And so the tenuously front-running Reds and the inconspicuously tough-hanging Giants met last weekend at Riverfront Stadium in a National League West shakedown—or, if you will, an early pennant-race screening of WCRP (Won't the Cream Rise, Please) in Cincinnati. The Reds maintained their durable (66 straight days), if delicate, grip (three games over San Francisco) on the division by winning two of three. The two clubs have nine games left against each other, including four this weekend in San Francisco, and the one that plays with the most consistency is sure to win the race. But agreement on that score from players on both sides was about the only consistency in evidence at Riverfront.
This was mildly disconcerting to Cincinnati and its manager, the record-breaking King of Consistency, Pete Rose. While punchless Houston and disabled-bodied San Francisco have slogged along, the Reds have squandered every opportunity to bury the pack. Since their 18-8 start through May 5, they have gone 38-41. Yet when Cincinnati has needed to win to stay in first place, it has. Seven times since going in front to stay on May 29 its lead has slipped to one game or less. Says Reds third baseman Buddy Bell, "One characteristic of this team—and I don't know if you'd call it good or bad—is that when we have to go out and win a ball-game, we do."
At times the Reds are jaw-slackeningly awesome; at others, curiously lax. "They think they can overcome any deficit, and it's damn near true," says Giants catcher Bob Brenly. "I get the feeling it's no big deal to them if you score eight runs. They'll just get 10." Rose, who has ripped the Reds for "lifeless-ness," unintentionally underlined his club's inside-out nature with a couple of utterances last week. "The only time we look bad is when we face good pitching," he said one day. And then the next: "The only time we look bad is when we get bad pitching."
Perhaps an imprint of Rose's own in-the-clutch toughness is what has carried the Reds this far. Last Friday, with the lead at two games, Cincy rallied from down 2-0 with a broken-bat, inside-the-park homer by Eric Davis and a back-breaking three-run shot by Bell for a 9-2 win. Then with the pressure off on Saturday, the Reds let the Giants roll over them 7-3. In the Sunday finale, the Reds won 5-4 on an 11th inning homer by Davis. It was the 14th time the Reds have won a game on their final at bat.
Instilling the sacred trinity he believed in as a player—victory, consistency and love of the game—has been a rough act for Rose. Cincinnati, after all, is an incomplete team, making do with a starting staff whose ERA is 4.99, and doing without a second baseman, a leftfielder and an erstwhile ace, all of whom are on the disabled list. While three regulars have more than 2,000 career hits each, four others have fewer than 400.
But through it all, Rose has proved himself adaptive, receptive and, heavens to headfirst slides, sensitive. "I don't know if it's the way he's handled players as much as the way he's shaped the team," says pitcher Tom Browning. "All anybody cares about here is playing baseball. Just like Pete did." And, if the occasional sight of old number 14 in the batting cage is any indication, like Pete may do again. For now, though, here's the way the Reds are managing—and being managed—by Peter's Principles.
"If the machine is running good, I don't mess with it. If it starts missing, I mess with it."
Out of necessity, most of Rose's tinkering has been with his pitching staff. When Mario Soto reinjured his shoulder early this year, the Cincinnati Kid was stuck without an ace and has had to improvise. Only Bill Gullickson (10-8, 4.75 ERA) and Ted Power (8-5, 4.32) have stayed in the rotation all year. Rose converted two relievers, Guy Hoffman (7-6) and Ron Robinson (4-3), and Browning (5-8, 6.77), a 34-game winner the past two years, was dispatched briefly to Triple A for an attitude rehab.
The more drastic moves were made only after Rose ran out of other options. Says Rose's dugout assistant Tommy Helms, "The biggest thing that's surprised me about Pete as a manager is his patience, especially with pitching." No doubt that patience is buoyed by a bullpen Rose calls "the best in the world." The closer is John Franco (7-3, 1.75, 18 saves), and his setup men are Rob Murphy, a lefty, and Frank Williams, a righty, each of whom has appeared in more than half of the Reds' 103 games. The average Cincinnati starter is finished after the fifth inning.
"You'd expect a team I have to be offensive-minded. I wasn't exactly a .240-hitting-type player."