Dusted

The world champion Cincinnati Reds' slide from the heights continued as the Pittsburgh Pirates rudely swept them at home
July 21, 1991

By last weekend, the state of the Cincinnati Reds had become so troubled that their owner, Marge Schott, who until a few years ago thought the Kansas City Royals played in the National League West, felt compelled to address her team before Saturday night's game. After her closed-door session with the troops in their Riverfront Stadium bunker, she said, "Someone asked me, 'Why didn't you yell at them?' When I saw them, I wanted to cry. It'd be like yelling at your sons. I just told them, 'You're world champs. We kept you together.'...The yelling will come later."

After the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Reds 5-2 that night and then blasted them 10-6 on Sunday to complete a four-game sweep and run Cincinnati's losing streak to six games, it appeared the yelling would come sooner—from manager Lou Piniella, who seemed about to explode. Three days earlier he had angrily called Reds reliever Randy Myers "a——baby" and hurled his spikes across his office. What would the postgame Piniella have in store on Sunday? Maybe an overturned desk or a minicam tossed into the hall? As the press filed warily into his office 30 minutes after the game, Cincy outfielder Herm Winningham smiled and said, "Don't send any interns in there today."

Piniella, however, was surprisingly calm. He acknowledged that "it's pretty bleak now" but seemed to know that another tirade would be senseless when, realistically, his team wasn't much better than its 44-40 record indicated and probably won't be until pitchers Norm Charlton, Jose Rijo and Scott Scudder come off the disabled list later this month. Piniella knew the National League West-leading L.A. Dodgers were also in the process of losing four straight games last weekend in Montreal, which would leave the Reds still only five games out of first. And he knew that repeating as world champions is no easy task.

So did his players. "We've had a tough time realizing that everyone would be coming after us," said pitcher Tom Browning. "We haven't had the killer instinct we need."

Maybe last season came too easily for Cincinnati. It won its first nine games and 33 of its first 45, and led its division wire to wire. After May 3, the Reds' lead was never less than three games. They beat a good Pittsburgh team in the National League Championship Series before sweeping the Oakland A's in the World Series. "Last year we had no quarrels," says reliever Rob Dibble. "We went shopping together. We ate together. We had parties, barbecues."

Says shortstop Barry Larkin, "Everything went our way last year. It's not happening this year."

No, it's not. Last week Pittsburgh out-scored Cincinnati 32-16. (The Pirates have now won eight in a row from the Reds by a combined score of 55-25.) In the second game of the series Cincy pitcher Jack Armstrong (6-8, 5.06 ERA through Sunday) was rocked for six runs in five innings, continuing his year-long slump. Third baseman Chris Sabo was twice thrown out in the series trying to take an extra base. And in two brutal outings, Myers allowed nine hits and eight runs in 3‚Öì innings.

Myers's subpar season (3.66 ERA, six saves) underscores the breakup of last season's nearly unbeatable Nasty Boys bullpen. Charlton, the game's premier middle reliever in 1990, has been a starter in '91, when healthy. Myers, a top closer last season with 31 saves, lost that job in May after blowing a few save opportunities. He was replaced by Dibble—who has been brilliant, with 23 saves in 23 tries as of Sunday—and Myers has not handled his demotion with grace.

Jealous of Dibble's success, he has pouted and failed to adjust to his role as set-up man. Myers even spread false rumors that had him being traded back to the New York Mets. After being torched for five runs in 1‚Öì innings of the 10-6 loss that opened the series against Pittsburgh, Myers hinted that his bad outing was partly due to Piniella's strategy of intentionally walking Jay Bell to load the bases for Andy Van Slyke, thereby giving Myers no margin for error. When Piniella heard that, he seethed, not only calling Myers a bleeping baby but also saying, "If he keeps pitching like that, I'll have to call my agent, because he's going to get me fired."

The denastification of the bullpen has also altered the Reds' image. "Last year the bullpen had an effect on the way managers managed against us," says Charlton. "From a psychological aspect, it was like, Oh no, here they come again. When we were ahead in the fifth, the game was basically over even though it wasn't."

But the bullpen isn't solely to blame for Cincinnati's frustrations. Centerfielder Eric Davis had only 22 RBIs in 184 at bats at the end of last week. Second baseman Mariano Duncan, who hit .306 in 1990, was hitting .209. The defense hadn't played up to its usual high standard (catcher Joe Oliver had five passed balls in a five-game stretch this year). The Reds had used the disabled list 10 times.

"This season has been like when you're in college and you get an extra $50, then you get a speeding ticket," says Charlton. "Last year, not many little things went wrong. This year, just when we get a little breathing room, something goes wrong."

This year the Reds are going barbed wire to barbed wire. "With struggling comes bitching," says Browning. "That takes away from team unity. Guys shouldn't be thinking about themselves. They should be thinking about what it takes to win games."

More than a few Reds have suggested that management, led by the parsimonious Schott, hasn't done what it takes to win games. That bitching began in spring training when some players said Cincinnati should have offered a contract to veteran infielder Ron Oester. "We definitely miss his influence, his input," says Charlton. Also during the spring Armstrong and Oliver walked out of camp over salary disputes. "Guys were at each other's throats in spring training about what guy got more money," says Dibble. Oliver's discontent resurfaced in June when he questioned why the Reds wouldn't spend the money to hire a bullpen catcher to help warm up pitchers during games.

Then, in a major snafu, general manager Bob Quinn got tripped up in a roster maneuver that cost Cincinnati one of its top prospects, first baseman Reggie Jefferson. After being placed on the designated-for-assignment list, Jefferson, for reasons and rules too arcane to detail here, ultimately had to be traded or released. On June 14, Quinn dealt Jefferson to the Cleveland Indians, and the loss of the young talent was loudly derided by Charlton and Larkin.

Perhaps Schott decided that Quinn should pay for his mistake. She reportedly made Quinn, for whatever reason, pay his own way to Toronto for the All-Star Game. "If she had done that to me," says one Pirate coach, "I would have gone—but I wouldn't have come back."

While in Toronto, Quinn had trade talks with the Royals, which resulted in a deal that sent Todd Benzinger to Kansas City for Carmelo Martinez in a swap of seldom-used first basemen-outfielders. This was not, however, the deal that Reds players had been screeching for. Dibble and Larkin, among others, have been critical of Cincinnati's inability to acquire another starting pitcher (to which second baseman Bill Doran responded by saying that players should stop whining about trades and concentrate on playing). Quinn says he tried to deal for Montreal ace Dennis Martinez (a club source confirmed that one possible swap included Myers), but the Reds were rebuffed each time. After the trade with the Royals, one Red told another, "I was hoping we'd get Dennis or Ramon or Dave Martinez. There are some bad Martinezes in this league."

Cincinnati's failure to land another pitcher, coupled with starter Chris Hammond's shoulder soreness, left Piniella looking ahead to the possibility of playing with a starting staff that includes rookies Kip Gross, Gino Minutelli and Ross Powell, who was still with Triple A Nashville at week's end. These are the defending champs? But Gross, for one, says, "I'm just so pleased to be alive."

If Cincinnati has had a tough season, consider Gross's summer. In late June, he was demoted from the Reds to Nashville, where his apartment was ransacked and his valuables stolen, including, he says, "my World Series ring and my Nintendo." Four days after the robbery, Gross and a few of his teammates were mugged after leaving a Nashville club, where they had watched the Tyson-Ruddock fight. "Three carloads of guys got out and kicked our asses," says Gross. "I have no idea why. They had me on the ground. I was just hoping to get up. When they were yelling, 'Kill him, shoot him, kill him,' I thought I was done. I would have been done if [catcher] Donnie Scott hadn't cleared them out. I'm still sore from that."

He was hurting worse on Sunday, when the Pirates ripped him for four runs in 5‚Öì innings. At sweep's end, Piniella could only look forward to getting back Rijo; Charlton, who will return to the bullpen; and Scudder. "Our pitching is leaky," says Piniella, "and every time we stick our finger in the dam, some other spurt of water starts shooting out. But before it's all said and done, we're going to make a run at the team ahead of us."

If not, get ready for some yelling.

PHOTOTOM LYNNThe Reds gave up 32 runs to the Pirates; here Gary Redus puffs across the plate. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONOutfielder Paul O'Neill, who struck out three times on Sunday, heaved his bat in a Red rage. TWO PHOTOSTOM LYNNGross fired to Barry Bonds and then watched as Bonds fired a two-run salvo in return. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONPiniella, who had hurled epithets and shoes, suffered quietly in consecutive loss No. 6.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)