Tony Perez was hanging around the batting cage last Saturday at Riverfront Stadium, as he has for lo these many years, kibitzing this time with a bunch of former Reds players while they took some clanking swings before one of those old-timers' games that have been proliferating lately. Perez had his arm around old teammate Johnny Bench as old teammate Doug Flynn stepped into the cage. "You call him an old-timer?" Perez inquired in mock astonishment. Flynn, an infielder on the Big Red Machine Cincinnati teams of '75 and '76 is, in fact, only 35, nine years younger than Tony, who's still out there playing with today's big leaguers. Bench, who himself is six years younger than Perez, nodded in sad acknowledgement. Then Flynn, smiling, responded to his tormentor between swings. "Doggie," he said, addressing Perez by the nickname that has tagged along with him for years, "next year, you'll be one of us."
And so he will, for Perez had already announced, on Aug. 11, that he would close out his magnificent 23-year career (16 in Cincy) at the completion of this season, a decision he reached with some gentle prompting from his employers and after much, mostly disagreeable, speculating by outsiders. So last Sunday, before an otherwise meaningless game with the Dodgers, Cincinnati fans 38,747-strong turned out to honor him. Perez strode across a red carpet that stretched from an opening in the rightfield fence to a sort of reviewing stand at second base. He was saluted by, among others, former managers Sparky Anderson (on tape) and Dave Bristol and former teammates Joe Morgan (on tape) and Bench. Perez doffed his cap to the responsive crowd and, struggling to contain his emotion, said, "Gracias, amigos. I love you, my friends." He then went 1 for 2 in the Reds' 8-4 victory.
Perez leaves behind some Hall of Fame-caliber numbers—2,765 games (as of Sunday), 2,718 hits, 378 homers and 1,639 RBIs (13th on the alltime list). Eleven of the 12 players who have more RBIs than Perez are in the Hall of Fame, and the other one, Carl Yastrzemski, isn't only because he won't be eligible until 1988.
Chances are, Perez won't be the only Big Red Machinist to turn in a Cincinnati uniform after this year. Shortstop Davey Concepcion, a Red for all of his 17 big league seasons, is talking free agency. His contract expires this year, and Pete Rose's infield, except first base, is set for next year ( Buddy Bell at third, Barry Larkin at short, Ron Oester at second). The Reds are no longer willing to pay an aging utilityman the money (nearly a million dollars) Concepcion made this year. Rearranging his cluttered locker before the Dodger game last Saturday night, he seized upon the symbolism of his actions. "You see," he said, "I'm packing already. No, that's not right. I'm just fixing up some things.... Oh, I've been joking around a lot lately, saying I'm going to leave, but I don't know what my reaction will be if I have to. I've worn this uniform for so many years, and the people in this city have been so good to me."
Rose, for sure, will be back next year as the manager. But as a player? He's not saying yet, and he certainly had no intention of raining on Perez's parade Sunday with a retirement announcement of his own. Yet he hasn't put himself in a game since Aug. 17. He has played in only 72 games and is hitting an embarrassing .219. There are also times when he will let slip a clue in conversation: "Now when I was playing...."
He insists, however, that he has pondered his own playing future along with everyone else's in a season that has been a bitter disappointment to him. Rose, along with a lot of people, thought his team could win it all. "If I have to become strictly a pinch hitter next year, I can make that adjustment," he says. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens. My job is to come north with the best 24 players."
For all of their noble statistics (9,167 hits among them), Rose, Perez and Concepcion have become little more than distinguished anachronisms on this team. Saturday's 9-5 win over the Dodgers, which snapped a four-game losing streak, presaged the future, since it was virtually an all-rookie production. With the score 5-5, Larkin, who even Concepcion concedes is the shortstop of the future, led off a seventh-inning rally with a single. He scored the winning run on a pinch double by outfielder Kal Daniels; then Rob Murphy, in relief, retired nine straight Dodgers to get the win, his third without a loss.
Still, the best player on the team for years to come should be the 24-year-old outfielder, Eric Davis. In his second semi-full season, Davis joined the select company of Morgan and Rickey Henderson, the only players ever to hit more than 20 homers and steal more than 60 bases in a season. Davis joined them on his 297th at bat. He didn't even become a full-time starter until mid-June, when he was hitting only .214. At week's end, and in only 380 at bats, he was hitting .287, with 26 homers, 73 stolen bases and 89 runs scored.
The young Reds lament, as baseball people everywhere do, the passing of the old order in Cincinnati. But the new kids in town have plans of their own. As little Judy Garland once told young Mickey Rooney, "Hey, let's put on a show!" Daniels sees it this way: "They tell us that we're the future. So we'll just have to rebuild the Big Red Machine our way." One of the old-timers, at least, will be steering.