Johnny Bench grinned through his exhaustion. His three-run homer last Wednesday night had helped the Cincinnati Reds beat the Montreal Expos, 7-2, and established him as the Reds' alltime home-run leader, surpassing Frank Robinson. It was the 325th homer of his career. Yogi Berra, with 358, is the only catcher with more.
"Now you'd like to catch Yogi?" he was asked.
"I'd just like to catch Houston," he replied.
The Astros are playing hard to get. Bench and the Reds have been chasing them since May 31. As Bench spoke, Cincinnati trailed Houston by a game and a half, although the Reds had won 23 of 35 games since the All-Star break. Houston. Cincinnati finds it darn near inconceivable that it's trailing Houston. What's Houston ever done? Where's Houston ever been—except in the second division. Houston's idea of a war cry is to shout cellarward: "Hail to the hindmost. Here we come!"
"Considering who's in first place, I'd say we're in pretty good position," said slugger George Foster. "In a sense, they're chasing us, since we've been there before and they haven't." There may be good reason for this disdain. Houston led the Reds by 10 games on the Fourth of July, but after last Sunday the margin was a mere half game. "I don't buy that line about being in a better position if you're behind," said Second Baseman Joe Morgan. "But when you've been 10 games down, and you've already cut that to next to nothing, you do feel you have a pretty good chance."
All Cincinnati has to do is continue playing as it did last weekend. On Friday night, while the Astros lost to the Phillies, Cincinnati edged the New York Mets 1-0 when Dave Concepcion doubled Morgan home with two out in the eighth. Bill Bonham and Tom Hume combined for the shutout. On Saturday they clanked like the Big Red Machine of old, scoring five runs in the ninth to overtake the Mets 8-4. Well, not exactly like the Big Red Machine of old. The deciding run scored as Heity Cruz put down a squeeze bunt on a 3 and 1 count with the bases loaded. On Sunday, Tom Seaver won his 11th straight game, a career high, extending his record to 13-5 as Cincy won again, 8-0. Seaver not only pitched a four-hitter but also drove in two runs with a double. Thus the Reds had won eight of their last nine games, and the folks in Houston had more than 90° weather to sweat about.
Nevertheless, despite the presence of Foster, Bench, Morgan, Concepcion, Dan Driessen, Cesar Geronimo and Ken Griffey, the Big Red Machine simply ain't no more. It is a thing of the past, like the Amazin' Mets and the Big Dodger in the Sky. Bench and Morgan are past their spectacular primes; Driessen and Geronimo have become merely average players; Griffey is out for the remainder of the year after knee surgery. Gone, too, are Tony Perez, Pete Rose, Sparky Anderson and almost the entire pitching staff. What's left is a mixture of the old, the new, the borrowed and the booed. But the mix works. In the past five weeks these diverse elements have fused into a pennant contender.
The Reds have been brought together by adversity. Indeed, the team began its surge after Foster, the league's leading RBI man the past three seasons, pulled a thigh muscle in the All-Star Game and went on the 15-day disabled list. The winning lineup began to take shape when Manager John McNamara moved Dave Collins, a 26-year-old speedster, to Foster's spot in leftfield. When Griffey was injured, Cruz went to rightfield, and now, with Foster back, he shares the position with Collins. The results have been astonishing. Cruz has hit .357 with 20 RBIs in his last 26 games. He also has five game-winning hits—one less than Bench and two more than Morgan, both of whom have three times as many at bats.
In Collins the Reds have a lead-off man who can hit better than .300 from both sides of the plate. Of course, Pete Rose could do that, too, but Collins can steal bases. But where to play Collins next year when Griffey returns may require a tough, if luxurious, decision—first base, where Collins has been replacing Driessen when a lefthander is pitching, or centerfield, which he would like to try despite a weak throwing arm, and where Geronimo now plays less than full time. Collins' .330 batting average, 114 points higher than last year's, has earned him a place somewhere. The outfield would seem ideal, given the offensive decline of Geronimo and Collins' 9.6 speed.
Wherever he plays, Collins has had enough of the bench. "Last year I pinch-hit 74 times for the club, and I'd think, 'I'm too young to be doing this,' " he says. "Now I've established myself as an everyday player, we're in a pennant race and I couldn't be happier. I don't think I'm going back to the bench."
Cincinnati's bench has long been considered the dead-letter address of the National League. Ray Knight batted all of 157 times in two seasons there, serving as Rose's late-inning defensive replacement. This year he has been his offensive replacement as well, batting .310 with 67 RBIs, 29 doubles and seven homers. "It's been a throwback to '75 and '76 as far as attitude is concerned," says Foster. "Guys like Collins and Knight are getting a chance to play, and they're excited about it. They're trying to prove they belong, and they're doing it. Sparky went with pretty much the same lineup every day, and when an injury made him use the bench, the subs didn't really feel like part of the team."
This year's bench is so important to the team that Cincinnati is being called McNamara's 25-piece band. And in this ensemble there are no second fiddles. "You've got to give the man credit because we've had so many injuries and he's still gotten the most out of everybody," says Paul Blair, who has been starting in center when the Reds face a lefthander. "That's the way Earl Weaver was in Baltimore. You've got to keep 25 guys as happy as you can."
Happiest of all are the starting pitchers, who are finally free from the whims of Captain Hook. Anderson was renowned for pulling a pitcher early, and his relievers—Clay Carroll, Pedro Borbon, Rawly Eastwick—didn't often let him down. McNamara has more patience, which means he either has more confidence in his starters or less confidence in his relievers. Or both. No matter, his method seems to have worked. The Reds' team ERA was ninth in the league last year; now it is third. Since the All-Star break, Bill Bonham has won four of five, and Seaver is Tom Terrific again. Redheaded Mike LaCoss, a tall, skinny 23-year-old who pitched in this season's All-Star Game one year to the day after his major league debut, has a 14-5 record. He could be the first pitcher to win 20 games for the Reds since the illustrious Jim Merritt in 1970. The fourth starter, Fred Norman, 37, the Silver Fox, has won 10 games, which no doubt pleases his minor league catcher and manager of 16 years ago, John McNamara.
Reliever Dave Tomlin believes that the manager's confidence in the starters is largely responsible for their improved performances. "You can't be effective if you're always looking over your shoulder to see who's coming to get you," he says.
The most improved pitcher is none other than Seaver, who has rebounded from a 16-14 record a year ago and a 2-5 start that made even him wonder if he was over the hill.
"We're getting very good pitching and good defense," Seaver says. "We're in every game now, and that's a sign of depth in the pitching staff. It helps everybody in the lineup, because they know when they come to the park they're going to be in the game. We're not a 1-0 team, that's for sure, but it's nice to know that when you only get one run, you still have a chance to win."
Seaver's contributions haven't been limited to his pitching performances. He recently told Hume, the mild-mannered reliever, to "be an animal" on the mound. To Hume that meant, "You have to be mean out there. Like an animal is. You know how animals are. You ever watch Seaver?"
The counsel seems to have helped. In his last 14 appearances, Hume has allowed only one earned run in 25‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings, getting eight saves and two wins in the process. But the Reds' bullpen is clearly not as strong as it has been in the past. Doug Bair, whose 15 saves are tops on the staff, has been struggling of late, and the Reds' record in one-run games is 23-26. The solution, of course, is to get a big lead, which the Reds have often been able to do. But where the Big Red Machine once cranked out homers and gobbled up pitchers, McNamara's band simply marches dutifully onward, one step at a time—left, right, left, right.
"Our power is somewhat diminished," says Bench, referring to the fact that the team has but 104 home runs so far. "We haven't had the real big innings. That makes it a lot harder to win, and makes timely hitting even more important. Lately, we've been getting it. But we haven't been very dynamic, that's for sure."
Cincinnati's longest winning streaks this year—three of them—have been five games, including last week's. But the longest losing streak was an undaunting four. While some may view this as a sign of consistency—three steps forward, two steps back, left, right, left—many Reds are disturbed that they have not pulled off an imposing string of wins. "There are no great teams in this division," says Morgan. "There are a number of good ones but no great ones. Great teams don't lose two World Series in a row. To be honest with you, even after losing Rose, I thought we'd be in first place. We would be if I was having a normal year."
Morgan has been having anything but. He has long been a favorite of Riverfront fans, but he has been booed repeatedly this year. After starting out well—he hit .330 the first six weeks of the season—Morgan injured an ankle and slumped miserably. Because it pained him to take his normal stride, he altered his swing, falling into such bad habits as pulling back and using too much top hand. Since the All-Star break he has hit a puny .185, dropping his average to .245. Last week the normally well-mannered Cincinnati fans were giving it to him. But he broke out of the 0 for 13, 6 for 48 slump by slapping a ball to right in a game against the Expos. Upon reaching first, he was greeted by his old friend Tony Perez.
"Want the ball?" Perez asked him.
"Sure, give me the ball," Morgan said.
Perez halted the game to retrieve the memento.
"I remember when Perez hit that homer in the seventh game of the 1975 World Series to bring us within 3-2," says Little Joe. "It felt like we were ahead. We knew we'd get some more. [It was Morgan himself who drove in the winning run with a two-out single.] With those teams of '75 and '76, when we were behind 2-0, it seemed like we were ahead. With this team, when we're down 2-0, it seems like we're behind."
Morgan was looking more like his old self when he went 7 for 15 last week. The flurry of hits followed a session with the Reds' mammoth batting instructor, Ted Kluszewski, who encouraged him to meet the ball further out front in order to get some snap into his drives. "I'm not a big guy," Morgan says. "The difference between me and other little guys is that I can generate power. But I have to use my legs. I'm not strong enough to hit the ball from the waist up. I can't pull off the ball and hit. All I need is a good game or two."
He had one last Friday. Clued in by Klu, Morgan drilled the ball to rightfield in the first inning for a double, his first extra-base hit in 13 games. Then, with two out in the eighth inning and the game scoreless, he singled sharply. Up stepped Concepcion, who had already made a sparkling bare-hand play in the field. He doubled to right, and Morgan, who can still run even if he can't always hit, scored the game-winner.
The Reds may not win with the well-lubricated ease of the Big Red Machine of yore, but right now they have just as much faith in themselves. "If we were as good as those teams of '75 or '76, we would already have proved it," says Bench. "We would have won a lot more games than we have. We played very sloppy early in the year and gave away six, seven, eight games. But right now things have fallen into place. With this club, it has to be a team effort. The important thing is to be in first place at the end of the season. It's not how much you're there by."
McNamara would certainly agree with that. "This club has a lot of character," he says. "We've had some embarrassing games, like opening day, when we committed five errors at home. Another time Los Angeles humiliated us 17-6. But the guys on this team know how to put yesterday behind them and play for today."
Embarrassment? Humiliation? Not McNamara's Band.
Ah-one and ah-two...
Oh, my name is McNamara, I'm the leader of the band,
Ta-tum-ta-tum, ta-tee-tee-tum, ta-tum in all the land.
Forgot the words, ta-tee-tee-tum, everyone lends a hand,
[Whistle].........It's McNamara's Band!
Bench, who slammed to a Reds home-run record, is a symbol of past Big Red Machine glory.
Collins may smile when Seaver picks up a bat, but he is most respectful of Tom's 11 straight victories.
Wherever he plays, Collins stirs up the dust.
Concepcion fits every conception of a topflight shortstop.
McNamara has provided a spark of his own by keeping the pitching staff happy and the bench busy.
LaCoss is an All-Star in just his second season.