Strolling through the Cincinnati Reds' clubhouse at Riverfront Stadium last Sunday afternoon, relief pitcher Rob Dibble looked over at a gang of reporters clustered in front of a locker and yelled, "Hey, who are you all talking to?" Dibble was kidding; he knew exactly who was concealed somewhere down there in the midst of the media mass. It's just that at 5'7" and 165 pounds, including all the gold chains that always decorate his neck, Leon (Bip) Roberts—or the Bipster, as he is affectionately known among Reds fans—is easy to overlook. Unless, of course, you're seeking the most valuable player on a team that has led the National League West much of the season.
Earlier in the afternoon, after the Bipster had capped a 5-4, come-from-behind win over the St. Louis Cardinals with a two-run homer, his first for Cincinnati since arriving in the off-season from San Diego, his teammates mobbed him, and the crowd of 37,349 made him step out of the dugout for a curtain call. Nagged all year by injuries (the most serious of which is a sore right shoulder), Roberts has nevertheless started at four positions—29 games in leftfield, 25 at second, 20 at third and six in center—and has played three in a single game. What's more, he has been the Reds' best leadoff man since Pete Rose.
After only a few weeks of watching Roberts's gutsy play, his admiring teammates held a ceremony in which they presented him the BIP (Body In Pain) trophy. Roberts appreciated it almost as much as he did his selection to the National League All-Star team. "It's tough playing all those positions, plus dealing with being the leadoff hitter," the Bipster says. "It's physically draining. Anybody who says it isn't is not telling the truth."
Any one of the spots you don't particularly like, Bip?
"Yeah," says Roberts. "Third base. What if you're me and you look up and see Andre Dawson at the plate? How would you like that? He's liable to hit a rocket down there and knock me into left-field. But I feel comfortable every place else."
He wasn't comfortable in San Diego, though, where he fell out of favor with manager Greg Riddoch and complained that management had soured the atmosphere. But in Cincinnati, Roberts has been a perfect fit on an overachieving team that, with the exception of shortstop Barry Larkin, has no stars. Roberts arrived with a band of other newcomers who were brought aboard in the off-season's most dazzling display of wheeling and dealing, all of it orchestrated by general manager Bob Quinn. In lefthander Greg Swindell, rescued from oblivion in Cleveland, and righthander Tim Belcher, plucked from Los Angeles in the blockbuster deal that sent Eric Davis to the Dodgers, Cincinnati got two first-rate starters. And in Dave Martinez, obtained from the Montreal Expos, the Reds added a solid defensive outfielder.
Thanks largely to the newcomers, the Reds have so far played a lot more like the world champs of 1990 than the fifth-place chumps of '91. They have done it even though only Roberts and stopper Norm Charlton were named to the All-Star team and even though as of Sunday no Cincinnati player ranked among the league's top 10 in batting average, homers, RBIs, hits, total bases, walks, slugging percentage or extra-base hits. The Reds, whose victory on Sunday kept them a game ahead of the onrushing Atlanta Braves, have prospered because of the league's best defense (Cincy had a league-low 53 errors at week's end), excellent pitching and a batting order of line-drive hitters who know how to manufacture runs.
Says Larkin, "We have no big star in the clubhouse, just a lot of guys who are good and play together to win. We do the small things well—moving the runner to third, getting the bunt down, putting ourselves in position to win. That's the way the game should be played when you don't have a Detroit-type offense."
After an injury-riddled 20-20 start, the Reds got healthy and went on a 30-11 tear that put them in first place by six games. But the Braves went on a tear of their own in early July that put anxious Cincy fans on Reds alert. Even manager Lou Piniella seemed to be getting a bit panicky. After Cincinnati's last game before the All-Star break, in which the Pittsburgh Pirates overcame a 5-0 deficit to steal a 7-6 win, Piniella exploded over a Cincinnati Enquirer story in which reserve outfielder Glenn Braggs had said he wanted more playing time. Banging fists on his desk, Piniella screamed, "The thing that irks me is when I read things in the paper about people wanting to be traded. I'm tired of it. We've got too many players here busting their butts and playing as well as they can. If you don't want to play here, take your uniform and go home. And——it. How's that?"
Well, not bad, especially for early July. Over the All-Star break Piniella cooled off and apparently decided to take a calmer approach. Knowing that his players had been unnerved by the loss of lefty starter Tom Browning for the season (he ruptured knee ligaments while sliding into home in Houston on July 1) and by the in-again-out-again status of third baseman Chris Sabo (he injured an ankle in a play at first base in the second game of the season), Piniella was Mr. Upbeat going into last week's four-game series with the Cardinals. He dismissed the Braggs conflict as over and forgotten. "We've worked hard to put this team together," Piniella said, "and I don't like the distractions."