Jack McKeon made the vow publicly two months ago, a rash pledge
that the Cincinnati Reds' manager must keep or the world will
know he was just blowing smoke. McKeon declared that if the Reds
made it to 10 games over .500 in 1999, he would give up cigars.
For a veteran of half a century of baseball and of stogies, this
represents a supreme sacrifice. McKeon takes a cigar as
regularly as Reds shortstop Barry Larkin takes an extra base, as
evidenced by the stub he grabbed from an ashtray and relit at
9:30 last Saturday morning in the visiting manager's office at
the Astrodome. He puffs seven or eight a day and has a
preference for high-quality Churchills from the Dominican
Republic. So rest assured that his team's 8-1 laugher that
afternoon against the Houston Astros, which improved the Reds'
record to 40-31 and moved them to within one game of first-place
Houston in the National League Central Division, gave McKeon
"I said I'd quit at 10 games over," McKeon declared. "I didn't
say 11. We get it to 11 over, or if it goes back to nine, I'm
The next day the hot but temporarily nonsmoking ("At least not
in public," said McKeon) Reds completed their four-game sweep,
beating the Astros 5-2 as three pitchers combined to hold
Houston to five hits. In gaining its first-place tie,
Cincinnati, winners of seven straight and a remarkable 21 of its
last 25 on the road, simply kicked the Astros right in their
panatelas. During the series the Reds had, in addition to
Sunday's win, a combined one-hitter and a combined two-hitter,
and again they were saved by the most intriguing bullpen in
baseball, which gave up just two runs in 10 innings. In the four
games Cincinnati had 22 more hits and scored 16 more runs than
Houston. The Reds had four RBIs from league-leading batter (.387
through Sunday) and conversationalist Sean Casey. While they
were undressing the Astros, they even outdressed them. In a
Turn-Back-the-Clock promotion on Saturday, the Astros wore their
Crayola uniforms (circa 1975) with the horizontal orange, yellow
and red stripes--"Looks like they cut drapes and made shirts out
of them," McKeon said, loosing the interior decorator within.
But Houston must have set its Way Back Machine incorrectly,
because the Astros played like the Colt .45s (circa 1962) and
found out that nostalgia isn't what it used to be.
If the Reds dwelled on the past, they would not have been able
to forget the first three games of the season, when their
bullpen blew two save chances, had an earned run average of
10.13 and was cuffed for a .372 batting average. From that
humbling start, an unheralded and at times unhittable bullpen
has become the unlikely backbone of a team that is contending
despite disappointing contributions from marquee players such as
leftfielder Greg Vaughn, batting .215 at week's end (albeit with
17 homers and 45 RBIs), and winless lefthanded starter Denny
Neagle, on the disabled list for the second time this year
because of muscle weakness in his shoulder.
True, Reds starters Ron Villone (a converted reliever), Brett
Tomko and Steve Parris each went seven innings in consecutive
outings against the Astros. But righthander Pete Harnisch's
five-inning win on Sunday was more typical; members of the
Cincinnati rotation have been relative slackers, averaging only
5.34 innings, worst in the National League at week's end (chart,
page 47). Scott Sullivan was first, and Danny Graves and Scott
Williamson were tied for fourth, in innings pitched among
National League relievers. "It's tough to put so many things on
the pen," says Harnisch, "but they've been awesome." The
formula: Unless the bullpen gets lit up--Reds relievers led the
league with 18 victories, a 2.93 ERA and a .213 opponents'
batting average--their manager won't be able to light up with a
This is not, however, a glamorous outfit like the Nasty Boys,
the Reds' bullpen crew of the early '90s. This year's edition
has no bona fide closer, no bullpen hierarchy and no bullpen
culture, unless lively NASCAR debates and lefthander Dennys
Reyes's traditional third-inning bathroom break qualify as
culture. This is a rainbow coalition of relievers that draws its
strength from a diversity more profound than lefty-righty. They
come at hitters overhand (lefthander Gabe White), three quarters
(Reyes), sidearm (righthanders Sullivan and Stan Belinda). They
come with high-90s heat (Williamson, a righty), a low-90s sinker
(Graves, a righty), a baffling curve (Reyes). They come from as
far away as Mexico (Reyes) and Vietnam (Graves). They come in at
any time and often stay around for several batters, a refreshing
blow against baseball's rampant specialization. Mostly they come
with their own stories.
Sullivan, who grew up on a small dairy farm in Carrollton, Ala.,
was a walk-on at Auburn, a 6'3", 210-pounder who could barely
break the speed limit with his fastball until he dropped down to
sidearm. Saigon native Graves is the greatest pitcher to come
out of Vietnam, his father, Jim, who served in the Army, having
met and married his mother, Thao, who worked in the American
embassy, in the later years of the war. Williamson, a closer in
the making, learned his split-fingered fastball from Bruce
Sutter, the father of his catcher at Tulane and the man who
practically invented the pitch while saving 300 games in the
Sometimes their quirky stories veer toward myth. In 1985,
according to one such tall tale, eight-year-old Dennys Reyes,
the batboy for Guaymas of Mexico's Pacific Coast League, asked
the manager, Los Angeles Dodgers scout Mike Brito, if he would
one day sign him to play for the Dodgers, the way Brito had done
with Fernando Valenzuela six years earlier. Brito laughingly
replied, "I only sign lefthanders." As legend has it, little
Dennys, a righthander, had turned himself into a southpaw by the
time Brito saw him in a youth tournament a few years later.
In reality Reyes was throwing lefty even before he met Brito.
When he was four years old, he was horsing around with an uncle
who inadvertently yanked the boy's right arm too hard. As a
result, Reyes's right clavicle ended up higher than his left. "I
couldn't throw with my right hand anymore," says Reyes. His
father, Juan, who played first base for Guaymas, quickly
converted him into a lefthander. "My dad bought me a
lefthander's glove. He would train with me, have me throw 1,000
pitches with my left hand every day. Sometimes he would tie my
right arm behind my back because I was trying to use it anyway.
It took two years to learn how to do it." In the end Reyes was
in fact signed by Brito, who was impressed not so much by the
improbable righty-lefty transformation as by his tantalizing
While the Reds' relievers all come from various places, none has
traversed a path as difficult as Belinda's in the past 10
months. The nine-season veteran was activated last Friday for
the first time in 1999 and entered the game in the eighth inning
of Saturday's blowout, throwing 10 pitches in a one-two-three
inning that would have been routine if not for the extraordinary
circumstances: Belinda was making his first appearance since
learning last September that he had multiple sclerosis, a
degenerative neurological disease that can cause tremors,
blurred vision and, in its later stages, paralysis. (The
diagnosis was made in September after Belinda had experienced
hypersensitivity in his back caused by an inflammation of the
spinal cord.) On the mound on Saturday he was pulsating with so
much adrenaline that he had to keep reaching for the rosin bag
to dry his sweaty palms. "I was real proud of myself, real proud
of everybody who stood behind me the whole time," he said in the
clubhouse later, his face almost beatific in its calm and joy.
Belinda had come to spring training mistakenly thinking that he
had to beat MS instead of the hitters. He went too hard,
straining his arm. "[The illness] has taken its toll mentally,"
Belinda admits. "There are a lot of question marks, so unless
they find a cure for it...." His voice trailed off. "After a
while, you sort of get used to it. You have your [down] days. On
those days you go off and try not to bother anybody." In his
inning against the Astros, the 32-year-old Belinda felt like a
coddled rookie. Considering that each of the other five Reds
relievers began the season with fewer than three years of big
league service, a guy who wants nothing more than a chance must
have felt right at home.
Where the Reds feel at home is away from Cincinnati's Cinergy
Field. This was especially true last week when they swept the
National League West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks in a
three-game series at Bank One Ballpark and then beat up on the
Astros, giving Cincinnati a 26-10 mark away from home. (The
Reds' record at Cinergy was 15-21.) The phenomenon of their road
record, like the success of an Adam Sandler movie, has been
widely noted though inadequately explained. Reds second baseman
Pokey Reese observes knowingly that if the Reds wind up as the
wild-card team, they will open the postseason on the road. "I've
never seen a Reds team play like this since I've been in this
organization," says Reese, who was signed by Cincinnati in 1991
and is now getting to play every day, in his third major league
season, because the Reds traded Bret Boone to the Atlanta Braves
in the off-season for, among others, Neagle. Through Sunday,
Reese had committed just one error and was hitting .301. "We
feel we can win with the guys we have," says Reese.
General manager Jim Bowden is planning to sit down around the
All-Star break and ponder that possibility. If the Reds continue
to play with friskiness, however, he hardly dares commit a
Reinsdorf by dumping big-ticket salaries such as Vaughn's ($5.6
million) and starting to rebuild for 2003, when Cincinnati's new
stadium is scheduled to open. These Reds have a shot. They have
some power, a bullpen, a superior double-play combination in
Larkin and Reese, and the happiest man in America--Casey. The
first baseman, who at week's end ranked in the league's top five
in six offensive categories, is a lock for Most Voluble Player.
For him, the game is simply a chat room at
www.wowthisisgreat.com. In April the 24-year-old, who grew up in
suburban Pittsburgh, was reported to have had the following
conversation with Al Martin after the Pirates outfielder reached
Casey: A huge thrill to meet you, Mr. Martin. I'm from Upper St.
Clair. I'm a big fan.
Martin: Well, kid, nice to meet you. Now do you mind, I'm trying
to steal second.
Casey: If anyone can do it, Mr. Martin, you can.
"I don't remember it quite that way," said Casey on Saturday,
chortling. "I think I said, 'Good luck.' Or something."
The story was close, but no cigar.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Goal plated On Sunday the mighty Casey (6 for 14 against the Astros) scored during the decisive rally.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Heat and heart In Houston, flamethrower Williamson (above) dropped his ERA to 1.56, while Belinda made a relieved return.
The Pen That Is Mightiest
The bad news for the Reds: At week's end their starters had
averaged the fewest innings of any rotation in the National
League. The good news: Cincinnati's relievers have been so
effective that the team continues to win anyway. The chart below
shows the National League teams that have needed the most relief
and proves how valuable the Reds' pen has been. --David Sabino
Team Pitched Per Start ERA Team W-L, PCT.
Reds 5.34 2.93 41-31, .569
Cardinals 5.52 4.64 37-38, .493
Marlins 5.60 4.90 26-49, .347
Brewers 5.66 4.56 34-40, .459
Rockies 5.71 5.81 34-37, .479