Oh, did Reds fans cheer when rightfielder Dave Parker and third baseman Nick Esasky came to bat in spring training. Esasky (6'3", 200 pounds) and Parker (6'5", 230) are important symbols to an image-conscious team that has finished last for two straight seasons. Ex-Pirate Parker hopes to regain his MVP form after three straight disappointing years. "He was becoming what we call a defensive offensive hitter," says new Reds manager Vern Rapp. "We want him to stop inside-outing and start getting the bat head out front." At the very least Parker will take pressure off Esasky, who led the attack after reporting from Indianapolis last June. Esasky had 12 homers and 46 RBIs but had more strikeouts than hits (99-80). "I do all right when I just keep swinging and don't think too much at the plate," says Esasky, who batted a thoughtless .579 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, near his winter home.
Promising symbols abound in Cincinnati. There's Tony Perez, late of the Phillies, earlier a mainstay of the championship Reds. Perez was reacquired to hit homers, spell Dan Driessen at first and provide leadership. There seems to be a new, improved Rapp, too—the antithesis of the uncompromising fellow who managed the Cardinals in 1977 and was fired in April of '78. Now he asks players if they'd mind trying position shifts. And there's Bob Howsam, the new-old chief executive, who has reversed his own conservative policy by signing Parker to the club's first notable free-agent contract ($1.5 million for two years) and making righthander Mario Soto the richest Red ever ($6 million for five years).
But are these changes more symbolic than real? The Reds have little more than a popgun attack. "You have to manage with what you've got," says Rapp. "We need to improve our base running, RBI production and ability to move up runners." And the pitching features the all-too-familiar cast of players labeled "promising" or "recovering from an arm injury." By their own admission, Bruce Berenyi (9-14 last season) and Frank Pastore (9-12) often are their own No. 1 enemies on the mound. To be sure, Bill Scherrer (2.74 ERA, 10 saves) did nicely, and 22-year-old Jeff Russell will strengthen the rotation. The estimable Soto lasted at least five innings every start and had more complete games, strikeouts and innings pitched than Cy Young Award winner John Denny.
Recently, Soto watched a teammate hit off a pitching machine. "It's amazing what those things can do," he marveled. "They go inside, outside, changeup." But unless his fellow pitchers do the same, the only Big Red Machine in Cincinnati will be Iron Mike.
Cincy's .239 batting was the worst in the majors. Dan Driessen led the club with a .277 average, Ron Oester was tops in RBIs with 58, and rookie Gary Redus was No. 1 in homers with 17. Nonetheless, Mario Soto (2.70 ERA, 242 strikeouts) was 17-13, and the Reds had 13 more wins than in '82, the most improvement in the league.