PITY THE POOR CINCINNATI REDS. While they're trying to play baseball, the specter of the Pete Rose investigation hangs over the team like a noose. Will Rose still be in the Reds dugout after June 26, the date of his hearing with Commissioner Bart Giamatti? Or will Rose be suspended? If so, who would replace him at the helm?
Meanwhile, the uncertain fate of their skipper isn't the Reds' only concern. Gone largely unnoticed in the shadow of the Rose investigation has been a host of more tangible problems—a nasty combination of debilitating injuries and inept performances. Indeed, a weary-looking Murray Cook, Cincinnati's general manager, acknowledged the obvious one day last week in Cincinnati when he said, "We're not playing that well."
How, then, does one explain that the Reds, as of Sunday, were sporting a 26-20 record, second best in the National League, and that they were tied with the Giants for first in the NL West? On Friday night in Chicago, after the Reds' ninth win in their last 12 games, Rose was asked how the team was able to prosper despite his problems. "There are no problems," the manager snapped. "We are in first place."
Of course there are problems. But it may be that they've helped this team more than hurt it. Rose maintains the swaggering air of, pardon the expression, a riverboat gambler who is tapped out but won't let anybody know, and his players have rallied around him. The Reds' successful survival thus far is the result, says Cook, "of the bond the players have formed through this crisis with Pete. I sense a maturity in them."
At the very least they've adopted their manager's "no problem" mentality. "All this stuff with Pete isn't around us," says veteran reliever Kent Tekulve. "It takes place somewhere else." Says outfielder Paul O'Neill, whose surprisingly strong start has been crucial to the Reds, "When I'm hitting, Pete's troubles are the last thing on my mind."
The rest of the sports world may be obsessed by the Rose investigation, but the Cincinnati players simply are not. Credit is due in part to Rose himself; he keeps the probe and baseball strictly separate. He has held many of his post-game press conferences away from the clubhouse instead of in his office, and any reference to the investigation usually brings a curt response from Rose, or no response at all. Says outfielder Eric Davis, "We are real relaxed, because the focus is not on us. Nobody bothers us. Everybody bothers Pete."
To understand why the Reds are winning, one must first consider the reasons why they shouldn't be:
•Pitcher Danny Jackson, 23-8 last year, was 3-8 at week's end, with an ugly 6.16 ERA. The Reds' two best starters last season, Jackson and Tom Browning, were 41-13 in '88; this season they've gone 7-12.
•Chris Sabo, National League Rookie of the Year in '88, has been a horror movie at third base. His hitting has finally picked up—in a five-game span last week, he hit his first four home runs of the season—but his arm has turned routine plays into adventures. On Friday, against the Cubs, his errant throw to first in the ninth led to the Cubs' game-tying run. "I have absolutely nothing to say about myself," Sabo huffed.
•Former All-Star catcher Bo Diaz, 36, is hitting .163, and has thrown out just one runner in 16 basestealing attempts.
•Davis missed most of early May with a severe hamstring pull; he's now playing again but remains hobbled. Leftfielder Kal Daniels, who has averaged .305 over his four seasons with the Reds, had surgery on his right knee on May 16 and won't be back before July.
Ah, but this is a team with a ton of talent, and where some have fallen, others have risen to fill the breach. Righthander Jose Rijo (4-1) has stepped in to anchor the starting staff; the Reds won each of his first nine starts before losing Saturday. Shortstop Barry Larkin was, at week's end, the league's third-leading hitter (.321). O'Neill, who has learned how to hit the breaking ball, was fifth in RBIs (33). Says Rose, "I think we should win the division. We have the best team."
It also seems that every time something goes wrong for the Reds, something else goes right. After Sabo's error on Friday led to the run that sent the game into extra innings, backup outfielder Rolando Roomes—a Cubs castoff who has spent some nine years in the minors and was called up by the Reds when Davis was hurt—homered in the 12th to give Cincinnati a 10-8 win. No problem.
Earlier in the week in Cincinnati, Reds reliever Rob Dibble, pitching in the eighth inning against St. Louis, became furious after the Cardinals' Terry Pendleton hit a run-scoring single off him. To demonstrate his disgust, Dibble grabbed Pendleton's bat and hurled it against the screen behind home plate. Afterward, Dibble—a 6'4" 235-pound righthander whose fastball has been clocked at 100 mph—was profuse in his apologies and assured everyone, "I'm not as crazy as I appear to be." Nevertheless, Cook suspended him for two days without pay. But when National League president Bill White then tacked on an additional two-day term, Dibble appealed. With his appeal pending, he got the call in relief against the Cubs on Friday. The unpredictable Dibble, who becomes ferocious when he takes the mound, mowed down the Cubs with five strikeouts in two innings and got the win, his fourth. No problem.
The Reds have come from behind in 14 of their 26 wins this season. And in the 18 games in which they have led after six innings, they have won every time, which may indicate some newfound tenacity for a team that has finished second in the division for four years in a row. From her office in Riverfront Stadium, owner Marge Schott continues to remind her charges that it's high time they win the division—for the first time in a decade. "I keep telling Pete I'm tired of being a bridesmaid," she says. More ominously, there have been loud whispers that Schott is itching for a reason to fire Rose—partly because her ego and Pete's have a hard time sharing Cincinnati.
In a conversation last week, she had no comment on this subject, but soon thereafter said. "I'm big on image for the young kids." Recently, Schott stirred controversy when she said—though she now denies it—that if Rose were suspended, none of his coaches would be qualified to manage. Asked about this, she says, "I respect my coaches." Hardly a ringing endorsement.
Last summer, Schott gave the Pope a Reds jacket with JOHN PAUL II on the back. Any divine intervention? Nope, Cincinnati finished second again. "Maybe the Pope takes a while," said Schott last week. The Pope might tell her Reds to take consolation in the Scriptures—something about "Blessed are they who are persecuted...." This could be their year.