Cincinnati baseball fans are a placid, quietly chauvinistic legion. Seldom does a visitor come upon anyone muttering over a beer about a blunder in strategy or a letter to the editor on the sport pages venting disenchantment; usually they write about such things as: "Why not a fans' appreciation night?" or "Why not return the umpires' names to the box score?" To be sure, they talk about baseball in Cincinnati, but the conversation is always positive. Only now and then will someone say, shaking his head: "The Reds? Sure are a bewilderin' club, now, aren't they?"
Bewildering is just adequately accurate as a word for the Reds. Frustrating is a better one. In almost any other city the Reds would be whipped with invective by now. Currently trailing the Phillies by 7½ games, the Reds, like the rest of the National League except for Philadelphia and the Mets, have been remarkably inconsistent for a ball club which, prior to the season, figured to make a strong run for the pennant. They seemed to have the hitting (with power), and perhaps the best pitchers in the league; three of them—Joey Jay, Jim Maloney and Jim O'Toole—were thought quite capable of winning over 60 games among them. But Cincinnati is currently seventh in the league in hitting and Jay, Maloney and O'Toole have won only 31 games so far.
"Yeah, and who would have figured, too, we'd lose six games to the Mets?" says ailing Manager Fred Hutchinson in disgust. "Six games to a club that doesn't have a player that could make our ball club. It's stupid. It's started to become a psychological thing with us."
It is to Hutchinson's credit that he can get upset over losing to the Mets or that he can manage at all, for that matter. Hutchinson has been fighting cancer all season. Always a man who exuded indestructibility, both physically and mentally, Hutch is just a fragment of what he once was. His uniform hangs loosely on him. His face is pallid, his eyes are weak and tired and his left eye is partially closed.
Nevertheless, Hutchinson has stuck with the club all season except on two occasions. One of them was last week. As the team left on a 12-day road trip, Hutch remained at home and checked into the hospital for "further treatment." Just before the club departed, Hutchinson was given a party at the ball park celebrating his 45th birthday. A young, attractive woman, joined by everyone in the park, sang Happy Birthday to him. When she concluded, she walked over to the manager and kissed him on the cheek. Hutchinson, obviously uneasy and sensing the strained atmosphere, turned to the young lady and said into the microphone: "How lucky can you get?"
Hutchinson still thinks his Reds can win the pennant, but every day the odds get larger that they will not. The main reason they will not is that the team's two biggest stars, Frank Robinson and the enigmatic Vada Pinson, have been something short of devastating. "If I had to point to one thing," says a Cincinnati critic, "I'd have to lay it all on the doorstep of Pinson and Robinson. They just haven't hit. Actually, with two guys like that not doing well, this club is lucky to be in fourth place."
Robinson, often praised for his ability to carry a club for a long period of time, has only recently found his form. After watching some old movies of himself, which enabled him to detect a flaw in his batting stance, he went 15 for 27 with three home runs, three doubles and a triple. Robinson is now hitting .304 with 21 home runs and 67 runs batted in, an output far below the production that was expected of him. Neither he nor Pinson has been getting many big ones for the Reds. But Pinson has been almost pathetic. A consistent player who has averaged 200 hits in slightly more than five seasons, the slender, taciturn center fielder has only 115 hits and his average is .257. Fans may be mild in their criticism of the team, but those close to the club are not, especially when it comes to Pinson. Most of it is prefaced by something like: "Now, off the record, he...." At one point during the season he was 2 for 33, and this confounded even his small circle of admirers. "I just don't understand it," says one. "There's no excuse for a ballplayer of his talent going 2 for 33. Especially the way he can bunt and run."
Most of the off-the-record comment by players and the press deals with Pinson's attitude, especially his lack of competitive zeal; it is no secret that Hutchinson has been silently infuriated by Pinson on and off for a long time. Often those close to the club compare Robinson and Pinson to point up Pin-son's deficiency in attitude. "Robinson is a competitor," says one player. "Pinson is not. Robinson will break his neck to try to make an impossible play. Pinson won't. Robinson has 17 stolen bases. Pinson has four, and he can run a lot faster than Robinson. Pinson won't bunt, even though he is an expert bunter and could bunt for a lot of base hits during the year. Pinson is not a loud-type guy. Neither is Robinson. But you don't have to be loud to be a tough competitor. Pinson loafs a lot mentally, too. Robinson is always in the game. In short, Pinson, perhaps unconsciously, seems to squander a lot of talent."
Unlike last year, when the Reds were described by a player as a "team of strangers," harmony seems to pervade. Naturally, there are a few on the club who have to be pampered, but this is not an unsettling influence. In fact, the players laugh at it all, in a way. For example, Jim Maloney, who won 23 games last year, is coddled; he often will leave a game at the slightest hint of arm trouble. Earlier this year, after striking out 12 batters in six innings, he felt a slight twinge in his arm and departed. The next day the players posted a number of get-well cards on the bulletin boards. The players were not as jocular last season. Robinson and Pinson, who are close friends, were accused of acting like stars. Robinson at one point was out of the lineup for 10 days with a minor injury. He was ready to play, but he was waiting for Hutchinson to come and ask him. Hutchinson felt that he did not have to ask a player making $65,000 if he was ready to play. Robinson and Pinson would take fielding practice only when the spirit moved them.
"All of this is changed now," says one player. "Robinson in many ways has taken command. And also I think the players arc closer because of Hutch's illness. They are pulling together a lot harder. They don't try to make it obvious, but you can sense the feeling. Actually, we don't know much about his condition. He's always light and casual about it all."
There is some cause for elation in Cincinnati, though. Just a nonentity on the roster a few months ago, Deron Johnson has emerged as the key figure in Cincinnati's stumbling attack. Johnson, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound Californian, who ran Gordie Coleman off first base in late June, is hitting .302, has 17 home runs and has driven in 58 runs. "His RBI total is deceiving," says Coach Dick Sisler. "The fact is that he's driven in a lot of important runs. We'd really be in bad shape without that big guy."
A former roommate of Mickey Mantle, Johnson was hailed as another Mantle while he was in the Yankee organization. But Johnson only appeared in 13 games for the Yankees and then was dealt to Kansas City. The reasons given for the Johnson trade are quite nebulous. Some say the Yankees gave up on him as a hitter, others conclude he was dealt off because of his lust for living. Following the 1961 season Johnson went into the Army until August of 1962. He finished out the season with the A's. "The A's told me I was going to get a good shot at making the club the next spring," he says. "Some shot. I only went to the plate once during spring training, and I walked at that." At the end of the 1963 season, the Reds purchased Johnson's contract from San Diego.
"It was a great break for me." he says. "Especially getting to play for a guy like that." He pointed toward Hutchinson's office. "I don't think we've said more than a few words all season. But you always know the guy is pulling for you 1,000%. I've learned a lot from him."
"What did you learn from the Yankees?" a visitor asked.
"How to be quiet," he said.
And then, pointing to his bat, he added: "I let this do my talking for me now."
Indeed, if they had a few more talkative bats like Johnson's in Cincinnati the Reds might not be quite so bewildering to their fans.
A LONELY HERO is Deron Johnson, a Yankee reject, whose hits have won many games.