Strolling through the Cincinnati Reds' clubhouse at Riverfront Stadium last Sunday afternoon, relief pitcher Rob Dibble looked over at a gang of reporters clustered in front of a locker and yelled, "Hey, who are you all talking to?" Dibble was kidding; he knew exactly who was concealed somewhere down there in the midst of the media mass. It's just that at 5'7" and 165 pounds, including all the gold chains that always decorate his neck, Leon (Bip) Roberts—or the Bipster, as he is affectionately known among Reds fans—is easy to overlook. Unless, of course, you're seeking the most valuable player on a team that has led the National League West much of the season.
Earlier in the afternoon, after the Bipster had capped a 5-4, come-from-behind win over the St. Louis Cardinals with a two-run homer, his first for Cincinnati since arriving in the off-season from San Diego, his teammates mobbed him, and the crowd of 37,349 made him step out of the dugout for a curtain call. Nagged all year by injuries (the most serious of which is a sore right shoulder), Roberts has nevertheless started at four positions—29 games in leftfield, 25 at second, 20 at third and six in center—and has played three in a single game. What's more, he has been the Reds' best leadoff man since Pete Rose.
After only a few weeks of watching Roberts's gutsy play, his admiring teammates held a ceremony in which they presented him the BIP (Body In Pain) trophy. Roberts appreciated it almost as much as he did his selection to the National League All-Star team. "It's tough playing all those positions, plus dealing with being the leadoff hitter," the Bipster says. "It's physically draining. Anybody who says it isn't is not telling the truth."
Any one of the spots you don't particularly like, Bip?
"Yeah," says Roberts. "Third base. What if you're me and you look up and see Andre Dawson at the plate? How would you like that? He's liable to hit a rocket down there and knock me into left-field. But I feel comfortable every place else."
He wasn't comfortable in San Diego, though, where he fell out of favor with manager Greg Riddoch and complained that management had soured the atmosphere. But in Cincinnati, Roberts has been a perfect fit on an overachieving team that, with the exception of shortstop Barry Larkin, has no stars. Roberts arrived with a band of other newcomers who were brought aboard in the off-season's most dazzling display of wheeling and dealing, all of it orchestrated by general manager Bob Quinn. In lefthander Greg Swindell, rescued from oblivion in Cleveland, and righthander Tim Belcher, plucked from Los Angeles in the blockbuster deal that sent Eric Davis to the Dodgers, Cincinnati got two first-rate starters. And in Dave Martinez, obtained from the Montreal Expos, the Reds added a solid defensive outfielder.
Thanks largely to the newcomers, the Reds have so far played a lot more like the world champs of 1990 than the fifth-place chumps of '91. They have done it even though only Roberts and stopper Norm Charlton were named to the All-Star team and even though as of Sunday no Cincinnati player ranked among the league's top 10 in batting average, homers, RBIs, hits, total bases, walks, slugging percentage or extra-base hits. The Reds, whose victory on Sunday kept them a game ahead of the onrushing Atlanta Braves, have prospered because of the league's best defense (Cincy had a league-low 53 errors at week's end), excellent pitching and a batting order of line-drive hitters who know how to manufacture runs.
Says Larkin, "We have no big star in the clubhouse, just a lot of guys who are good and play together to win. We do the small things well—moving the runner to third, getting the bunt down, putting ourselves in position to win. That's the way the game should be played when you don't have a Detroit-type offense."
After an injury-riddled 20-20 start, the Reds got healthy and went on a 30-11 tear that put them in first place by six games. But the Braves went on a tear of their own in early July that put anxious Cincy fans on Reds alert. Even manager Lou Piniella seemed to be getting a bit panicky. After Cincinnati's last game before the All-Star break, in which the Pittsburgh Pirates overcame a 5-0 deficit to steal a 7-6 win, Piniella exploded over a Cincinnati Enquirer story in which reserve outfielder Glenn Braggs had said he wanted more playing time. Banging fists on his desk, Piniella screamed, "The thing that irks me is when I read things in the paper about people wanting to be traded. I'm tired of it. We've got too many players here busting their butts and playing as well as they can. If you don't want to play here, take your uniform and go home. And——it. How's that?"
Well, not bad, especially for early July. Over the All-Star break Piniella cooled off and apparently decided to take a calmer approach. Knowing that his players had been unnerved by the loss of lefty starter Tom Browning for the season (he ruptured knee ligaments while sliding into home in Houston on July 1) and by the in-again-out-again status of third baseman Chris Sabo (he injured an ankle in a play at first base in the second game of the season), Piniella was Mr. Upbeat going into last week's four-game series with the Cardinals. He dismissed the Braggs conflict as over and forgotten. "We've worked hard to put this team together," Piniella said, "and I don't like the distractions."
Piniella maintained his composure even after a 5-1 Thursday-night loss in which the Reds lost rookie leftfielder Reggie Sanders for at least two weeks when he severely bruised his rib cage in a home-plate collision with St. Louis catcher Tom Pagnozzi. Piniella's patience was rewarded on Friday night, when the Reds stopped the bleeding with an 8-1 victory that was due in equal parts to Swindell's pitching and Cincinnati's usual splendid defense. After a 3-2 win on Saturday night and the 5-4 job on Sunday, the Reds again seemed relaxed and confident, even with the hot breath of the Braves on their necks. "I think the race will go right down to the wire," Piniella said. "Atlanta is not going to go away."
Nor, he hopes, is Cincinnati, especially not if lefthander Tom Bolton, acquired from the Boston Red Sox to replace Browning, can deliver anywhere near as well as the other newcomers. The Bolton move is only the latest in a revamping that began on the chartered flight that carried the 1991 team home from its final game, a 3-1 loss in San Diego that left the Reds at 74-88, the worst performance ever by defending World Series champions. Sitting next to each other on the plane, Quinn and Piniella discussed their needs. By the time the plane landed, Quinn had a rough draft of the '92 roster. Two of the names on it were Roberts and Martinez.
In a matter of just two months, Quinn had landed not only Roberts and Martinez, but Swindell and Belcher as well. Almost everybody familiar with the Reds and their reputation for conservative behavior was shocked. Still, Quinn had one more matter to resolve. He knew that all his moves would prove futile if the Reds let Larkin get away to free agency. So on Jan. 18 Quinn had breakfast with Larkin's agent, Eric Goldschmidt. By lunchtime Quinn had called Marge Schott, the team's principal owner. Says Quinn, "I told her, 'This is the ballpark figure it's going to take to get Larkin signed.' She didn't like that ballpark, but she knew that we had to sign him. One thing you've got to say about Marge, and I know she has a reputation for being thrifty, is that there's never been a player that we wanted to sign who got away." Larkin signed for a club-record $25.6 million over five years.
Neither Larkin's teammates nor the Cincinnati fans appear to begrudge Barry his bucks, because everyone knows how much he means to the team. As for Larkin, he pooh-poohs the notion that his contract puts new pressure on him. "The only thing new," he says, "is that I get a lot more calls from people wanting me to invest in things."
One explanation for Larkin's continuing popularity is that he doesn't think of himself as a superstar. "I'm amoeba man," he says. "I'll take any shape, do whatever it takes, to win." This season he has had to do whatever it takes just to play; a series of injuries has made him a prime candidate for the next BIP trophy. Larkin finally found his hitting stroke after coming off the disabled list on May 8 and boosted his average from .179 to .292. His defense has been so exquisite that even St. Louis fans would be hard-pressed to argue that Ozzie Smith is still the league's premier shortstop.
Larkin's low-key leadership has helped the newcomers make the transition to Cincinnati, which is not without its pressures. Before spring training Belcher noted that, as a native of Sparta, Ohio, and a Reds fan while growing up, he was happy to be back home. However, said Belcher, "the Reds players live in much more of a fishbowl than the Dodger players, because in the summertime, baseball is the only game in town in Cincinnati."
True enough, though the fishbowl more often resembles a doghouse. The Reds' newest mascot is a Saint Bernard named Schottzie (02), who has assumed the duties of Schott's beloved Schottzie, the longtime team mascot who died last year. Besides having the run of the club's offices, Schottzie (02) is allowed to cavort on the field before games, sometimes with unfortunate results. Last Friday, for example, she had a pregame bowel movement behind second base—an event that was covered in detail by TV station WCPO, which showed tape of Schottzie (02)'s performance on the 11 o'clock newscast.
All of which is fine with Swindell, whose stint in Cleveland enables him to appreciate any kind of public attention the ball club can get, not to mention the joys of a pennant race. "No one could be happier to be in southern Ohio instead of northern Ohio than myself," Swindell says. "I was out of town when the trade was made. My wife called me at a restaurant, and I thought, Why would she call me here? When she told me I had been traded to the Reds, I dropped the phone and screamed as loud as I could."
He could be howling again in October, provided the Reds can overcome their ongoing ailments. Starter Jose Rijo says the pain in his right elbow is so intense that every start might be his last. Then there's Sabo and his mysterious ankle/ foot injury. Nobody seems to know exactly what is wrong; all Sabo knows is that sometimes his foot hurts so much that he, too, deserves strong consideration for the BIP trophy. "I'm going to have to talk to him every game before I make out the lineup card," says Piniella.
These are the sorts of things that give a manager an achy breaky heart down the stretch. But the good news for Piniella is that 40 of the Reds' last 72 games will be at Riverfront, where at week's end Cincy had baseball's best home mark. The Reds will host the Braves for three games but have five more in Atlanta.
Even if they fail to hold off the Braves, the Reds won't go down without a fight. The Bipster, whose childhood nickname derives, he says, from old cartoons (Bip! Bam! Pow!), is so competitive that on Opening Day against his former San Diego teammates, he got into a shouting match with pitcher Bruce Hurst. Roberts became so heated that he had to be restrained. "I wasn't going to back down," Roberts says. The Reds were missing that sort of fighting spirit last season, especially in the final month, when they lay down like a Schottzie dog and quit. The Bipster will make sure that doesn't happen again.
Roberts has become Cincinnati's indispensable man, the one who could make the difference if the race is as tight in September as Piniella expects it to be. For now, though, Roberts is staying loose. "It's so early," he says. "Why should we worry about the Braves now? All that would do is put added pressure on ourselves. We'll worry about Atlanta if we play 'em with first place on the line."
Fair enough. But the Braves should know that, as much as he likes his BIP trophy—which he keeps on display in his Riverfront locker—the Bipster figures the Reds will haul in a much more important piece of hardware by the time he finishes his first season in Cincinnati.