It is a splendid April day, and the Dibbles are at their house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Loveland, Ohio. Rob, the Cincinnati Reds' All-Star reliever, has washed the Nissan and fixed a sandwich for himself. His daughter Ashley, who's 1½, has finished her daily viewing of The Little Mermaid. Joanne, Rob's wife of 3½ years and his sweetheart since forever, is sitting at the kitchen table, laughing a lot.
But when the conversation takes a turn to a comment made on TV this spring by Hall of Famer Joe Morgan—Morgan suggested that Rob's fastball couldn't possibly travel 100 mph—this plain vanilla day suddenly becomes white-hot. First, Rob simmers: "I don't understand how he can say that." Then he steams: "He can get a bat and let me throw to him if he doesn't believe it." Finally, he boils over: "Hall of Fame, my ass." Then he takes another bite of his lunch, as calm as you please.
There is little that is predictable about the 27-year-old Dibble, who can blow away hitters or blow sky-high with equal excess. He is a 6'4", 230-pound bundle of surging emotions and conflicting impulses. He adopts the glassy-eyed look of an ax murderer on the mound, but he resists his image as a menace. He wants his pitching to speak for itself with the press, but in interviews he delivers pronouncements more incendiary than his heater. He wants to play down his Nasty Boy handle off the field, but he has a weekly radio spot called Pitching and Bitching with Rob Dibble. He yearns for a more mellow middle ground in his life, but he fears that a patch of serenity might tranquilize his fastball. "He's a psychologist's life work," says Joanne with another laugh. "Some guy could make a mint off figuring out Rob."
Dibble often explodes in what he excuses as "the heat of the moment"—the moments being those when his talent is questioned, his teammates are threatened or his temper is in some other way engaged. Compile the residue of those occasions and you have what Dibble almost affectionately calls "my little dossier," a litany of suspensions (18 days), fines (Dibble says $5,000) and flare-ups over a 2½-year major league career that has seen him heave a bat halfway up the screen behind home plate after giving up a run-scoring single, twice blaze a pitch behind a batter who made the mistake of coming up after a pitcher had gotten a hit off Dibble, dump a bucket of ice water on a sportswriter in the Reds clubhouse and, most recently, on April 28, disgustedly hurl a ball from the mound into the Riverfront Stadium bleachers some 400 feet away after earning a less-than-perfect save (two runs allowed in two innings) in a 4-3 win over the Chicago Cubs.
That misguided missile hit a 27-year-old first-grade teacher, Meg Porter of Batavia, Ohio, on the elbow, causing her to miss two days of work. Dibble later apologized and picked up Porter's medical tab. "I have to mature," he admitted, as if waking from a dream to find it real. "I have to come to grips with handling the pressure." National League president Bill White, recognizing that Dibble is frighteningly armed and frequently dangerous, suspended him for four days. That suspension is under appeal.
The Dibble dossier is also replete with matters of the mouth: He has impugned the manhood of Pirate ace Doug Drabek ("a sissy"—actually a variation thereof), bellyached about his salary in the middle of Cincinnati's championship drive last season ("pay me as a stopper") and blasted team owner Marge Schott ("If she was a man, other men would have kicked her butt by now"). When Dibble talks about such outbursts, he gropes like a child in the dark and then brightens when he stumbles on what seems to him to be a reasonable explanation. "I would have been good in the era of the Knights of the Round Table," he says. "I'd be a knight in shining armor, except I'd be the black knight. When the black knight goes home, he takes off his armor, and he's just a man. But when that armor's on, he's a dastardly dude."
Dastardly? No doubt. As a reliever, he's in a class all his own: unhidibble. In 1989, his first full season, the righthanded Dibble averaged 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings, a major league record. Last season he was the first setup man ever to be named an All-Star; in the postseason, he whiffed 14 in 9⅖ innings and earned co-MVP honors, with closer Randy Myers, in the National League Championship Series. As for this year, through Sunday he had fanned 29 in 16‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings and had eight saves in eight chances.
Dibble's delivery is itself a study in the unusual. Entering his windup slowly, he takes his hands over his head almost to the back of his neck and puffs his chest out defiantly. His left leg kicks high, then his right side whirls rapidly homeward and the cannonlike force generated by his body comes thundering down on his stiffly planted left leg. For all his wild contortions, Dibble's control is surprisingly sharp (only two walks this year), and he is very durable (only 15 days on the disabled list in his career). Still, some pitching experts wonder if his motion places too much strain on his arm. Says Dibble, who of course gets peeved by such talk, "If you're throwing as hard as I do, you must be doing something right."
His heater is so ridiculously hot—yes, Joe, it does hit the century mark, according to the radar guns—that even an accomplished slugger like the St. Louis Cardinals' Pedro Guerrero has inspected Dibble's first pitch, dropped the bat and laughed out loud before striking out. Then there's Dibble's slider, which blows in at about 90 mph before dive-bombing into the dirt. That's two pitches too nasty: To gear up to hit one, you can't possibly cope with the other. "Do you know what happens to hitters when they cheat to hit a 100-mph fastball and then the bottom drops out?" asks Reds pitching coach Stan Williams. "Their legs melt."
"When Rob gets up to go warm up in the bullpen, you can almost see the other team deflate," says Cincinnati first baseman Todd Benzinger. "The on-deck hitter and the hitter in the hole start pacing, wondering if they'll have to hit off him. It's hard not to be intimidated by a guy who throws that hard. On top of everything, he's brutally honest, and he says things that are very inflammatory. The hitters want so bad to make him look bad, but he still gets them out. They want to kill him, but they can't. That makes what he does even more impressive."
A recent Reds series in Houston was a case in point. In the previous meeting between the two teams, on April 11, Dibble had fired a pitch behind Astro leadoff man Eric Yelding, igniting a Riverfront Stadium free-for-all and earning Dibble a three-day suspension (an appeal is pending on this one as well). When the Reds reached the Astrodome on April 22, White, who plays the assistant principal in Dibble's bad-boy act, was on hand to ensure order. But after some shuttle diplomacy by Cincinnati infielder and former Astro Bill Doran, Dibble met Yelding and Houston manager Art Howe under the stands and apologized for his role in the fracas. "I can't say he admitted he was throwing at me," Yelding says, "but he did say he was sorry it occurred."
Other Astros weren't as generous. "I have no respect for someone who throws behind a hitter's head," said assistant general manager Bob Watson. "As hard as he throws, he could kill somebody. I know he calls himself intimidating, but there are different ways to go about it. Let's put it this way: His style of pitching stinks."
The next night, Dibble walked the lead-off man to start the eighth but then left six Astros flailing like geriatric prizefighters. That flurry tied a major league mark for consecutive strikeouts by a reliever. "The pressure was on, the fans were on me pretty bad, all eyes were watching," Dibble said afterward. "For my own peace of mind, I had to have a good outing."
Though Dibble tires of being perceived as the man in the proverbial black hat, when he bought a Stetson in Houston, that was precisely the hue he picked. Fact is, he has always felt he had something to prove. He was an all-state soccer forward and baseball player at Southington (Conn.) High, playing centerfield and hitting leadoff when he wasn't pitching. But it wasn't enough. "I was probably the most insecure kid you'd ever meet," Dibble says. "I always felt that being more talented than other people made it harder on you to fit in. You were kind of unique, kind of an outcast."
At 19, as a newly signed first-round pick who had just dropped out of Florida Southern, Dibble listened to the Reds' major league pitching coach tell him that he would never make it with his mechanics. Those words made Dibble sullen and hostile, leading to a reputation as uncoachable and almost getting him traded in 1987. He dyed his hair Billy Idol-white while playing for Cedar Rapids in 1985, and when the manager told Dibble he wouldn't pitch unless he got rid of his locks, he shaved his head. He drank too much; he recalls with horror a backseat ride after a binge when a Vermont teammate swerved off a road. Only two guard wires prevented the car from plunging into a 50-foot-deep ravine. In Nashville, when Dibble felt he was being improperly used by his Triple A manager, Jack Lind, he winged three warmup pitches 400 feet from the bullpen into the dugout where Lind was standing.
Now Dibble battles the Cincinnati media. He demands to be taken seriously and with a grain of salt at the same time. The son of a radio newsman, he admits his stance is sometimes intentionally provocative. "People are always trying to knock you down a notch," Dibble says. "I enjoy people telling me I can't do something. It makes me work that much harder to do it." Says Reds catcher Joe Oliver, "He's got a positive arrogance about himself that he built through the tough times in the minor leagues trying to prove something. Sometimes he has to come in and get a little ticked off, because when he's mad and he's able to channel it the right way, he's untouchable."
Indeed, Dibble often seems to plant himself in the crossfire, chin out, while others are diving for cover. His crack last fall about Drabek, the 1990 National League Cy Young Award winner, during the National League playoffs was meant to fire up his teammates, who were, in Dibble's estimation, being cowed by Drabek. His potshot at Schott came after the World Series, when he thought she had mistreated injured Reds outfielder Eric Davis. Says Dibble, "My principle is this: You'd want me on your team, because when things hit the fan, I'd be there."
Dibble's bluster around the ballpark belies a softer side. Lefthander Norm Charlton—who along with Dibble and Myers constituted Cincinnati's fearsome Nasty Boys bullpen last year—has roomed with Dibble since 1986, when no one else on the Vermont club would. With their combined salaries of more than $1 million this season, the duo briefly upgraded to a suite of rooms on the road but found that they preferred closer quarters. They eat cheeseburgers every day for lunch, hold salad-plate toss competitions on hotel roofs and have gained illicit access to the roofs of several stadiums (Charlton's preferred lock-picking device: a piece of a waxed-paper cup) in order to check out the view.
"If you talk about Dibs, you're talking about two different people," Charlton says. "On the field, he's all adrenaline, intensity, win at all costs, and the day he gets calmer between the lines, I'll tell him. Off the field, he's a nice guy, a family man. He's really shy. You'd think he'd be the kind of guy to grab a waiter by the tie and send his food back if it's not done right. But if he orders it well-done and they bring it out raw, he won't say a word."
Joanne has been a shrewd and bemused witness to Rob's seemingly unfathomable tendencies ever since she was 14 and he was 16. At Southington High, Rob mouthed off about the lackluster cheer-leading for the soccer team; Joanne, a cheerleader at Southington, heard about his remarks and gave him what for. They have been together ever since, and she has seen it all, sometimes twice: The first time Rob shaved his head he did it as a pledge of his love for her. They were married in 1987, after Joanne got her degree in sociology from Boston University, and it is around her and Ashley that Rob's life spins. Says Rob's high school coach, John Fontana, "When I call to ask what Rob's doing, Joanne usually tells me, 'He has the dog at his feet and Ashley in one arm, and he's doing curls with the other.' "
"When he's at baseball, the true, real Rob doesn't come out," Joanne says. "He's too afraid no one will like him." The upshot is that few see his more appealing side, and family friends sometimes call up Joanne's parents, afraid that she's being handled like Faye Wray. Joanne does worry that Rob's self-esteem is too intricately tied up in his right arm and what it can accomplish. But around the house, she can assuage his temper by laughing it off, salve his insecurity by telling him she could hear the catcher's mitt pop on TV, and help him cope with his profound fear of failure by teasing him. "Everything's an act with Rob; he's the most dramatic person I know," she says. "He's got the reputation for being this total maniac—which he is sometimes—but that's what makes him so successful. So what's wrong with it?"
Dibble appears to be grappling every day with just that question. He talks about learning to unleash his intensity in less destructive ways. He cares about young people: He does work for Citizens Against Substance Abuse and strives to be a positive role model. "I don't want kids to grow up thinking, I'm going to play the game the way Rob Dibble plays the game," he says. "But I'd want them to have my intensity and my desire in their hearts when they step on the field. Maybe not carried to the extreme that I do."
That's because in the end, deep down, Dibble knows that the black knight never wins.