed by the split season, but the truth is that when the Reds were in a position to win the second-half title in the closing days, they folded.
On Opening Day last week, Manager John McNamara filled out a very different lineup card from the one he had the year before. Second Baseman Ron Oester led off, instead of Collins. First Baseman Dan Driessen was second. Only Concepcion, hitting third, was in his old spot. Cede√±o hit cleanup, then Bench, rookie Rightfielder Paul Householder, Hurdle and Trevi√±o.
Up in the stands, the guys from the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science (Motto: "We're the last ones to ever let you down") gravely assessed the team. "Dick Wagner must be the smartest man in baseball," said one apprentice undertaker. "He traded half the team and can still fill the stadium. Actually, I'm glad to see Foster and Collins replaced by people who are more interested in playing baseball than in negotiating contracts."
Two fellows on the field level were eating their peanuts whole, shell and all. One of them, an electrical contractor from Sidney, Ohio, contended that he wouldn't miss Foster, saying, "He never put out on defense. He walked as soon as he got to the warning track. Must have been in his contract. I like Householder. Runs his butt off. He'll come through when it's on the line."
All traces of Foster seem to have disappeared from Cincinnati. At the Reds' gift shop downtown, the salesgirl, when asked what happened to all the Foster buttons and posters, gleefully replied, "They were destroyed."
Hurdle, the new leftfielder, is certainly not going to replace Foster, but he did do something on Opening Day that Foster rarely did: He threw out two runners at the plate in the 3-2 loss to the Cubs. "It's been a long time since I've seen that," said Bench.
Householder needs only two more home runs to match Collins' total of last year. He hit one out Wednesday night in the Reds' 6-2 victory over Chicago and also tripled, which gave him four hits in his first eight at bats. The son of a North Haven, Conn. chemist, Householder could provide the Reds with the catalyst they need. He's a switch hitter with speed and intermittent power.
Cede√±o, who had been accused occasionally of malingering in Houston, had no fewer than four complaints during spring training: hand, shoulder, hamstring and the flu. But he also batted .375 and proved that he could still play center-field. "I'm thankful the Reds put me in center," says Cede√±o, who had been shifted to first base by the Astros. "I also don't think they'll regret it."
Trevi√±o has no power, but he can steal a base. That's an odd thing for a catcher, but he did it against the Cubs in the season's second game. Bench likes what he sees of Trevi√±o. "He has a good, quick release and a very good arm," Bench says. "He's not afraid to tell pitchers what to throw, and he's got an idea of what he wants to do. The toughest thing for him will be learning a new staff."
Bench, the third-string catcher and first-string third baseman, lost weight, to 205 pounds, in his effort to become an in-fielder, but he's still having trouble sighting the ball coming off the bat. On Opening Day he was booed after a ball got by him that few third basemen could have fielded. He was also booed in the second game, more justifiably, after an error. When he caught a routine pop foul in the next inning, the fans gave him a mock cheer. They'll have to be more patient. "I'm still learning," he says. "But I'll be all right."
Wagner announced Bench's signing at the Welcome the Reds luncheon on the day after the opener, and in the press conference that followed, Bench said that one of the major factors in his decision to stay with the Reds was the way the team played in spring training. "I got a kick out of watching kids like Householder," he said. "I was enjoying the game again, giving them tips and watching them learn. I want to play in another World Series, and we'll be there soon. Maybe even this year."
Maybe not. But Cincinnati will be right there at the end, as it almost always is. In a sense, the Reds are the Smith Barney of baseball. Bench likes that analogy. "We win the old-fashioned way," he says. "We earrrnn it."