What's rong with the Wreds? Even in-fielder Howard Johnson of the Mets couldn't help posing that puzzler at Shea Stadium Saturday as Cincinnati was losing the 16th of its last 18 games and the 19th of its 25 on the season. "Jeez, you guys got a good club," HoJo noted after reaching first in the eighth inning of New York's 5-1 win. "I can't understand it." The Reds' first baseman and manager, Pete Rose, was, like his team, at a loss. "You'd think if a guy's asked that question enough, he'd come up with the damn answer," Rose would say later. "How the hell did I get out of high school?"
Or to put it another way: How did a team favored to win the National League West become the major leagues' worst outfit? The Reds were on such a bleak streak that one beat writer said, "Watching them is like watching telephone poles while driving through Kansas." By the week's end, Cincinnati was last in the league in hitting (.217) and scoring (3.1 runs per game), and its starters' collective ERA was 4.40. Scan the field and you find a variety of disappointments: vets coming undone, sluggers not connecting, stoppers turning into sieves. A 3-2 win Sunday over the peerless Dwight Gooden could only hint at what should have been. "It's been a total team effort of stinking," says coach Tommy Helms.
What has made the plunge even more dramatic is the unlikely rise of the other team in the state. No sane Ohioan would have believed before the season began that the Indians would be fighting for first in the middle of May (page 28) while the Reds would be stuck in the cellar.
Perhaps the answer to Cincinnati's woes lies in this chronology/litany of all that's gone awry:
May 18, 1986
April 15 (3-3): Dave Parker, who in '85 drove in almost as high a percentage of his team's runs (18.5%) as Hack Wilson did in 1930 when he drove in 190 for the Cubs (19%), begins his current 16-for-80 (.200) tailspin. To this point, Parker has been carrying 33% of Cincy's RBI load.
April 22 (4-6): After dropping three straight, the Reds' home game against San Diego is postponed before it starts because of cold weather—a windchill factor in the 20s. But there are cold spells and there are cold spells. Cincinnati drops the next seven at Riverfront to run its home-loss streak to 11, its longest such freeze-out in this century.
April 27 (5-10): Lissa Kaplan, dog columnist for the Dayton Daily News, reports that the Reds' team mascot, Schottzie, is with pups. The Saint Bernard's litter, sired by Ch. RRR's Super Samson, is due around Memorial Day. With a pregnant pooch slobbering over them, the Reds tumble into the doghouse.
April 28 (5-10): Rose holds a stormy team meeting and the Reds actually win 7-4. Unfortunately, the game is against Detroit, for charity.
April 29 (5-11): The ace of the staff, Mario Soto, ties a major league record by surrendering four homers in an inning to the Expos.
April 30 (5-12): After battling the effects of a hiatal hernia and the flu, Rose concludes the first 0 for April (he had 10 at bats) of his career. Parker, sickened by his steady diet of 2-0 breaking balls, decides to go home and barbecue a goat. Advises Paul Meyer of the Daily News, "Any of your teammates will do."
May 3 (5-14): With two outs, starter John Denny fails to field a chopper off the bat of Keith Hernandez that rolls foul. Given new life, Hernandez hammers a two-run homer and the Reds tumble to the Mets 4-1. As he storms about the dugout after being yanked, Denny, a born-again Christian, throws a bat at a TV cameraman.
May 4 (5-15): Owner Marge Schott suggests sending a priest to the clubhouse, but Rose rejects the idea. Plenty of time for last-place rites. Asks a still-interested Dave Concepcion, "Can he hit?" Concepcion, who earlier in his career had jumped into a clothes dryer in order to get hot, showers with his uniform on.
May 5 (5-16): When pressed, G.M. Bill Bergesch says the biggest disappointments have been reliever Ted Power and cleanup hitter Nick Esasky. After saving 27 last year, Power (0-3, 7.36) says he's unable to pitch inside effectively but can't figure out why. Esasky, who was second on the team in homers and RBIs in '85, slugs like Babe Ruth in batting practice but swings like Ruth Buzzi in games. One Reds fan holds up a banner that reads: END THE CURSE, SACRIFICE SCHOTTZIE. Security personnel take away the banner of the infidel. Even Marge can't help spanking Schottzie, whom she drags down to the field from her office for good luck in the 10th inning of an 11-inning, 4-3 loss to the Braves.
May 6 (6-16): Buddy Bell dons glasses, perhaps to distinguish his tiny .164 average from those of other Opening Day starters Esasky (.164), Ron Oester (.187) and Eric Davis (.194). To clean up his swing, Bell begins taking 250 to 300 extra cuts before games.
May 8 (6-17): For the 11th time, Cincinnati falls behind in the first as the first four Braves to face Denny (1-4) score. "We're fine till we step on the field," says rookie outfielder Tracy Jones. In the seventh inning, a foul liner off Ozzie Virgil's bat strikes Schott in the left shoulder. She's treated for a bruise, and for some reason returns to see the finish of the 10-5 loss.
May 9 (6-18): Soto (2-4) allows but three hits. Two of them, however, come in the same inning as the Reds fall 2-1. After being 39-18 in one-run games last year, Cincinnati is now 1-7.
May 10 (6-19): Rose fields his 19th lineup. In desperate search of the right combination, he considered at one point putting nine names in a hat and arranging his starters blind. "The only reason I didn't was because the way we were going I know Parker would end up batting ninth," he says. Tom Browning (0-4), who pitches well but is backed by only three hits, says, "We've just lost that fire. Last year we were surprising everyone and this year everyone's going after us and we're not rising to the challenge."
Then comes May 11. Eureka! Euphoria! You gotta be kidding!
The punchless Reds chase baseball's best after just five innings, as Dr. K is saddled with his first L since last Aug. 31. Ahead 3-0, Cincinnati squeezes out a 3-2 win for its second victory in 13 tries against the two division leaders, Houston and New York. If ever a May win meant more than just a May win, this one did, though none of the Reds was stressing its import. "We're not going to come out of it at once," says Oester. "It's going to take time. But we have time. It's not like '82 or '83, when it seemed so hopeless. We know we have a good club."
That was the theme sounded in the players' pregame meeting, which Rose ordered but did not attend. Bell talked about how much better the current Reds are than some of the execrable clubs he played for in Texas and Cleveland; Denny and Tony Perez compared the team favorably to the '83 Phillies, who won the NL pennant. Schott wandered the field before the game to lend encouraging pecks on the cheeks and gentle reminders to win one for Mother's Day. She was to appear Monday with Schottzie on Late Night with David Letterman. (Schottzie, who hates to fly, was to be driven in a limo from Cincinnati to New York.) In a weak moment Marge mused, "Maybe I'll breed my own team."
The Reds stopped Gooden, for once, by breeding their own rally. In the second inning, after Bo Diaz's one-out single, Oester rapped a hit to right. Diaz moved to third, while Oester took second on the throw. "Bo taking third was the key," Oester says. "We've got to be aggressive." Eddie Milner worked a 3-2 walk to load the bases for Rose. On a full count the aging manager lashed a liner toward Tim Teufel at second. "If he catches it, it's a minute-and-a-half standing ovation," Rose said later. Instead, the ball trickled into right, and all three runners, who had been off and away on Gooden's windup, scored on the single. "We haven't been getting the breaks," Oester says. "But for once we got one."
Once, of course, is not enough, not when the Reds will have to play .603 ball the rest of the way just to equal their 89 wins of last year. Bergesch has given the club until the end of its road trip this Friday to continue to shape up or be reshaped. "We can't just go down the drain," he says.
Five of the Reds' eight starters are former All-Stars, their bench is littered with superb prospects, their starting rotation was supposedly solidified over the winter and their bullpen carried them last year. And firing the manager isn't a real option. Rose, who is actually being booed in Cincinnati, remains upbeat, and the Reds continue to field well and play hard. "I really feel sorry for Pete, because not even Houdini could manage this club the way things are going," says one player.
It would take something on the order of emerging from a frozen Ohio River while straitjacketed for Cincinnati to rise in the West. Because the way things are going, there's not a whole lot wright with the Wreds.