It's opening day in Cincinnati, the favorite day of the year for Reds owner Marge Schott. Never mind that her team's home debut has been delayed two weeks by the spring lockout; Schott is in her element. An hour before game time she is touring the field, hugging players, signing autographs and pampering her Buick-sized dog, Schottzie. She scans the stadium, searching for someone. "Where's Sweet Lou?" she asks. "I want to see if he wants to play with Schottzie."
Sorry, Marge. Sweet Lou—Cincinnati manager Lou Piniella—has better things to do on this day than pal around with a Saint Bernard. He's busy, very busy, managing the hottest team in baseball. Since the first day of spring training, Piniella has been doing it all for the Reds—talking to players, talking to coaches, teaching, learning, clapping, cheering. One minute, he's congratulating centerfielder Eric Davis: "Hey, great catch last night. Way to go." The next, he's giving third baseman Chris Sabo another detailed hitting lesson. Then he's counseling infielder Luis Quinones—in Spanish. Or he's laughing with his players as they watch reliever Randy Myers dump a mound of shaving cream on outfielder Ken Griffey's head during a TV interview.
"Lou's been great," says first baseman Todd Benzinger. "This was definitely a gloomier clubhouse last year. Look around. We're having fun."
Times certainly have changed in Cincinnati. The black cloud that hovered over this team last season has lifted. The distractions that accompanied Pete Rose's suspension for gambling are gone, and the talk in the clubhouse is of baseball, not bookies. Five years of disappointment and broken promises seem to have strengthened the Reds' resolve; this, they insist, is their year. We've heard that before, but now there is reason to believe it. Cincinnati won its first nine games—its best start ever—before losing on Sunday, and is displaying the attitude of a team that believes in itself. The War of the Rose is over. Now playing: The Hunt for Red October.
"Lou says there's no pressure because they're picked to finish third or fourth," says Cub manager Don Zimmer. "But they're so talented, if they don't win it, something's wrong."
So far just about everything has gone right, including a lockout-altered schedule that had the Reds facing weaklings Atlanta and Houston eight times in their first 10 games. Shortstop Barry Larkin concluded the weekend with a league-leading .512 average. The bullpen, nicknamed the Nasty Boys, has been meaner than nasty, ringing up four victories, six saves and 48 strikeouts in 38 innings. Sabo, who hit six home runs last season, had four as of Sunday. The Reds had stolen 21 bases in 25 tries. Says Larkin, "We can beat you so many ways."
The rest of the National League West knows he's right and has to be worried that Cincinnati is finally playing up to its vast abilities. The principal reason is clear enough: the arrival of Piniella, or perhaps more accurately, the departure of Rose. Says one National League manager, "We were all hoping Pete would be back, because we knew the Reds would never put it together as long as he was there. We all knew if me, Lou, you, anyone, took over, the Reds would be better."
Says a National League scout, "The Reds have had the best talent in the division for five years, but Pete screwed them up." And an American League scout: "I think the Reds would have won the division four straight years if Pete hadn't been the manager, and I like Pete."
Cincinnati's players generally agree that Rose was an easy skipper to play for, but his hands-off approach contributed to the team's failures. He rarely talked to his players, rarely tried to inspire them. Further, despite being the greatest hit producer of all time, he seldom worked with his hitters. "As a manager, Pete never worked to improve his craft," says a former Reds scout.
Piniella has been Rose's opposite. Bob Quinn, Cincinnati's new general manager, calls him "the consummate motivator." Says reliever Norm Charlton, one of the Nasty Boys, "Pete wasn't a strong communicator; that wasn't his style of managing. Pete would just say, 'O.K., boys, here's the balls, here's the bats, go get 'em.' Lou is much more active."
Piniella has been credited with restoring Sabo to the hitting form he displayed early in the '88 season, before he fell off badly. Sabo is quick to credit hitting coach Tony Perez too, but says, "Lou is a hands-on manager. Pete could tell you what to look for at the plate, but he didn't mess with your swing. He didn't break it down. Lou does."
Now Sabo is a man with a mission. "The so-called experts said I couldn't play," he says angrily. "You know, the guys in the [preseason] publications. They can kiss my butt. I have their addresses. They'll all get a letter from me after the season. A certified letter—to make sure they get it."
Piniella is on a mission to prove that he can win as a manager. He did an admirable job with the Yankees in 1986 and '87, winning 90 and 89 games, respectively, but that wasn't enough for owner George Steinbrenner. Last year, as a special adviser to Steinbrenner and a Yankee broadcaster, Piniella turned down managing jobs with the Mariners, Astros and Blue Jays. However, when the Cincinnati job opened up last fall, he recognized the team's talent and jumped at the chance, signing a three-year deal after getting Steinbrenner's approval to leave.
"We had a pretty good Pete and Marge Show here for four years," says Schott. "But I think Lou is a godsend. Actually, he's a George-send. My players really respect Lou, and I listen to my players."
The rap on Piniella in New York was that he didn't know how to handle pitchers, to which he responds, "We didn't have pitching." He admits, though, that he learned some lessons with the Yankees. "When I first managed [in 1986], I had no experience," he says. "I was managing a lot of guys that I had played with, and I made mistakes. But I think Cincinnati has gotten an experienced, quality, major league manager."
And one free of the specter of Steinbrenner. However, is Schott really an improvement? "I have a good working relationship with the owner here," Piniella says. "I plan to sit down with Marge once a week and tell her what's going on." He smiles. "I didn't talk to George every day. When I did, I usually wasn't the one who did the calling."
Piniella hasn't been forgotten entirely by Steinbrenner. Before the home opener, against the Padres on April 17, Piniella got a good-luck telegram from his former boss: "We'll see you in October" was Steinbrenner's message. Piniella received another best-wishes telegram on Opening Night in Houston—from Rose.
While the Reds have spent the spring shedding the past, Rose is still fessing up to it (page 13). Last week he pleaded guilty in Cincinnati to two felony counts of filing false income tax returns. He has recently spent most of his time in Tampa, playing golf, watching the Reds on satellite and doing a Cincinnati radio talk show by phone. "I'm rooting for the Reds," he says. "It will be good for the radio show if the Reds win the West."
Rose continues to defend his performance as the Reds manager. "This is Lou's team, but I helped develop those guys," he told the Cincinnati Post. "This is something I took five years out of my life to build. You have to remember that when I took over the Reds, they were a Titanic. And I took them to second place four times. And you can't expect to win a division with 12 guys on the disabled list."
And you can't expect to win when your clubhouse is a media circus. Recalling last season, Rob Dibble, another Nasty Boy, says, "We had 30 or 40 cameras everywhere we went. They were there for one purpose—to dig up dirt on Pete Rose. He was a great manager, and he helped me, but when his personal life affected everyone's business, someone should have stepped in. I'm not saying they should have suspended him earlier, but something should have been done. We still had a chance to win the division."
As late as June 10, the Reds were in first place, but they lost 31 of their next 41 games and finished fifth. Tommy Helms, who replaced Rose on an interim basis on August 24, and general manager Murray Cook were fired at the end of the season. After 27 years in baseball, Cook is an insurance agent in Cincinnati. Helms is managing the Cubs' Double A team, in Charlotte, N.C., and admits that he's "jealous of Lou." Cook, who claims that he isn't bitter about being fired, says the Reds were probably overrated in recent seasons, a feeling echoed by others. Says Davis, "People said we should win it every year, but those predictions were misleading. Look, you don't have potential until you do it. Then you have the potential to do it again."
The Reds are a better team now than in any of the Rose years. Leftfielder Billy Hatcher, who was hitting .333 at week's end, was an excellent off-season acquisition and gives Cincinnati its sixth player capable of stealing at least 25 bases. But what's perhaps most unnerving for Cincinnati's opponents is that the Reds got off to a hot start despite a starting pitching staff that, beyond ace Tom Browning, is shaky. Cincinnati is being cautious with starters Danny Jackson, who had leftshoulder surgery last year, and Jose Rijo, whose right shoulder has been tender.
But the rotation has been given a lift by 25-year-old righthander Jack Armstrong, who before this season was 6-10 with a 5.33 ERA in two partial seasons with the Reds; as of Sunday he was 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA. Armstrong says his success so far can be attributed to an off-season gamble. In February, frustrated by the lockout and with only $200 in the bank, he took out a $5,000 loan, left his wife and two-month-old son at home in Neptune, N.J., and headed for Florida. He traveled from one high school field to the next, looking for people to play some serious catch with him. "I'd beat up one catcher at a high school, then go to another and beat up on him," says Armstrong. "But they loved it." When the lockout ended, he had $100 left. He also had a strong and ready arm.
And now he and the rest of the Cincinnati starters have the Nasty Boys behind them: Charlton in middle relief and Myers and Dibble as the dual closers. "Randy and I know what our job is," says Dibble. "We're like two dogs fighting over a piece of meat. We both want to be the biggest, baddest dog in town." Dibble, who struck out 12.8 batters per nine innings last year, is keeping a chart of the bull-pen's K's; he's also busy marketing Nasty Boys T-shirts and posters. "I have another nickname for them," says Jackson. "The Looney Tunes."
They are a strange threesome. Myers, 27, wears battle fatigues under his uniform jersey, and keeps a little plastic soldier and two deactivated hand grenades in his locker. Dibble, 26, was suspended three times last year—once for throwing a bat hallway up the screen behind home plate, once for playing a major part in a brawl with the Mets and once for ignoring the take sign on a 2-and-0 count. "They say there's someone in the world who resembles you," says Dibble. "With me, it's Randy. He's my twin. They broke the mold after they made us two."
Both claim, though, that Charlton is crazier. "The quietest guy is always the scariest guy," says Dibble. "Norm will walk by you and you can't even see him. He's so white, he looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost. I call him Al, for Albino." Dibble and Myers also call Charlton the Genius, because he had a triple major at Rice in political science, physical education and religion. "I was an athlete, so there's the P.E.," says Charlton, 27. "I was going to law school if I didn't play baseball, so there's the political science. I don't know where the religion came from." As to the genius tag, he says, "Dibble and Myers—they've killed more brain cells than I've ever had."
Before the Nasty Boys took over, most of the wackiness in the Cincinnati clubhouse came from Schott, who bought the team in 1985 with money that her late husband, Charlie, had made from his car dealerships. Her draconian frugality has become legendary, and she has been blamed for running off some of the top scouts in the system ("Why do scouts have to see so many games?" she is said to have asked once).
Says Helms, who was a Cincinnati coach for seven years before he took over as manager, "She runs a team like a used-car dealership. She didn't treat us right. She didn't pay us decent salaries. She doesn't know baseball, and she doesn't know how to handle people. The players don't respect her. When she does creep down to the field, she should talk to someone before she talks to the press, because she will say the wrong thing."
To that and other complaints, Schott says, "It's something about working for a woman—people have a way of bitching. That's the nice part about having a woman around—you can blame her for everything. As they say, women get beat up on because they're easier to pick on."
Schott says that she has few friends in the game, and one of them, Padres owner Joan Kroc, who's in the process of selling her team, has advised Schott to get out of baseball. "Everything Charlie left me is male-dominated," Schott says. "Baseball is male-dominated, and I admit that a lot of it goes over my head."
But she is enamored of Piniella, who, like Quinn, says she has not interfered. "Maybe Lou can handle her," says Helms. "I know Bob Quinn can't handle her. If something goes wrong, she'll blame Quinn, or Lou. Lou is a good man; I wish him well. I hope she keeps quiet, stays out of the picture and leaves it to the baseball men."
So far she has. "Marge has educated herself," says a former Cincinnati scout who cites her January signing of Davis to a three-year, $9.3 million contract. "That signing floored me. I think she's seen the light. I think things are changing."
Winning has a funny way of changing things. And if the Reds winning streak had continued, things might have gotten even funnier: The players had made a pact among themselves to shave their heads if they won 15 games in a row. After the Braves beat them 3-1 on Sunday, Benzinger said, "The only good thing about losing today is that we don't have to shave our heads." But a disappointed Charlton said, "I'd rather shave my head than lose."
Dibble insisted that the 15-game pact is still intact for any streak this season. Suggested Charlton, "How about 15 in a row in October?"