It was Pitcher Sammy Ellis of the Cincinnati Reds speaking, and his words confirmed the opinion of most people in the National League. "We had the best team in the league, or for that matter in baseball, last year," he said, "and we'll have the best team in baseball again this year. But the best team doesn't always win."
The Reds did not win anything last year. In fact they finished in fourth place. Bill De Witt, the club's owner and general manager—with the advice of Assistant General Manager Phil Seghi—decided to fire Dick Sisler as manager and hire Don Heffner, the most conservative base coach in the majors when he was with the New York Mets the last two years, as his replacement.
Then he traded Frank Robinson, the team's biggest star, for two pitchers, Starter Milt Pappas and Reliever Jack Baldschun, and a young outfielder named Dick Simpson. Next came a major realignment of the infield, with rookie Tommy Helms taking over at second base, and Pete Rose, the All-Star second baseman last year, switching to third. Deron Johnson, who led the major leagues with 130 RBIs last year, when he played third base, started spring training in left field, came back in to play first base but then was abruptly sent back out to left again. If Johnson does end up at first base, the Reds will further weaken an attack that has already lost Frank Robinson's 33 home runs and his 113 runs batted in. They also will lose the 26 home runs and 104 RBIs contributed jointly by last year's alternating first basemen, Gordy Coleman and Tony Perez. The Reds, however, do not worry too much about hitting. Last year their .273 team average was easily the best in the National League, and their total of 825 runs scored was 117 better than the next-best club, the powerful Milwaukee Braves. The Reds can get along with fewer runs. They are more concerned about a pitching staff that last year had an ERA that was the worst in the league, except for the New York Mets.
"They blamed Dick Sisler for ruining the pitching, but he did as good a job as possible," says Ellis, who won 22 games last year. (Teammate Jim Maloney, who pitched two 10-inning no-hitters, winning one and losing the other on an 11th-inning home run, won 20.) "Was it Sisler's fault that the bullpen failed when it did, that Jimmy O'Toole and Joey Jay had off years? And I can't count the times I was bombed in the first or second inning. Was all that Sisler's fault?"
O'Toole, who beat the Mets three times for his only victories of the year after averaging 16 wins a season since 1960, seems now to have regained his winning style (his body had been coming through the pitch much too soon) and expects a big year. "Heck, if I had had just an ordinary bad year, say 12 wins and 15 losses or so, instead of that disastrous 3 and 10, we might've won the pennant last season." Jay, who won 21 games in 1961 and 21 again in 1962, has shown no indication of any arm trouble and also seems more enthusiastic about his work. If O'Toole and Jay are indeed ready to join Ellis, Maloney, Joe Nuxhall and Milt Pappas, who was a consistent 14-game winner for seven years in the American League, the Reds could have the best staff of starting pitchers in the majors.
The bullpen is another problem. The Reds acquired Jack Baldschun to ease the pressure on 21-year-old Billy McCool, their best short man, but Baldschun has pitched in 333 games the last five seasons—and how much can an arm take? He was hit freely last year, too. Teddy Davidson and John Tsitouris (if Tsitouris stops throwing the screwball, a favorite pitch of his that usually finds a seat in the bleachers) are available for long relief, along with Roger Craig, who must pitch regularly to be effective.
Throughout spring training, Heffner and his coaches spent most of their odd hours batting ground balls to Pete Rose, who was attempting to solve the intricacies of playing third base, and Tommy Helms, the rookie shortstop who was trying to become a second baseman. Both experiments seem wise. Helms is expected to make a better double play and cover more ground at second base than Rose; and Pete figures to play a better third base than Deron Johnson.
"I'll make my errors," said Rose, "but I'm going to adopt Richie Allen's philosophy about them. He told me, 'You catch 'em or you don't. Man, don't worry about it. You make your money up there at the dish.' "
Helms, 24, was the most impressive of the National League rookies in Florida this spring. He rarely strikes out and executes the hit-and-run and other touchy plays very well. More than that, he just looks like a ballplayer. "I never expected that the Reds would change around their infield to let me play," Helms says. "I really thought they'd trade me." After talking with Bobby Richardson and Bill Mazeroski, the two best second basemen in the major leagues, Helms switched to a different type of baseball glove. "At shortstop you make a lot of sweeping plays, so you need a big glove with a good, deep pocket," he says, "but over here at second base you pretty much get at every ball. Now I've got one of these Bob Dillinger gloves [named after the old St. Louis Browns and Philadelphia Athletics third baseman]. It has almost no pocket, and it enables me to get rid of the ball quicker."
At shortstop the Reds have one of the best in Leo Cardenas. Johnny Edwards will handle the catching with Don Pavletich on hand to spell him. If Johnson is in left, Tommy Harper will play center and Vada Pinson will move to right. If Johnson is at first, Harper will return to left and Pinson to center, and Art Shamsky or Mel Queen, two untested but highly rated youngsters, will play right. Either way, it is a strong lineup.
"Now tell me," asks Ellis, "would you trade our starting team for any other in the National League?"
The Reds seem always to have the best-looking team in the spring, but problems have a way of popping up in Cincinnati during the season.
Sammy Ellis is the biggest winner among the Reds' impressive group of starting pitchers.