Nestled amongst several soon-to-be-dirtied Reds uniforms, a peach basket full of fan mail, Pete Jr.'s tiny spikes and shower shoes, a clipping of a newspaper headline that said, "Rose Cleared in Death by Reason of Insanity," a book entitled The Greatest is Aloha ('Aloha' Means Love), a bottle of Jean Nate friction pour le bain, a small "Babyvision" TV set and other interesting stuff, there was something relatively new in Pete Rose's Riverfront Stadium locker last week: an infielder's glove.
For a curious visitor Rose took this fielding appliance out, spat in the pocket, rubbed the spit in with gusto and showed that the glove was shorter-fingered and more spread out than the outfielder's model he used from 1967 until a month ago, when Reds Manager Sparky Anderson asked him, for the sake of getting Outfielder George Foster's hot bat into the regular lineup, to make the switch to third. Did Rose think his taking on a new position had given the team a lift?
That was not for Charlie Hustle himself to say. He was willing to point out, though, that "we're 13 and 6."
Rose was referring to Cincinnati's record in games he had started at third. By Sunday that record stood at 16 and 7, the Reds had won 11 of their last 13, and the division-leading Dodgers had reason to feel hot Red breath on the backs of their necks—their margin had shriveled to one-half game.
Besides great talent and last year's pennant to defend, the Dodgers have a distinctive organizational pride. As Coach Tom Lasorda hit a difficult fungo to Third Baseman Ron Cey in spring training he exhorted Cey to "get it for that Big Dodger in the Sky." The Cincinnati club can hardly call upon a Big Red in the Sky, because such an expression might suggest Lenin or somebody, and if that got out—even though Reds are not permitted such signs of doubtful ideology as facial hair—it would be bad for fan identification.
(Last week the Reds did sign two Chinese prospects, but they are graduates of the Taiwan Little League, which is not only non-Communist but may be a higher league than the National.)
So now the Reds have a big Rose in the infield. They also have a person at second base who can do everything but sing the national anthem (and nobody can sing the national anthem), a slick shortstop who hits better than most outfielders, a cleanup hitter who has resumed cleaning up, a bullpen that has found its sliders, a centerfielder who has been gravely wronged by the All-Star ballot and a starter whose arm has returned from the dead. But since there is no Red vision more engaging than that of an utterly committed chunky man charging a slow roller with hair and hat and knees and elbows flying, let us consider first the case of the transplanted Rose.
Being in many cases his approximate peers, the Reds do not necessarily regard Rose with awe. "They call you Mr. Ty Cobb," cried Shortstop Dave (Bozo) Concepcion recently. "You couldn't tie Ty Cobb's shoes."
"If I couldn't tie his shoes," responded Rose, "then what could you do to him?"
"I played 36 games at third last year and nobody said a word," declared Catcher Johnny Bench.
"That you heard," put in reserve Terry Crowley.
"After all..." Bench began to go on. "...I heard that," he shot back at Crowley.
"Actually, you were very, very adequate over there," said Crowley.
It is true that when Bench moves from behind the plate to third he does it for a rest. "I played it five games in a row last year and it was like one game catching," he says.
But when a 34-year-old All-Star outfielder as established as Rose suddenly takes up a new full-time position, it is a switch worthy of note. "What are you doing over here?" asked the Phillies' Greg Luzinski recently when he saw Rose at third.
"I've been here two weeks," said Rose.
"Well, I sure didn't know it," said Luzinski.
"People may see it in the box scores," notes Rose, "and think it's a misprint."
Anderson had thought about the move during the off-season, but he hadn't said anything about it because he had heard that Rose didn't like third. That position had appeared to be a serious weakness in '74 because Danny Driessen had never seemed the same in the field since the time in the '73 playoffs when, at a key moment, he mistakenly thought he had a force play and stepped on third instead of making a tag. To replace Driessen, the Reds obtained John Vukovich from Milwaukee. Vukovich was not expected to hit, but it was felt that the Reds could carry one weak batter for the sake of his glove. Vukovich's glove, however, did not come up to expectations, and the Reds as a team were not hitting well enough to support mediocre pitching. The Dodgers, who had built up a 10½-game lead before the Reds began catching up in '74, appeared to be getting away from them again. "I have never felt so bad," said Anderson.
So Sparky tried Rose at third, a move that he has come out of smelling like frenchified after-bath lotion.
As a kid Rose started out wanting to be a catcher, but by the time he was a high school sophomore he realized he wouldn't be big enough for that position so he took up second base. By 1965 he was a National League All-Star at second. In '66 Cincinnati Manager Don Heffner told him to move over to third.
"He didn't ask me, he told me," says Rose. "I moped around, which is something I never do, and I hit .170." Within three weeks he was back at second.
The next year, under Dave Bristol, Rose willingly turned over second base to his friend Tommy Helms and moved to the outfield, where he won Gold Gloves in 1969 and 1970. Then, one afternoon before a game early this May, he was breaking in a first baseman's mitt for his 10-year-old daughter Renee Fawn. She likes a first baseman's mitt for Softball. Rose was taking ground balls with Tony Perez at first, and Anderson said, "Boy, I wish you could take some of those on the other side of the field."
"I do, out in left," said Rose.
"I mean over at third," said Anderson. "I'd like for you to take a shot at third for me. I just need somebody to catch the ball and throw it over, so Foster can play."
"Well," said Rose, "I'll try it."
By the next night, when he started his new job, Rose had already broken in his (not Fawn's) new glove taking practice grounders. Since then he has been fielding so many fungoes, before games and on off days, that his arm gets sore from throwing the ball over to first and the coaches have to tell him to stop. And he is playing third far better than anybody expected him to and better than Vukovich, who was supposed to be a defensive specialist.
Rose doesn't have the elephant-gun arm that enables Bench to handle the position without worrying much about finesse, but he goes to his left remarkably well and has made only two errors, both on close plays. One was a dribbler off Tom Seaver's bat that Rose charged and couldn't get a grip on. The official scorer was Bob Hertzel of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Rose's collaborator on a recent book, who called the play an error but might have reconsidered, he says, had not Met Coach Joe Pignatano waved a towel at him from the Mets' dugout, lobbying for a hit.
Hertzel may conceivably have been guilty, then, of leaning over too far backward, which is something Rose will never be accused of. The only reason he threw out as many runners as he did from the outfield over the years, Rose says, is that he prided himself on charging grounders hard. From third he comes in on slow-hit balls like a buffalo afire, and if that is not the most elegant way to play third, it has proved to be very adequate.
"His only problem is he's so meticulous about everything that he doesn't want to cut loose and take a chance of throwing the ball away," says Bench. "That's why he's never stolen many bases; he won't take chances." But that doesn't mean Rose won't dive for balls—he has already left his feet to make a couple of nice stops to his left. Last week against the Expos he waited to make sure of being on target with a long peg from behind the bag and wound up throwing it short, but Driessen saved him with a snazzy pickup at first.
Driessen was subbing for Perez, who was out with a broken thumb. Perez returned to the lineup this week. With him back and Rose still at third, and counting Bench behind the plate, the Reds have one of the most remarkable infields of our time. Financially, it is the best endowed ever, with a combined annual salary of $650,000. Defensively, it is the only one in the National League that includes three '74 Gold Glovers—Bench, Second Baseman Joe Morgan and Concepcion. Offensively, it is the solidest all-round infield since Hodges, Robinson, Reese, Cox and Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Every member of the Reds' inner five—"Our main core," says Anderson—is capable of batting .300 with double-figures homers, and if each continues to drive in runs at his rate as of last Saturday, the only one who won't have at least 83 RBIs by the end of the season will be Concepcion. He will have 79.2.
On most teams the outfielders are the big hitters. On this one they are not bad. Foster, Centerfielder Cesar Geronimo and Rightfielder Ken Griffey, who often bat sixth, seventh and eighth, are on their way toward some 50 RBIs apiece. Defensively, Geronimo is superb. How he got left off the All-Star ballot after winning a Gold Glove and hitting .281 last year is a mystery.
O.K., so how come the Reds were still a tad behind the Dodgers as this week began? One reason was that cleanup hitter Bench, hampered by the effects of a Roseian belt administered to him at home plate by San Francisco's Gary Matthews, had been leaving a lot of men on base until the last dozen games, during which he hit six of his league-leading 11 homers and got 12 of his league-leading 36 RBIs (to tie San Diego's young Dave Winfield and L.A.'s astoundingly consistent Steve Garvey). And Perez, although he has 31 RBIs himself, was only beginning to produce regularly when he broke his thumb.
The way the Reds' offense works, if one may simplify, is that Rose and Morgan get on base almost constantly and Bench and Perez drive them in when they are hot. This makes Bench and Perez pivotal, but if anybody is the Reds' most valuable player this year it is Morgan. Not only is Morgan leading the team in batting, at .331, he is finally establishing in the public mind that he is the only man in baseball who can do all the following things extremely well: Field. Hit for average. Hit the long ball. Steal bases (he is leading the league). Draw walks (he had 46 in his first 47 games). Avoid strikeouts. Maintain a lively, sunny disposition. And think.
Morgan, a student of the game who wants to be a junior college coach when he retires, complains that the Reds aren't stealing enough to score as the Dodgers and the A's do. The way baseball is now, with big parks, fast turf and pitchers throwing 3 and 0 sliders or being yanked for relievers who can, even such muscular teams as the Reds can't count on big innings. "You can't wait," Morgan says. "You've got to steal runs."
You also need pitching, which is something the Reds have had consistently only as they've surged. The sliders of bullpen aces Clay Carroll and Pedro Borbon have only recently begun to slide adequately. And in his last three starts, all convincing victories, Gary Nolan seems to have established that he is as good a pitcher as he was in past seasons when he went 14-8, 18-7 and 15-5.
Last year Nolan's arm was so bad he pitched only six innings, for Indianapolis. The year before that he managed 10 innings for the Reds. During the past off-season Dr. Frank Jobe cut into Nolan's right shoulder. Had he not been blinded by the Hippocratic oath, Dr. Jobe would surely have taken the opportunity to insert three cockleburs and a lump of coal—he's the Dodgers' orthopedic surgeon. Instead he cut out an inch-long spur of calcium and convinced Nolan that the operation would cure his troubles. After a while Nolan went outside and chucked to his brother-in-law.
"I was able to throw without major discomfort. That in itself was something," says Nolan, who seems rather a tight-lipped person and who did not, having made that easeful pitch, immediately run around the block shouting to the neighbors.
"You can't be overjoyed," he says. "You don't know what might happen."
But last week he beat the Expos 5-0, giving up only two hits and throwing only 87 pitches, none of which appeared to be over anything but the edge of the plate. He didn't show the great fastball he had as a rookie, but his changeup had the Expos exposing their anxiousness indecently. Two games later Don Gullett beat the Cardinals 6-0 on four hits.
"We're tired of chasing people," says Bench. The Dodgers are the people he and new hot cornerman Rose and Renaissance Man Morgan and reborn man Nolan and all the other Reds are tired of chasing. As usual at this time of year, the burning question is whether they will catch them and what they will do with them if and when they do. There is one more question. Why would a man like Pete Rose use friction pour le bain?
Back in his accustomed RBI groove after a dry spell, Johnny Bench rips a homer in St. Louis.
Joe Morgan does everything but the anthem.