Pete Rose pulled the Bridal veil out of his locker and carefully placed it on his head. Then he stepped over to the mirror in the Cincinnati Reds manager's office in Riverfront Stadium to see just how ludicrous he looked in his red T-shirt, white baseball pants, shower clogs and the long white veil that cascaded down his back to his knees. "Marge Schott gave this to me on Opening Day," he said. "She said she's tired of being a bridesmaid."
This is an article from the April 18, 1988 issue
Rose edged closer to the mirror. "Do I look like a blushing bride or what?"
He laughed loudly and strode into the clubhouse, where a handful of his players were getting ready for Saturday afternoon's game against the Houston Astros. When the Reds saw Rose's getup, they started hooting. "Now that you see how pretty I look," he said, pausing in front of the lockers, "I know we'll put an end to that bridesmaid business." Then he promenaded away, the veil billowing behind him.
Rose treated Schott's gift as a joke, a convenient prop for loosening up the Reds after an embarrassing 8-3 loss to the Astros the night before. But he's also well aware of what it symbolizes: For the first time in his 3½ years as the Cincinnati manager, Rose has been put on notice to win the National League West title—or else. Schott, who bought controlling interest in the Reds three years ago, isn't the most knowledgeable owner in baseball. When a newspaper reporter asked her last week which team she thought would be Cincy's most serious competition for the division crown, she answered, "The Kansas City Royals." But one thing Schott does know is that she's tired of watching the Reds come in second, which is where they've finished in each of the last three years. Late in the 1987 season, after Cincinnati had dropped out of first (the Reds eventually finished six games behind the San Francisco Giants), Schott publicly blamed Rose and general manager Bill Bergesch for the slide. Then, in the off-season, she fired Bergesch and replaced him with Murray Cook, a former general manager for the New York Yankees and Montreal Expos. Rose kept his job, but his contract runs out at the end of this season.
All of a sudden those 4,256 hits Rose collected as a player don't seem to matter so much. When he started as a player-manager with Cincinnati in August 1984, he was still chasing Ty Cobb's record for career hits, and he would sit in his office cleaning his bats. Now the bats are gone, and he devotes every minute he can to studying his players' statistics.
"Sure, it's different," he says. "When I played, all I had to worry about was myself. Now I've got to worry about 24 players, the coaches, the trainer and the media. When I played, what I did was how I was judged. Now, what my players do is how I am judged. I understand that. I like it. I want to be the best manager who ever lived. And I don't buy that garbage about taking a job expecting to get fired. Walter Alston didn't get fired. Twenty-three years. Now, there's a record to shoot at."
Rose is unruffled by Schott's high expectations. "I expect us to win, too," he says. "I hope people expect us to win. If you start worrying because people put pressure on you, you're in trouble. I was watching the Cleveland-Texas game the other night. Brook Jacoby of the Indians was on the postgame show and said how difficult it was for the Cleveland players last year because their team was picked to win its division right there on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. HOW can there be pressure when you're picked to win? Good athletes thrive on pressure. I lived with the pressure every bleeping day for 24 years. I loved it. So I'm not complaining about the pressure of being expected to win."
Rose is quick to point out how well he has done as a manager. When he took over the Reds, they had finished last two years in a row and were languishing in fifth place. The following season he moved them into second, and they have been solid contenders ever since. Last year, the Reds got off to a 15-7 start and held first place for 82 straight days, until Aug. 19. But things began to unravel earlier in the month when they dropped a four-game series against the San Francisco Giants in Candlestick Park. "We stopped hitting and scored a lot less runs in the second half of the season," says Rose. "We had three real bad weeks, had a 9-and-20 August. Everyone talks as if we packed it in after that, but we won as many games as anyone in the National League in September and October."
Their good early-season showing and hot September notwithstanding, 1987 was a long, hard year for the Reds. Before the All-Star break, the relationship between Rose and veteran rightfielder Dave Parker became embittered, and the tension between them spilled over into the clubhouse and divided a young, impressionable team. Then there was the starting pitching, or lack of it. Cincinnati had only five complete games before the All-Star break and just two after it, which meant Rose had to overwork one of the best bullpens in the game. And the injuries grew in number. Leftfielder Kal Daniels had to have a knee operation in July; centerfielder Eric Davis missed 33 games with an assortment of ailments; Parker had a bad left knee; and catcher Bo Diaz got, in Rose's words, "flat worn out." Sure, the Reds spent 82 days in first place, but they did it in the main because the Giants had not yet put together a winning combination. During the time Cincy led the division, its record was only 36-37. Says third baseman Buddy Bell, "When I looked back on it over the winter, I realized that we simply weren't good enough."
As soon as Cook took over he started making improvements. He obtained lefthander Danny Jackson from Kansas City and dealt Parker to the Oakland Athletics for pitchers Jose Rijo and Tim Birtsas. He also tried to restore order to an organization racked with dissension because of Schott's idiosyncratic policies, which included, among other things, requiring scouts to make calls from pay phones rather than their rooms to avoid hotel surcharges.
Cook's two primary goals were to bolster the Cincinnati pitching and to "get this essentially young team in position to define its guts." Perhaps the best indication of the progress he has made with the pitching is the fact that he was able to release Guy Hoffman, who was fourth on last year's staff in both starts and innings pitched.
Jackson, who in his last two years with K.C. had fewer runs scored for him per start (3.35) than any pitcher in the American League, gives the Reds a workhorse. In his National League debut against the Cardinals last Thursday, he won 8-1 with an impressive three-hitter. Tom Browning, the tough lefthander who won 20 games in 1985 and found himself down in Nashville last summer with a sore elbow, has apparently come all the way back. He was one out away from a 2-0, two-hit victory in the aforementioned game against Houston on Friday night when he allowed a single and then threw a fastball to Glenn Davis, who pumped it out and forced the game into extra innings. The Reds eventually lost 8-3, but had Browning gotten that last out, Cincinnati would have had its first back-to-back complete games since August 1985.
As for the other starters, Dennis Rasmussen, acquired in August last year, is 31-14 over the last two seasons; Ron Robinson, who was 6-3 after being made a starter in June, has rebounded from elbow surgery; and Mario Soto has returned to form after two years of arm ills. In the Reds' first five games, against St. Louis and Houston, the rotation averaged more than seven innings a start and had a 3.53 ERA. With John Franco and Rob Murphy in the bullpen, Rose thinks, "We have the makings of a stability we didn't have last year."
The everyday lineup has a lot more stability, too. Now that Kurt Stillwell has been traded to Kansas City, Barry Larkin is entrenched at short and in the leadoff spot; he has the potential to hit 20 homers and steal 40 bases. Rookie Jeff Treadway, who has never hit less than .300 as a pro, shares second base and the second spot in the batting order with veteran David Concepcion. Rose has another rookie, Chris Sabo, filling in for the injured Bell at third and 24-year-old Terry McGriff spelling the 35-year-old Diaz behind the plate. "Everyone's role is pretty well defined now," says Daniels. "Larkin knows he's the shortstop. Paul O'Neill and Tracy Jones know they'll platoon in right. I know I'm in there in the third spot in front of Eric. We haven't been set before."
Last year Davis, who hit 37 homers, had 100 RBIs and led the league in put-outs, was baseball's newest hero. But this year, according to batting coach Tony Perez, "it's Kal Daniels' turn."
"We've got two kegs of dynamite in the middle," says Rose. "Everyone knows about Eric, but Kal can win a batting title and hit 40 homers at the same time. He might be the best pure hitter in the National League."
That statement shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, despite the knee injury that dogged him for half of last season, Daniels hit .334, with 26 homers in 108 games. The year before, he hit .320 in 74 games. In fact, in six seasons of pro ball he has only once hit less than .300 (at Cedar Rapids in 1983). "But that was the only time—Little League on up," Daniels points out. "Now I feel it's my time to get my due."
One way to capture the media's attention is to get off to a great start, as Davis did in 1987. So what did Daniels do last week? He collected 12 hits, four homers, 10 RBIs and six walks. "I don't think I've ever seen a hitter in a better groove," said Rose after watching Daniels's explosion. "Actually," said Daniels, who hit .364 after returning from his operation in August, "I felt better last September."
On Friday night the lefthanded-hitting Daniels, who hit 22 of his 26 homers to leftfield last year, pulled one of Nolan Ryan's letter-high, 95-mph fastballs for a double off the rightfield fence. He also picked up a sacrifice fly, a single and a walk.
The next morning Rose pondered the stat sheet. "Kal is 4 for 7 for his career against Danny Darwin [that afternoon's Houston starter], the rest of the lineup is 4 for 34 against him," he said. "If Kal don't hit, we're in trouble."
In the first inning Darwin threw Daniels what Darwin called "my best forkball." Daniels pulled it into the second deck in right. With two on in the third, Darwin walked Daniels and took his chances with Davis. After a single in the fifth, Daniels came up in the seventh with the Reds trailing 4-2 and belted another homer to left. Finally, in the ninth, with the Astros still leading 4-3, the bases loaded and one out, Daniels hit a two-run blast up the left centerfield alley. Final score: Cincinnati 5, Houston 4. On Sunday Daniels hit another homer, but it wasn't enough to keep the Astros from winning 12-3.
"There's no way to pitch him," says Rose. "He hits everything. Look at his arms, and when you're done with them, check out the chest." Perez thinks Daniels has the same kind of balance at the plate as defending batting champs Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres and Wade Boggs of the Boston Red Sox, but Daniels believes his secret is in his quick wrists and hands.
He doesn't pay much attention when people—even those of Rose's and Perez's stature—compare him with the game's best hitters. "My Little League coach in Georgia told me I was the greatest hitter he ever saw," he says. "I didn't listen to that, and I don't listen to what people say now. Talk is cheap. Production is expensive."
What Daniels can do is the easy part for Rose. The hard part will be getting control of a young, inexperienced team that is sometimes too fast for its own good. On Friday, for instance, Rose watched O'Neill get caught stealing—even though the Houston catcher never threw the ball. It was a bizarre play. O'Neill was on first and Daniels on second. O'Neill broke for second with his head down and didn't notice that Daniels wasn't running. So he slid into second and then tried to tiptoe back toward first. Meanwhile Astros catcher Alan Ashby simply walked out and tagged him.
In the same game the Reds twice failed to bunt successfully, and five times they tried stealing with two outs and two strikes. Then in the bottom of the ninth, with Davis on first and none out, Rose told Jones to take a pitch so Davis could steal. But Jones swung at the first pitch and hit a one-hopper to third, forcing Davis at second.
"That's Tracy, I tell myself," Rose said the next morning. "As a manager you've got to live with those things and not let them bother you." And accept the veil of full responsibility.