"It seemed like every time I got to the mountaintop, something would knock me off," Thompson says. "Those disappointments mellowed me out, and I came into this year with a better idea of my limits."
The sky, for instance. Throwing a 92-mph fastball, a nasty curve and a changeup, Thompson was limiting opponents to a .223 average (fifth best in the league) after last Saturday's 1-0 loss to the Expos, which left him 6-5. He has pitched at least seven innings in his last eight starts and recently ran off 20% consecutive scoreless innings. Says Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, "After Randy Johnson, he's the best lefthander in the American League."
The phenomenon began innocently enough in the Reds' clubhouse before a game in April when reliever Stan Belinda noticed Ricky Bones, who was then his teammate, carrying a chessboard. Belinda challenged him to a game. Righthander Jeff Brantley strolled over to watch and asked to play the winner. In the ensuing weeks teammates Mike Kelly, Joe Oliver, Eduardo Perez and Mike Remlinger joined the action, and Kent Mercker picked up the game for the first time. In all, about a dozen Cincinnati players have caught chess fever, including Deion Sanders, who can sometimes be spotted castling as he seeks to transform himself into a three-sport star.
Last season the Reds' clubhouse was an arcade full of portable video games and deafening music. This season it is often as hushed as a library while as many as half a dozen battles are waged at once. Says Remlinger, "Pretty soon we're going to have a cappuccino maker in the clubhouse, and we're all going to be drinking café lattes."
The team's de facto chess commissioner is Belinda, who was introduced to the game at age six by his father, Stan Sr. By the time young Stan reached the fourth grade, he was the chess champion of Park Forest Elementary in State College, Pa., regularly checkmating older students. Belinda has continued to dabble in chess during his nine-year major league career, and he sees parallels between his two passions. "In chess you're always setting up your opponent, thinking two or three moves down the road," says Belinda, a setup man who at week's end was second in the majors with 37 appearances this season. "As a pitcher I might throw an inside fastball so that two pitches later I can strike a guy out with a slider on the outside corner."
As the undisputed grandmaster of the team, Belinda has defeated all challengers, which has led his teammates to begin calling him Bobby Fischer. "I don't think I'm ready to take on Deep Blue quite yet," Belinda says. "But for now at least, I'm the chess champ in Cincinnati."
The King of the Queen City.