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Refurbished And Realigned

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Ah, things were back to abnormal with the reds this spring. Owner Marge Schott forced her front-office personnel to drive their own cars from Cincinnati to Plant City, Fla., in order to save on airline and rental-car expenses. Then she threw an elaborate birthday party for her Saint Bernard, Schottzie 02. Centerfielder Bobby Kelly changed his name back to Roberto, saying, "That Bobby guy was always hurt." And when The Today Show movie critic Gene Shalit walked through the clubhouse recently, leftfielder Kevin Mitchell asked, "What's Albert Einstein doing here?"

All of this should be good news to Cincinnati fans. Last year, while Schott was away, the Reds played badly. Injuries had a lot to do with that, of course. The projected starting eight played .750 ball, but they played only four games together. Dave Johnson replaced Tony Perez as manager after only 44 games, but he could do nothing to stop the bleeding, and the club finished fifth. All pitcher Jose Rijo could get out of a 2.48 ERA in 257 innings was 14 victories.

So the Reds had a busy off-season. They acquired starter Erik Hanson and second baseman Bret Boone from the Mariners for a couple of prospects, added middle relievers Chuck McElroy and Jeff Brantley and picked up utility player Lenny Harris. Johnson named three new coaches, including Bret Boone's dad, Bob. On Nov. 1 Schott officially returned, having served a year's sentence for racial insensitivity. In addition, several Reds declared themselves new men. Johnson vowed to tighten the ship. Reliever Rob Dibble said, "I'm tired of my own act." Even Mitchell, who has never been mistaken for Einstein, did the smart thing and lost 15 pounds.

Cincinnati has nothing if not depth in its pitching staff: 17 pitchers in camp had major league experience. With Rijo, Hanson and John Smiley, who has recovered from elbow problems, the Reds have a pretty good 1-2-3 punch in the rotation. Dibble is still expected to be the closer, but he has tendinitis in his right shoulder. The job could fall to Hector Carrasco, who throws in the high 90's and has finally developed some control after bouncing around the minors.

Top to bottom the Reds have the most potent lineup in the division. Their only worry was third base, where rookies Willie Greene and Tim Costo were battling it out most of the spring. Who won the battle? Why, Tony Fernandez, the shortstop of the world champion Blue Jays, of course. Cincinnati signed the unwanted free agent for a mere $500,000, plus incentives, three weeks before Opening Day. Fernandez had to wait another week while he cleared up a visa problem. Actually, it was new National League president Leonard Coleman who solved the problem when he made a few calls to friends in the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Said Johnson, "That new commissioner got it done."

No, baseball's top job has not been filled yet. But come October, the Reds will probably fill the NL Central's top spot.

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PHOTO

JOHN IACONO

One of the new additions is a Boone to the infield.