"Fire him up, fire him up!"
"Bring him some heat!"
The Cincinnati Reds are exhorting a blurred, three-inch-high image of the Mets' Jerry Koosman to throw a fastball past a similar likeness of Dodger Ken McMullen. The Reds are dressing for their game last Saturday with the Phillies and watching Pete Rose's tiny lockerside TV. Koosman is beating the Dodgers 4-1 with two out in the ninth and two men on. If he gets McMullen the Reds have a chance to gain a game on Los Angeles, whose torrid division-leading pace has Cincinnati seven games behind in the National League West.
"Don't mess around with that slider! Throw the heater! Throw the heater!"
Next to the TV is a box containing 17 shirts Rose has purchased. Rose buys shirts in volume, he has said, because he gets paid in volume to do such things as a picture in his locker portrays him doing. There appears in the picture only one human figure, an enemy catcher dauntedly regarding what looks like a low-lying explosion, from which issues a Reds hat. What we have is an actual photograph of Pete Rose descending in the form of a cloud of dust to score a headfirst run.
Koosman must have heard the Reds' advice. He gets McMullen on a high hard one, and L.A. loses for a change.
"The Reds are four in the loss column," announces Rose. He does not say "four down" because he doesn't believe in the concept "down" as applied to himself or the Reds.
"Rose is never down," says Cincinnati Pitcher Dick Baney. "When somebody gets him out it stimulates him. He shifts into another gear. He goes back to the dugout and yells, 'I'll get you.' "
"I've been on seven big-league teams," says Reserve Outfielder Andy Kosco, "and I've never seen such a leader. We will never stop thinking we can catch the Dodgers, because Rose won't let that happen."
However, the Reds did not take full advantage of the L.A. defeat. In their game with the Phillies that night Jim Lonborg threw a five-hitter at them, and they lost 5-2. Meanwhile the surprisingly vigorous Atlanta Braves, who were adjudged noncontenders by their own superstar in spring training, won again and advanced to within two percentage points of the Reds' perch in second place.
So the chase is on, and the questions accumulate. Will the rough Reds catch the artful Dodgers again this year as they did in '73 (when the Dodgers led them by 11 games on June 30) and as the Cardinals did in the summer of '42 (when the Dodgers led them by 9½ on Aug. 6) and as the Giants did in '51 (when the Dodgers led them by 13 on Aug. 11)? Or will the Dodgers stay as hot as they have been so far this season and therefore win an astonishing 110 games? Or has the One Great Scorer already worked it out that the aforementioned Atlanta superstar, Henry Aaron, is due to win this year's pennant with, say, his 750th career home run?
The Reds believe they have the answer. They are going to get their thing together, take their word for it. "We know it's there," says Manager Sparky Anderson. "We just have to find a way to turn it loose."
The Reds haven't been playing badly this year—their winning percentage is better than any team's in baseball except the Dodgers'—but obviously they haven't really caught fire yet.
Anderson, whose manner is eminently affable and whose hair is beautifully white, got the name Sparky from the way he used to turn it loose himself. "My first year playing organized ball I got kicked out of 16 games," he says. "I had to quit high school basketball. I used to throw the ball at referees. I leaped on a guy in center court. Once a guy got away from me driving downcourt and I let him get right at his peak, going in for the layup, and then I hit him in the small of the back. Knocked him through two glass doors. I thought I'd killed him. I used to be crazy.
"My first year managing I held a television set over my head, about to throw it, until somebody stopped me. I came in after a game we lost and the clubhouse man had these beautiful pieces of watermelon laid out for everybody. One player took a bite and said, 'Boy, this is good,' and I threw every piece of watermelon. It was all over everything. The clubhouse man almost cried. Another time a player had sent out for five hamburgers because his family had just come in to town. The hamburgers arrived after we'd just lost a game and I said, 'Who ordered these hamburgers?'
"No one would speak up. 'The man who ordered these hamburgers hasn't got a gut in his body,' I said, and then I took one hamburger and crushed it in my hand and threw it down and said, 'There's one of your hamburgers. There's two.' I did that with all five of 'em. I was a wild man—didn't have any judgment.
"I hit an umpire with my head three games in a row. And I got thrown out of three games just bringing the lineup card up to home plate.
"Because I was raised in the Dodger organization, I was raised one way—win at all costs. It took me till my 30s to grow up. I was ousted from my first job managing and in my second job I could see that the kids I had didn't know anything. I could see that I couldn't help them if I was wild. I learned that you can't let your feelings go. It doesn't have any effect if you do it night after night. Now I talk to myself. I get pale. I say 'hold on.' "
In his maturity (he is 40 now and looks like a very youthful 55) Sparky plays down the importance of the skipper's role. "The best managers are the people with the best players," he says. He helps keep the Reds on their toes with tempered criticism and mixes in with them smoothly. On a recent plane trip he derided Second Baseman Joe Morgan as a card player ("The only hand he can play is king queen jack 10 9 and then you have to tell him how to play it") but followed up with a little kiss on Morgan's sideburn.
And in his maturity Sparky does not try to tamper with the team's core of strength, which is the offensive authority of Rose, Morgan, Catcher Johnny Bench and First Baseman Tony Perez—referred to by their teammates as The Four.
These are hard, tightly wound men. Thanks in part, no doubt, to the tradition begun by Batting Coach Ted Kluszewski, who is built like two or three bears tied together and was recently named to the Polish Hall of Fame, the typical Red hitter is big-armed, chunky and intense, assumes a compact closed stance and holds his bat at an odd, menacing angle as he awaits the pitch.
"It's a long season," says Sparky. "The team that wins is the team that holds up in the hot months. The traveling takes its toll. Swinging the bat is a lot different in April, May, June than it is in July, August, September. Our club is physical. We're not a finesse team like the Dodgers. We're endurance."
The Reds' hard boys tend to prefer the hot months. Rose, last year's NL batting champion with a .338 average, always starts slowly—he's down around .280 now—and heats up as the weather does, like a cold-blooded animal.
That is why the Reds feel so confident. They are like a snowman who knows he is built around a fireplug. As ex-Oriole Merv Rettenmund says, "These guys act like they're in first place even when they're not."
"We've been up, we've been down," says Bench, the superb defensive catcher who since 1969 has been hitting 20-something homers in odd-numbered years and 40-something (and winning the MVP award) in even-numbered ones, and is not far behind schedule in '74 with a team-leading 13 homers and 41 RBIs. "We know we're a good team."
"We'll win our 95 games," says Morgan, just as matter-of-factly as he says, "I'll get 115 walks, because that's me." And Sparky says firmly, "Rose would hit .300 even if he was only at .230 now because he's a .300 hitter. A bat has a certain amount of hits in it."
Of the current National League contenders, Cincinnati has been in the playoffs most consistently over the last four years. "People tend to favor the club that's been there before," says Sparky. "I believe 60 to 70% of the people you'd ask would say the Reds are going to catch the Dodgers." It is true that the Reds have more established stars. Over in the American League Reggie Jackson of the A's recently listened for a while to praise of the Dodgers and then said, "Yeah, but you wait until the end of the season, and then look at those dudes in the red hats." The Reds are different from the A's, who are generally regarded as the class of the other league. The Reds adhere with seeming docility to their organization's short-hair-and-no-mustache policy, and although there is considerable hard riding in the clubhouse—the other members of The Four call Rose a Judy hitter, for instance, because he gets so many singles—such ribbing does not approach the festival of outright candor and wrestling that prevails among the A's. Rose recently abandoned his interest in a local publication called Pete Rose's Reds Alert at the front office's insistence, after a contributor criticized reserve Shortstop Darrel Chaney (currently batting .160).
But the Reds know who they are, and their self-confidence seems realistic even though they have won none of five from L.A. so far this year. Needless to say they are looking for revenge in their July 2-4 series with the Dodgers in Cincinnati. It was on July 1 and 2 at home last year that the Reds beat the Dodgers three straight and began to turn the race around.
Pinch hitter Phil Gagliano, a former Cardinal, veteran of several pennant races and a nimble man with a cliché, says, "The best team will win. It's a season of 162 games. The cream will rise to the top."
"Well, I don't know about that," says former Dodger great Pee Wee Reese. He has driven up from Kentucky to make sure Louisville Slugger bats, which he represents, are maintaining their comfortable but perhaps not insurmountable lead in the race against Adirondack for the bats-with-most-hits-in-them crown. The Dodgers, he says, always believed they had the best team. "We always thought we couldn't lose. And of course you know we did."
They may again if the Reds make a habit of operating as they did last Friday, the day before the loss to the Phillies....
The Reds trail the Phils 2-1 in the third. Morgan leads off with a double, barely beating the throw at second with a headfirst slide. "That's the only way I can slide on a double," he says, "because I be in a deep lean." Then with Bench up, Morgan steals third. "That way they don't walk John to set up the double play," Morgan says, "because now I score on the double play. And they aren't going to be throwing him that slider low and away and it's in the dirt and I score. We wouldn't be the players we are without each other. When Pete gets on I have that big hole on the right side to hit through, with the first baseman holding him on. When I get on, Bench gets more fastballs because I'm going to steal on breaking stuff."
Bench hits a single off the left-field wall. Perez hits a single up the middle. Third Baseman Dan Driessen, a muscle hitter in the true Reds mold, takes an unusual tack, bunting so well that he not only advances the runners but draws a wild throw and goes to second. Terry Crowley hits a line single.
Cesar Geronimo's full name, according to the press book, is Cesar F. Geronimo. He is aiding The Four considerably by hitting .315 this year, and he plays a center field that is as spectacular as his name. He hits a single.
Dave Concepcion's fielding at shortstop is smooth and wide-ranging. Although he is skinny—back in Venezuela he thought he was too much of a "super-shrimp," he says, to make it to the big leagues—he seems to have established himself as a steady .280 hitter with some power. Now Concepcion executes a deft sacrifice bunt.
Don Gullett is the hardest-throwing member of a pitching staff that is often put down by comparison with the Dodgers' pitchers—or the Reds' hitters—but which includes men who either have been or are currently quite solid: starters Jack Billingham, Clay Kirby, Fred Norman and Roger Nelson and relievers Pedro Borbon and Clay Carroll. Gullett pops up. Rose—whose name is so apt, combining elements of redness and ascension—provides the climax to a nice six-run inning by hitting a double. Gullett—good name for a pitcher who doesn't choke—hangs on to pitch a complete-game victory, 7-4, which is the kind of score you expect the Reds to win by.
"The boys was hacking it hard," says Morgan afterward. "Even Rose hit one hard—not real hard, now...."
So goes the kidding among the confident Four. Cool, but with fire beneath the ice. Might be wise to keep the extinguishers handy, L.A.
Tony Perez is a solid cleanup hitter who often finds leadoff man, inspirationalist and eternal battler Pete ("He's never down") Rose on base.
A defensive gem. Bench is no Johnny-come-lately as a hitter either, and Joe Morgan, swift both of bat and foot, coolly predicts 95 victories.
Good-field, good-hit Shortstop Dave Concepcion flourishes the good pen with Cincinnati fans.
While Sparky mostly has eyes for L.A., he cannot Ignore Bad Henry's threatening Braves.