And so the tenuously front-running Reds and the inconspicuously tough-hanging Giants met last weekend at Riverfront Stadium in a National League West shakedown—or, if you will, an early pennant-race screening of WCRP (Won't the Cream Rise, Please) in Cincinnati. The Reds maintained their durable (66 straight days), if delicate, grip (three games over San Francisco) on the division by winning two of three. The two clubs have nine games left against each other, including four this weekend in San Francisco, and the one that plays with the most consistency is sure to win the race. But agreement on that score from players on both sides was about the only consistency in evidence at Riverfront.
This was mildly disconcerting to Cincinnati and its manager, the record-breaking King of Consistency, Pete Rose. While punchless Houston and disabled-bodied San Francisco have slogged along, the Reds have squandered every opportunity to bury the pack. Since their 18-8 start through May 5, they have gone 38-41. Yet when Cincinnati has needed to win to stay in first place, it has. Seven times since going in front to stay on May 29 its lead has slipped to one game or less. Says Reds third baseman Buddy Bell, "One characteristic of this team—and I don't know if you'd call it good or bad—is that when we have to go out and win a ball-game, we do."
At times the Reds are jaw-slackeningly awesome; at others, curiously lax. "They think they can overcome any deficit, and it's damn near true," says Giants catcher Bob Brenly. "I get the feeling it's no big deal to them if you score eight runs. They'll just get 10." Rose, who has ripped the Reds for "lifeless-ness," unintentionally underlined his club's inside-out nature with a couple of utterances last week. "The only time we look bad is when we face good pitching," he said one day. And then the next: "The only time we look bad is when we get bad pitching."
Perhaps an imprint of Rose's own in-the-clutch toughness is what has carried the Reds this far. Last Friday, with the lead at two games, Cincy rallied from down 2-0 with a broken-bat, inside-the-park homer by Eric Davis and a back-breaking three-run shot by Bell for a 9-2 win. Then with the pressure off on Saturday, the Reds let the Giants roll over them 7-3. In the Sunday finale, the Reds won 5-4 on an 11th inning homer by Davis. It was the 14th time the Reds have won a game on their final at bat.
Instilling the sacred trinity he believed in as a player—victory, consistency and love of the game—has been a rough act for Rose. Cincinnati, after all, is an incomplete team, making do with a starting staff whose ERA is 4.99, and doing without a second baseman, a leftfielder and an erstwhile ace, all of whom are on the disabled list. While three regulars have more than 2,000 career hits each, four others have fewer than 400.
But through it all, Rose has proved himself adaptive, receptive and, heavens to headfirst slides, sensitive. "I don't know if it's the way he's handled players as much as the way he's shaped the team," says pitcher Tom Browning. "All anybody cares about here is playing baseball. Just like Pete did." And, if the occasional sight of old number 14 in the batting cage is any indication, like Pete may do again. For now, though, here's the way the Reds are managing—and being managed—by Peter's Principles.
"If the machine is running good, I don't mess with it. If it starts missing, I mess with it."
Out of necessity, most of Rose's tinkering has been with his pitching staff. When Mario Soto reinjured his shoulder early this year, the Cincinnati Kid was stuck without an ace and has had to improvise. Only Bill Gullickson (10-8, 4.75 ERA) and Ted Power (8-5, 4.32) have stayed in the rotation all year. Rose converted two relievers, Guy Hoffman (7-6) and Ron Robinson (4-3), and Browning (5-8, 6.77), a 34-game winner the past two years, was dispatched briefly to Triple A for an attitude rehab.
The more drastic moves were made only after Rose ran out of other options. Says Rose's dugout assistant Tommy Helms, "The biggest thing that's surprised me about Pete as a manager is his patience, especially with pitching." No doubt that patience is buoyed by a bullpen Rose calls "the best in the world." The closer is John Franco (7-3, 1.75, 18 saves), and his setup men are Rob Murphy, a lefty, and Frank Williams, a righty, each of whom has appeared in more than half of the Reds' 103 games. The average Cincinnati starter is finished after the fifth inning.
"You'd expect a team I have to be offensive-minded. I wasn't exactly a .240-hitting-type player."
Thanks mainly to the incomparable Davis (.323, 82 RBIs, 30 home runs, 39 steals—only the seventh major leaguer to reach 30 homers and 30 steals in a season), Cincinnati trails only St. Louis in runs scored. The 2,000-hit trio—Bell (.282) at third, Dave Parker (21 homers, 75 RBIs) in right and, when he plays, utility man Dave Concepcion (.304)—steadies the soul of a solid order. Bo Diaz (.301, 64 RBIs) is quietly having the best all-around year of any catcher in baseball. "I can't think of a player I'd rather have up with a runner on second," Rose says of Diaz.
Cincinnati's attack is run (118 steals, tied for third in the NL) and gun (134 homers, second in the league), and it's relentless. Rose starts base runners constantly and sacrifices seldom; most of his regulars receive signals only when they're not to steal. In 33 of their 56 wins the Reds have come from behind.
"Keep it simple. I don't want players thinking about 33 different things so by the time they get in the box, it's oh and 2."
Common sense always guided Pete the player, and the same still holds for Pete the manager. Before each game, pitching coach Scott Breeden prepares a card that tells Rose how much his pitchers have thrown lately and how far they can go that day. He pays attention to the opposition's stats but doesn't get bogged down in them. For his players, Rose has only two rules: Be on time and bust a gut on the field.
Surprisingly, as good a communicator as he generally is, Rose often fails in that department with his players. He has created some strain by not explicitly telling them their roles. "When you've got to figure out things yourself, you go through 10 different reasons why you are or aren't playing, and it's not very satisfying, because you're never sure," says first baseman Nick Esasky. Rose admits that the chore he finds the hardest is dealing with his troops on things he never had to experience as a player: being sent down to the minors or getting benched.
"I think I'm a better manager this year and for one reason only: I know my personnel better and my personnel knows me better. All this job is, is handling people."
Though he was (and maybe will be again) hard-nosed on the field, Rose is essentially softhearted as a field general. "There are two things I could do every day if I wanted to act like I had six eyes and four ears: argue with an ump and argue with a player," he says. "But life's too short to be miserable." He keeps the Reds' clubhouse as comfortable as possible. It's nothing for Rose to roam among his players, exhorting those who need it, needling those who can take it.
"Even though he hasn't activated himself," says Robinson, "Pete's also a player." Indeed, some say he's still the team leader.
"When they understand that what I'm trying to accomplish is best for them, too, I'll have their respect. Not because I had 4,000 hits and scored 2,000 runs."
Keeping the Reds' young stars happy isn't easy. At various times, gifted outfielders Kal Daniels, Tracy Jones and Paul O'Neill and infielders Kurt Still-well, Barry Larkin and Esasky have had to split time or sit out. Jones, 26, who took over in left when Daniels hurt his knee, is back to platooning after a recent slump. An all-out wallbanger in Rose's image, Jones has had trouble taking his .302 average and 23 steals to the bench. Two weeks ago, Jones and Rose fired volleys at each other through the press about playing time. Then on July 24, before a game against the Expos, Jones engaged Rose in a rare closed-door meeting for half an hour. "A guy can bitch to me about not playing," Rose said beforehand. "I'm the guy to bitch with." Afterward, Jones was relatively subdued. "The thing that got me in trouble in the first place is talking," he said. "I'm going to keep my mouth—try to keep my mouth—shut." He started that night, singled and stole a base.
Larkin, 23, was struggling at shortstop after coming back from a knee injury in May. Rose pumped him up and bumped him to the leadoff spot. Larkin responded by hitting .324 in his 17 games there. The Reds' other promising shortstop, Stillwell, 22, moved to second base last week as a part-time fill-in for Ron Oester, who had torn up a knee. "Pete always tells me to just have fun," Stillwell says. "Don't try to do what you're not capable of doing, just have fun and react."
"I was as close to being a manager as a player as anyone who ever played."
When Rose was a 29-year-old outfielder for the Reds, he envisioned his future managerial style in his autobiography, The Pete Rose Story: "I'd let the players speak up a little more for what they want.... I would try to get across to the players how much a championship means to them.... I would try to get the players to see that baseball isn't a job." This remains his ethos. More than anything else, Rose wants his guys to enjoy the lives they lead as Reds players.
Not that Rose has entirely given up the idea of enjoying that life again himself. As a player-manager last year, he batted .219 in 72 games—though .406 against the Giants—and benched himself in September. He didn't force himself on the team at the start of this year and says he won't do it at the end. But he may do it before then, so as to be eligible for the NL Championship Series. "I know how I do in the playoffs," he says. Rose has hit .381 in 28 NLCS games.
So far, Pete has been careful to take his cuts on his own time. And just how is his BP going? "If you ask anyone how they're swinging, they're going to tell you, 'Good,' " Rose says. "But if the batting coach told me I was slow, that would be it. You have to trust people who have been in the game."
Says the batting coach, Billy Demars, "The other day he hit as good as anybody has hit all year."
"They don't pay you for how many games over .500 you are. They pay you for winning."
In Rose's three years as manager, the Reds have developed another striking characteristic of Pete the player: They're hard to handle down the stretch. The past two years Cincy has finished second but finished strong: Collectively, the club went 42-24 (.656) in September and October. But in both seasons the Reds came from off the pace. This time they're setting the pace. Still, the Giants should charge hard, and soon. Mike Krukow, a 20-game winner in '86 who has won just twice this year, seems to have recovered his form. Cleanup hitter Candy Maldonado is due to return this week after missing a month with a broken finger. And first baseman Will Clark is bashing the ball after an 0-for-21 funk that began the day he was left off the All-Star team. "We're in good position to make a run," says manager Roger Craig. Houston, 4½ games back, is not yet out of it, either.
Reliever Murphy, whose great-grandfather served as the track announcer for seven Kentucky Derbys, says of Rose as the Reds come around the final turn: "At this point he's riding us pretty strong but holding a notch for the stretch drive." If the Reds win by a nose, that will be fine by Pete, for whom the outcome is the ultimate principle. "I don't think I'm a good manager," Rose says. "I haven't won anything yet." Based on past performance, however, Rose is, and he will.