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THIS RACE IS A KICK

Aug. 20, 1990
Aug. 20, 1990

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Aug. 20, 1990

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THIS RACE IS A KICK

The first-place Reds held off the surging Giants as the War of the West took a wild turn

Home plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt looked like a USDA inspector grading eggs last Friday night in Cincinnati, so often was he asked to examine the baseballs being thrown by Reds pitcher Norm Charlton. The requests came from sundry San Francisco Giants batters, whose manager, Roger Craig, was convinced the lefthander was cleaning up on his team with a lot of spit and very little polish.

This is an article from the Aug. 20, 1990 issue Original Layout

"He's got one of the best split-fingers in the league," Craig said, "and an occasional spitter." After all, how else to explain Charlton's three-hit, 7-0 win in the first game of the four-game series, a W that widened the Reds' lead in the National League West to 5½ games over the Giants? Surely the Giants, who were 8-2 against Cincinnati this season going into that game and who had swept the Reds in four home games only 12 days before, were having their great expectations for this series dampened—literally—by great expectorations on the Riverfront Stadium mound.

Will Clark shook his head. "Whether it's a spitter or a cheater doesn't matter," the Giants' first baseman said after the game. "You still gotta hit it."

On Sunday, when the Giants couldn't hit Reds reliever Rob Dibble, either, the balls again were being submitted to saliva tests, and the ill will between the teams continued to brew. In any case the Reds, who lost Saturday's game 4-2, made certain with their 6-4 win in Game 3 that they couldn't lose ground in the division race during this series. The best the Giants could do was finish where they started, 4½ out of first. But they fell 6½ back after the Reds came from behind to beat them 6-5 Monday night.

Reds manager Lou Piniella was no doubt referring to the whole season when he shouted in the celebrating clubhouse on Sunday, "We're gonna beat 'em.... It's that plain and simple. No 'Humm Baby.' We're just gonna beat 'em."

Of course, Piniella was equally animated on July 26, 27, 28 and 29 in San Francisco, but for those four days he was more apt to be poking out light bulbs behind the visitors' dugout at Candlestick Park, as he did after one of the losses. For a man making such a mess, Piniella talked an awful lot last month about cleaning house should the Reds, who have been in first place every day this season, blow the division race to the Giants, who were 14½ games out on May 28.

Even as late as July 24 the Reds led the Giants by 11 games. That was on the second day of what would prove to be the worst trip to California since the Joad family fled Oklahoma. It was an odyssey during which the Reds lost eight of 11 games, counting those four straight in the Stick. And while the Reds pitching and clutch hitting went south out west—they squandered two 3-0 leads to the Giants-there were those in Cincinnati who fingered former Reds pitcher Pedro Borbon for the team's headlong slide. The day the Reds departed for California, Borbon played in an old-timers' game at Riverfront. Borbon, you will recall, placed a hex on the Reds when he was traded to the Giants in 1979, saying, "I'm going to call my voodoo out and put it on Cincinnati. They soon be in last place. And watch out for the Giants—they go up." He was right. Since that season, the Reds have failed to win a division title, while the Giants have come out on top twice. And even though Borbon removed the hex at the old-timers' game, some fans believe it is still in effect.

The Reds returned to Riverfront after their California expedition and lost five of the first seven games of their most recent home stand. The Giants came into town having lost four of six themselves and didn't merit a molehill of respect, either. "This is ours to lose now," Piniella told his team.

Not so, said Craig. "I was with the Cardinals in 1964, and that was the year everyone said the Phillies blew the pennant. Well, this game can humble you."

Humbled Cincinnati fans, acutely aware that the team's recent history of second-place finishes is rivaled only by the Democrats', began booing the Reds with both barrels.

A typically innocent target was reserve infielder Ron Oester, who shaved his head on July 30 in hopes of changing the team's luck (SI, Aug. 13). He promptly got some mail from a fan in Ashland, Ky., who assumed that Oester's anti-coif made him a neo-Nazi skinhead. "There's no place for that in baseball," the guy wrote.

"Yeah," confessed Oester. "I was the guy hiding in the bathroom, waiting for Morton Downey Jr."

Cincinnati centerfielder Eric Davis, who is hitting .228 with 15 home runs and 54 RBIs, has been getting the chilliest reception in the Chili City, FANS AIM WRATH AT $9 MILLION MAN was the headline in Friday's Cincinnati Post, and indeed, 48,685 fans, the second largest crowd of the season, showed up that night to aim still more wrath at him. The $9 Million Man, meanwhile, appears oddly touched by the taunting. "I've accepted it," says Davis. "I take it for what it's worth. People only boo when they care."

Of course, not everyone in Friday's crowd came solely to deliver Davis another care package. Some also were attracted by The Beach Boys' postgame concert. "Who's here after the game?" the 60-year-old Craig inquired Friday afternoon. "Madonna? I might stay."

The Reds, meanwhile, were in their clubhouse, watching a short inspirational tape about a 39-year-old paraplegic woman named Winnie who takes up riflery and becomes a competitive sharpshooter. Each player was duly moved by the mandatory viewing of the tape, the star of which, not coincidentally, was Reds owner Marge Schott's sister.

The story that unfolded on the field that night was subdivided into many compelling subdramas. Aside from Craig vs. Charlton, there was Reds rightfielder Paul O'Neill making his final mortgage payment on San Francisco starter Don Robinson, of whom O'Neill is now officially the proud owner. Entering the game, Robinson was 8-2 this season, including 2-0 in three starts against the Reds, but O'Neill had three home runs and all eight of the Reds' RBIs against him in 1990. So in the first inning Friday night, O'Neill hit a Robinson fastball five feet beyond the 375-foot mark in right-field to give the Reds a 2-0 lead. In the third, O'Neill drove a curve 385 feet out of Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood to give his team a 4-0 lead and himself a season total of 14 home runs and 56 RBIs—a good share of them off one man. "I don't think I got a hit off him before this year," said a baffled O'Neill. "Seriously." In fact, O'Neill had had three hits and no homers off Big Don lifetime.

Robinson was relieved by Francisco Oliveras, who was relieved by Kelly Downs in the sixth. Downs had just come off the disabled list that day, and one of his first offerings sailed straight at Davis's chin. On the next pitch Davis hit a 442-foot shot, the longest dinger dinged at Riverfront this season. It was a bigger homer than Reds broadcaster Joe Nuxhall, which, as we shall see, is saying something.

Stunned, perhaps by the applause, Davis was unable to leave the batter's box for several moments before doing his home run lap. "It wasn't like a big sigh of relief," he said of his and the team's scoring outburst. "We weren't gonna jump off the Empire State Building or nothin' like that."

"Now we know we can beat them," said Charlton, an erstwhile Nasty Boy reliever who is 3-2 with a 1.52 ERA since becoming a starter in mid-July. "We haven't played well against them all year, and they've played over their heads against us."

"It's a loss, plain and simple," said Clark. "Tomorrow we bounce back."

To expedite matters, Giants reliever Jeff Brantley reminded Clark on Saturday that the Thrill hadn't hit a home run in 124 at bats, his longest drought in the majors. Clark, who is hitting .293 with 71 RBIs, was intensely aware of the statistic, thank you, and a little touchy whenever asked about it. "O.K.," Clark sighed. "I'm gonna hit one tonight."

"He only calls them like that once in a while," says Brantley, who watched Clark pass on three pitches in the first inning before drilling his 15th home run of the season, off Reds starter Jose Rijo.

Rijo prudently walked Clark in the fifth with the Giants leading 2-1. Then Kevin Mitchell dribbled a grounder to second baseman Mariano Duncan, who flipped the ball to shortstop Barry Larkin, who in turn was taken out at second by the runaway Clark. When the dust settled, Clark was called out and Larkin lay writhing on the ground—he wouldn't get up for five minutes—with what was later diagnosed as a mild hyperextension of the left knee. Larkin finished the inning and even doubled in the bottom half of it. But when he had difficulty running out the hit, he was removed from the lineup for Oester.

By the time Clark scaled the Giants' 4-2 win with an RBI sacrifice fly in the ninth, Nuxhall had, with great success, urged radio-toting Reds fans to boo Clark roundly. Nuxhall then picked Giants catcher Gary Carter, a great sound bite who did little of note, as his hero of the game. After all, Nuxhall has to interview that honoree.

At least Larkin, a friend of Clark's and his roommate at the 1984 Olympics, waited to watch the tape before pronouncing Clark out of line for beginning his assault well beyond second base. But Larkin wrongly accused Clark of not sliding at all and declared that he, Larkin, would never "jump over the bag to get someone."

"I didn't slide?" shrieked Will the Shrill in the other clubhouse. "How in hell did my uniform get dirty then?"

Amid this lobbing of verbal grenades, the Reds had a few of their own go off in the clubhouse. "Quit complaining," was Rijo's advice to his teammates.

"If we're gonna complain about a runner running into one of ours, we can run into one of theirs," said Piniella, who deliberately held his postgame chat with reporters in the middle of the clubhouse instead of his office so that his players could overhear it. "If it takes running into somebody out there, that's what it takes. That's the way I used to play. Evidently, that's the way Will Clark plays."

Larkin, not exactly being backed by his buddies on this one, announced on Sunday, like a vigilant NFL official, that he had had a chance to see a videotape of the play yet again—from another angle, no doubt. "I think it was an aggressive slide," Larkin said upon reflection. "When you're on the bad end of a collision like that, you don't appreciate it. And I didn't appreciate it." This concession was probably more painful to Larkin than the root canal work he had undergone on the Reds' last trip to San Francisco.

Limping back into the lineup on Sunday, Larkin, whose .310 average was seventh in the league, doubled in his first at bat, driving in the first of Cincinnati's four first-inning runs off Giants starter Scott Garrelts. Garrelts, you may remember, threw a no-hitter for 8⅖ innings against the Reds on July 29. But he hasn't been the same since sprinting head-first into a metal door frame while warming up for a pinch-running assignment behind the Giants' dugout on Aug. 4.

It has been that kind of season for the pitching staff of the Giants, who have already put eight pitchers on the disabled list. All told, Craig has used 45 players, including 23 pitchers, this season. Brantley, who is 4-3 with 17 saves, hurt his back playing shortstop in a simulated game two weeks ago and later suffered an inflamed right shoulder. Robinson began the season with yet another knee operation but recovered quickly enough to beat Cincinnati on 48 hours' rest on June 27. In that game he shut out the Reds for 7⅖ innings before a man named O'Neill took him deep for three runs.

On Sunday, Reds first baseman Hal Morris homered off Garrelts in the third, and leftfielder Todd Benzinger tripled in the seventh and scored on a single by third baseman Chris Sabo. The Giants, however, had scored once in the second and twice in the third, and thus still had hope when Dibble relieved Reds starter Tom Browning in the seventh. That's when Dibble began looking to Craig like the spitting image of Norm Charlton, and the umpires started checking balls again.

Such beautiful ugliness, the kind required of a real rivalry, continued after the final out Sunday. As the aggressors, Cincinnati had finally played the Giants' game. "I wouldn't say we played like the Giants," said Davis, who was booed again as if he were the enemy. "They're 5½ back."

And what was the difference between Garrelts in Candlestick, where the Reds haven't won in 11 games, and Garrelts in Riverfront? Schott apparently thought it was the presence of her St. Bernard, who rarely makes road trips. "Schottzie did it! Schottzie did it!" she shouted as she made her way through the stadium after the game.

Davis had a different theory. "Basically," he said, "there wasn't a 20-mile-an-hour wind today. It wasn't 55 degrees."

When this kind of talk escalates in September, when the teams meet four times—twice at each park—it might be worth remembering that it was the Giants who started the mind-jockeying on Friday. Then again, it might be worth forgetting, too.

"Psyche?" said Clark after Sunday's game. "My psyche's fine. Great. Because I'm out there havin' fun playin' ball." If he's having half as much fun playing as those watching him play are, there is no reason to doubt Clark. But, alas, in spite of Davis's demurral, the Reds have finally begun watching Clark, too. "Just go out and do the same thing," says Piniella. "And if we have to go out and fight 'em, we'll do that too."

Fight 'em? Of course, he adds, if "that's what it takes." As the crowd receded in the Reds' clubhouse on Sunday, one couldn't help but overhear Craig's name, and a certain illegal pitch, being mentioned in the same breath. The exchange was made at a pair of adjacent lockers.

Charlton, shaking his head in disgust: "He's got you throwin' one today."

Dibble, eyes twinkling: "I wish I had a spitball."

Then again, Dibble has 22 more shopping days until the Reds see the Giants again. If that's what it takes.

PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONHead over Heels (Part 1): Upended by Clark, Larkin at first hollered foul.PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONHead Over Heels (Part 2): Upended by the dugout, Morris, at first, missed a foul.PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONCraig (left) waged psychological warfare when he accused Charlton of throwing spitters.PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.]PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe fans gave $9 Million Man Davis their two cents' worth.PHOTORONALD C. MODRADave Anderson ate dust on Sunday as Sabo stole second for the newly aggressive Reds.