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Original Issue

Reds' rookie is a tough cookie

When the musical is made, the pretty secretary will enter from stage left, a tattered letter in hand. She will be dressed all in red, approach her boss apprehensively and say, "I know it seems silly, Chief, but I've got a feeling about this letter that just came in from Hilton Head, S.C. It says there's an 18-year-old boy down there who never played on a high school team. Nobody picked him in the draft and he only gets a chance to play weekends. But the letter says he can swing the bat, Chief. Swing the bat!" The stocky man at center stage tending bees will suddenly lift the netting from around his face. "If that's true," the beekeeper will say, "we should be able to sign him cheap. Give him a copy of our yearbook and a plane ticket to Tampa. Let's take the chance. Yes, let's look him over." The two will then join hands and sing, "Swing the Bat! Swing the Bat!"

Last week at New York's Shea Stadium, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose, two of four National League Rookies of the Year produced by the Cincinnati Reds in the last 16 seasons, were talking about Dan Driessen, a 22-year-old third baseman with an excellent chance to win the award this year. "We had heard for three years that Dan Driessen could hit," said Bench. "Just about everybody in our organization said, 'Driessen can hit.' Let me just say this, Dan Driessen can hit."

"What kind of a hitter is Driessen?" Rose was asked. "He hits about like me," Pete replied. When Pete Rose says somebody hits about like Pete Rose, it means things such as 200 hits a season, a .300-plus average and all the defenses in the National League wondering how on earth to play him. "It would surprise nobody in Cincinnati if Dan Driessen were to win the batting title next year," says Reds Coach Alex Grammas of an honor that is assumed in Cincy to be Rose's special preserve.

For the past two months Driessen has been hitting third for the Reds on their march up through the standings of the National League West. At the end of last week he was averaging .315 and only Rose (.342) was hitting more for Cincinnati. Called "The Cobra" because of the quick, lethal way his bat strikes, Driessen played a huge part in putting the Reds' attack into gear after a slow start. "At the time we brought Driessen up we were last in the league in hitting," says Manager Sparky Anderson. "He has done a tremendous job for us. When we put Driessen in the lineup and added Pitcher Freddie Norman we started to move."

Although it certainly did not appear so at the start, this could end up a vintage year for rookies in the majors. Two American League pitchers, Steve Busby of Kansas City and Jim Bibby of Texas, have thrown no-hitters and 18-year-old David Clyde of the Rangers has drawn an average of 26,000 fans whenever he has pitched in Arlington. James Rodney Richard, a 23-year-old righthander the Houston Astros farmed out this spring to pick up a couple more pitches, has returned to record more than a strikeout an inning. The surprising Montreal Expos now find their switchboard choked by callers trying to find out when 23-year-old Steve Rogers is going to work again. In two of his first three big-league starts Rogers pitched a one-hitter and allowed four hits in eight innings.

The Dodgers have a flock of good, young infielders (SI, Aug. 20), and Outfielder Gary Matthews of the Giants is hitting over .300. Matthews may well be the man Driessen will ultimately have to beat out to become Rookie of the Year in the National League.

Two of the top three hitters for Baltimore this season are rookies Alonza B. Bumbry (.302) and Rich Coggins (.294). Johnny Grubb of the Padres is hitting .304, and St. Louis moved to the top of the N.L. East after the left side of its infield was turned over to newcomers Mike Tyson and Ken Reitz. In early July, Pittsburgh inserted hard-hitting Richie Zisk into the outfield and he has averaged .349 ever since.

As good as these other rookies have been, none has been better than Driessen. And while his hitting prowess was well known in the Reds' organization before he arrived in Cincy, no one figured he could step so quickly into the third spot in the order and make Red fans forget the woeful season the regular No. 3 batter, Bobby Tolan, is having. "When they brought me up from Indianapolis, I thought I would be batting right next to the pitcher," Driessen says. "I arrived in Chicago, and there was a note in my box at the hotel to see Manager Anderson. I thought I would have a few days to get my feet on the ground but he told me I would be in the lineup the next day. I knew what the next day meant. It meant playing before a packed house in Wrigley Field, facing Ferguson Jenkins and having the game on national television."

Anderson batted Driessen sixth, and his first time up the bases were loaded. "Jenkins struck me out," says Driessen with a smile. "I don't think I even saw the pitch. I was so nervous I didn't sleep at all the night before."

Cincinnati had indeed signed Driessen for only a yearbook and a plane ticket to Tampa after he had sent the Reds a letter asking for a tryout. In 1970 he hit a poor .223 at Tampa with only two doubles and a triple out of 54 hits. At Tampa again in 1971, Driessen averaged .327 and was promoted to Three Rivers where he hit .322 in 1972.

Regarded as a gifted first baseman, Driessen went to spring training this year convinced that his ultimate spot would be Triple A Indianapolis and first base. On the final day of camp he was told he would be playing third. "I knew that Cincinnati was not going to break up a pennant-winning team just to get me on it this year," Driessen says. When Denis Menke failed to hit early this season, General Manager Bob Howsam, a noted beekeeper, and Anderson kept examining Indianapolis box scores. What held their attention was Driessen's .409 batting average. On June 8 they promoted him to the Reds, a move like many they have made in recent seasons that quickly paid off. "Driessen is always smiling," says Bench. "The whole business doesn't seem to faze him. That's a huge part of making it in the majors. Maybe the biggest part."

That and being able to "swing the bat" seem likely to insure Driessen a regular role in that long-running hit, Damn Red Machine.