The Cincinnati Reds may not be able to fulfill Barry Bonds's wish to "beat the pants off of Oakland" in the World Series. They can, however, fulfill the prophecy of the Pittsburgh Pirate leftfielder, who also said last week, "The A's are going to lose."
How? Let us "retrospect back," to borrow the words of Reds leftfielder Eric Davis. Back to the National League Championship Series, in which neither the Reds nor the Pirates stole your heart but both stole pieces of your stomach lining. Back to a series so dominated by the Reds' defense that Pirate centerfielder Andy Van Slyke called the Cincinnati outfield "almost superhuman or robotic." Back to a series so bullied by the Reds bullpen, particularly reliever Rob Dibble, that the Nastiest Boy could say afterward of Oakland's Bash Brothers, "I'm not worried about [facing them]. Let them worry about it."
It would be unfair to expect the Reds to play this week in as otherworldly a way as they did in dispatching the Pirates four games to two for the pennant, but it would be equally unfair not to expect it. "We had a good defense all year," noted Cincinnati third baseman Chris Sabo. "I don't know where we finished in the league, but...."
"You finished first," a reporter informed him.
But of course. The Reds outfield alone had 47 assists this season, the best in the National League. Again in the playoffs the oft-changing threesome threw out more players than the bouncers at the Waterfront, every team's favorite Queen City watering hole. In cutting down four base runners in the series, the Reds' outfield emphatically stated it will not play Wile E. Coyote to Rickey Henderson's Road Runner. "We know Rickey from our Yankee days," said Reds pitching coach Stan Williams, referring to himself and manager Lou Piniella, both of whom, like Henderson, were previously indentured to George Steinbrenner. "We know he can run. But we also know a little that we're not talking about."
One of the things the Reds aren't talking about is the fact that they have a higher power on their side. Any doubters need only review the bottom of the eighth inning in Game 4—unless this sort of thing, like a poltergeist, doesn't appear on videotape. With one out and the Pirates trailing 4-3, Bucs cleanup hitter Bobby Bonilla sent a laser beam to centerfield. Billy Hatcher leapt but couldn't get a glove on the ball, which caromed off a plank near the top of the padded wall directly into the hands of Davis, who had materialized in right center. Davis wheeled and dealed: The lazy peg-physics be damned—accelerated en route to third, bounced just behind the sliding Bonilla, then elegantly arched over him and into Sabo's glove.
In a series that resembled the Tony Awards, this narrowly won Best Play. "The ball appeared to me out of [Bonilla's] body," Sabo said later. "It was almost like—like a miracle throw. I still can't believe it had enough zip on it."
Which led the Reds to the ninth inning and to Dibble, who preserved the 5-3 win that gave Cincinnati a 3-1 lead in games. Dibble, whose fastball has been clocked at 100 mph, is a pain in the posterior that has been felt for three years by National League hitters and society at large. The co-MVP of the series—along with fellow Reds reliever Randy Myers—Dibble struck out 10 of the 16 batters he faced in the four games he worked, and didn't give up a hit.
With traditional closer Myers and middleman Norm Charlton, the Reds bullpen is the best and most feared in the National League. "There were some on the [Pirates] who didn't want any part of them," Williams notes conservatively. "I think it takes a little wind out of the other guys just to see them get up."
For the record, do not count Bonds, who hit .167 in the playoffs, among those skittish Pirates. "Their bullpen didn't do [squat] to me," he said after the series. "Myers ain't [squat]."
Like Bonds, Dibble is a show best watched with the sound turned down. Both players reacquainted writers with the bracket keys on their computers last week. Dibble occupied much of his time telling any reporter who would listen—a dwindling number as the days and Dibble wore on—how unhappy he was as a setup man in Cincinnati. "I might be stopping here next year," he said following Game 4 at Three Rivers Stadium. "The winter meetings are coming up, and I'm looking to go somewhere else."
The next day, after the Reds were beaten 3-2 by Cy Young winner-to-be Doug Drabek, Dibble, alone at his locker, shouted through the clubhouse that the breaking-ball pitcher was "a [sissy]." Then he added, "Cy Young, my [butt]."
If the A's were unfazed by the Rocket's red glare in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series with Boston, they aren't likely to buy Dibble's act. But these are merely the headlines. There is, of course, a slew of fine print surrounding Dibble. He was fined in September, for instance, for verbally abusing a San Francisco cop assigned to protect the bullpen at Candlestick Park. Two months earlier, he had been fined for dumping a bucket of ice water on a Cincinnati reporter. Ten months before that, he had been fined for ignoring a take sign—a puzzling move on his part given his .000 lifetime average. Four months before that, he had been fined and suspended for chucking a bat halfway up the screen behind home plate at Riverfront. Two months before that, following a disappointing appearance in spring training, he had been fined for overturning tables—picnic tables, for god's sake—and tossing chairs into a pond behind the clubhouse.
"Rob is like a baby," Reds owner Marge Schott said last week. "I'd like to just spank him."
Dennis Eckersley's fist-pumping, by comparison, should go down easily. To be sure, Eckersley and the rest of the Oakland pen will provide a fiercer matchup for the Reds than the Pirates offered—Bill & Ted's Excellent Bullpen, starring Bill Landrum and Ted Power, with cameos by Stan Belinda and Bob Patterson. Low-scoring games, like those in the playoffs, will no longer belong exclusively to the Reds.
Or almost exclusively. In Game 5 in Pittsburgh the Pirates were leading 3-2 with one on and nobody out in the top of the ninth when Davis drove a ball down the third base line. Bonilla, filling in for the injured Jeff King, prepared to make the play. But the ball hit the bag and bounced high in the air, giving Davis enough time to reach first. "By then," said Van Slyke, "I was starting to believe there was no way we were going to win."
After a sacrifice bunt, the Reds had runners at second and third with one out when Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland brought in Patterson, who intentionally walked Sabo, bringing up catcher Jeff Reed. Patterson threw an inside fastball that the fairly fleet Reed fisted to Bonilla, who had 35 errors as a third baseman in 1989. Bonilla, who is well-versed in sportscasterese, began what was, as he put it later, one of the "defensive gems" or "sparkling defensive plays" of the series. He charged the ball and fired it to Jose Lind at second base. Then Lind nipped Reed at first for the game-ending, series-sustaining double play.
Afterward, instead of talking about a Pirate comeback as he had the night before, Bonds inexplicably used Bonilla's play to chastise King, whose injured back had caused Leyland to scratch him from the lineup. "There are minor leaguers who are willing to play hurt," Bonds said. "It's kind of funny—you have a back injury, and two days later you play."
King declined to respond, but he was in the lineup for Game 6 on a drizzly Friday night in Cincinnati. The second-largest crowd in Riverfront Stadium history saw this series perfectly shrink-wrapped in the top of the ninth. The Pirates naturally trailed 2-1. The Reds naturally had a Nasty Boy—in this case Myers—on the mound. Bonilla and Bonds, who were a combined 7 for 39 in the playoffs, naturally didn't get a hit, Bonilla popping to short and Bonds walking to start the inning. Then, with the count full, Carmelo Martinez clubbed a ball to rightfield. "God, come down," said Piniella as it soared. "I thought it was a homer," said Leyland afterward. It might have been, but the Reds' 6'3" rightfielder, Glenn Braggs, burglarized the Bucs before the ball could clear the wall. When Myers struck out Don Slaught to end the series, Cincinnati had its first pennant since 1976.
Were the games not so exhilarating, the talk of this series would, no doubt, have been the talk of the series. But, said rightfielder Paul O'Neill, who hit .471 against the Pirates, "the games were so great my stomach was turning the whole time."
"I go home, and my wife gets out the Pepto-Bismol and the Maalox and the Rolaids," Van Slyke had said in Pittsburgh. "This series is killing her."
The Reds, on the other hand, may soon be in for a Maalox moment of their own. "The A's starting pitching is good, their relief pitching is good, they play very good defense," says Williams. "They hit and run. They hit home runs. They have speed to steal bases. But they aren't invincible."
If the A's arc to be vinced, however, the Reds need Davis to do a number at the plate. He looked his usual self in the playoffs, waving his bat like a conductor's baton, but his .174 performance showed he was in fact wielding a wind instrument.
"Everybody here wants to be Kirk Gibson," said O'Neill at the start of the series. Now each of the Reds has a chance to do just that. Trouble is, all season this team has had difficulty deciding just which Kirk Gibson it wanted to be. At the beginning of the season, the Reds played like the 1988 World Series hero and got off to a 33-12 start. After June 3, they looked more like the disabled deodorant shill of 1990 and went 58-59. Then last week, the Reds appeared capable of demoralizing the A's, just as Gibson had done two years ago with his two-out, two-run homer in the ninth inning of Game 1.
Who will show up in this World Series? Apparently, not the Dibble we've come to know. In the jubilant Reds clubhouse last Friday night, a new Dibble announced, "In regard to Doug Drabek, I was frustrated. A lot of people think we're cocky and arrogant. We're not. Sometimes we're sore losers, and I regret that."
Seconds later, he discounted his earlier trade demands, saying, "I don't want to go anywhere. A lot of what you say is taken out of context."
And finally, "My vow to the team was...I'm not talking in the World Series. This is it. I'm doing my last interviews."
To which there is only one reply: My [butt].