That regiment of unknown soldiers, baseball's bench warmers, is thrilled with the performance of the Cincinnati Reds' Ray Knight. For years he was willing to work hard and wait. He studied pitchers. He bantered in the dugout. He signed autographs for fans who had no idea who he was. All he needed was a chance. Now Ray Knight is having the kind of season he always dreamed of and knew he would have.
Knight's .307 batting average and slick fielding have eased the anguish Cincinnati fans felt over the departure of Pete Rose, the legend he replaced at third base. And the newcomer's brash, pugnacious attitude is well suited to his position. Altogether, Knight has played a significant role in the Reds' climb to a spot only 3½ behind division-leading Houston. He has played through a variety of injuries, figuring that physical pain is nothing compared to the mental distress he felt on the sidelines. And he has acquitted himself well in two fights, one with the Los Angeles Dodgers' Derrel Thomas, the other with Houston's Cesar Cedeno. People are beginning to call Knight a team leader. Says Catcher Johnny Bench, "This year is the 10th anniversary of the walk on the moon. Ray's been in orbit all year."
Last week the 26-year-old Knight was showing no reentry symptoms. The week began with a "day" for him at home in Albany, Ga., where he received the keys to the city, and a record crowd of 500 fans showed up to watch his old team, American Legion Post No. 30, play. On Thursday night in St. Louis he hit a grand-slam home run and had a total of six RBIs against the Cardinals. The homer so elated Reds President Dick Wagner, catching the game on TV back in Cincinnati, that he jumped straight into the air. Last winter Wagner was the designated ogre in the Rose-Reds divorce proceedings when he failed to meet Rose's contract demands. Knight's performance, coming after two years of inactivity on the bench, helped change Wagner's image from penurious to perspicacious.
Just a few months ago Knight's middle name was Who? Now he is beginning to trip over reporters. For most of the season he has been hitting over .300 while getting injured time and again. His teammates call him Battlescar Galactica. The injuries began with a sprained right ankle three days before the end of spring training that caused him to miss opening day. That was followed by a tendon-injury in his left foot. Then a calcium deposit was discovered in his left thigh. He pulled a groin muscle, but stoically played on. He didn't miss another game until he sprained his left thumb. On returning to the lineup he sprained the thumb again and had to sit out five games. In spite of all this, plus cortisone shots and the bruises that go with the position, Knight has missed only nine games all year. The only place he limps is in the clubhouse.
Injuries aren't new to Knight; he was struck in the head by a line drive while pitching batting practice in the minors. And had he not broken an ankle playing football in high school, he might not have needed the nine years it took him to become a major league starter. The shattered ankle had to be put back together with four screws. From then on his speed was gone and scouts started asking about the size of his hands. They began wondering if he could pitch.
Last Christmas, after the Reds returned from a trip to Japan, Knight's family gathered at his parents' farm in Albany for a Softball game. Knight was diving for balls, sliding into bases and generally behaving as if this were the World Series. ("I'm a gung-ho guy," he says.) Finally his father, Charlie, a supervisor for the Albany Parks Department, told Ray that he had to be more prudent. "I've always been a rough kid," concedes Knight, who stands 6'2" and weighs 185 pounds. "I go hard even if we're behind 10 to nothing. I don't know how to play easy." Rose, another headstrong athlete, once told Knight that if he were a manager, he would want the youngster on his team.
A Mormon, Knight doesn't drink, smoke or even indulge in coffee or cola. Of course, Superman has the same sort of lifestyle.
Knight's aggressiveness is inherited from his father, as is much of his athletic skill. Charlie Knight drilled him for hours at a time as a youngster, hoping that Ray would become a major-leaguer. Charlie Knight followed the same routine with his daughters, Laverne and Kay. Laverne became a fine softball player. Though she is 38 years old now and the mother of five, her brother says, "She can field ground balls almost as well as I can. And Kay is a good hitter."
Other players have struggled up from the minors and by dint of hard work become excellent players. (Both Maury Wills and Eddie Stanky were 26 when they made it to the big leagues.) Knight hasn't stopped honing his baseball skills in Albany. He still lives there, and he has a homemade batting cage in his backyard. Last winter his wife, Terri, fed balls into the pitching machine while Ray swung away. He and his good friend, Harry Spillman, a reserve who Knight beat out for the Rose job, went through about a dozen bats, hitting three to four hours a day. Knight also lifted weights, ran, threw, jumped rope and did isometrics and stretching. When the Reds played in Japan last year, Knight fielded 68 ground balls in practice one day. Bench asked him why. "I've got nothing else to do," he said.
When Bench first saw Knight, the Georgian was a minor-leaguer with little promise of making the bigs. "They said he had good hands," Bench recalls. "I said, 'Well, that's all he's got.' But he worked hard."
Playing behind Rose the last two years, Knight rarely got into games except as a late-inning defensive replacement; he had just 65 bats last year to Rose's 655. He can quote his spring-training batting averages for the last few years, spring games being the only ones in which he got to play regularly. With the Reds he batted a respectable .261 in 1977, then slipped to .200 last season, a woeful time that he describes as "wilting" and "rusting." Things were so bad that he developed a sore arm but was afraid to tell anyone about it, and he made a lot of throwing errors. He felt Manager Sparky Anderson didn't like him. "Which I couldn't understand, because no one worked harder than I did," says Knight.
With Rose's departure, the understudy finally got his chance, and he didn't botch it. In the first game he started, he went two for three. "Hey," he said to himself, "I can hit." Now the writers have stopped asking him if the bubble will burst. "I used to think about that, but no more," he says. "I've got my confidence now."
For the first time he also has a bargaining position. He is the lowest-paid member of a starting unit that probably averages about $225,000 a man in salary. Knight makes one-fifth of that, and there are several substitutes on the club who earn double his pay. He drives a 3-year-old sedan. After his next contract negotiations with Dick Wagner, he may move out in something a bit snappier, perhaps something on the order of a Rolls or a Porsche. Just like Pete Who.