Between chaws on his wad of gum and violent tugs on the visor of his scarlet cap, Manager Dave Bristol of the Cincinnati Reds can spout the longest stream of vintage bromides in baseball. "A win in April," he said only the other day with what seemed unassailable logic, "is just as important as a win in September." True enough, if this were 1968, or any earlier season. But it is 1969, and a Cincinnati win in this April of the new schedule will be more important than a win in this September. The Reds play nine of their first 11 games against the Giants and the Braves, their principal challengers. Come September and there may not be too many important games left for the Reds.
Fortunately for Bristol, his team seems primed for its best pennant run since 1964, when the Reds lost out to the St. Louis Cardinals on the final day of the season. Jim Maloney, their top pitcher who was unable to pitch in rotation until the first week of May last year, reported on time for a change and will be ready for Opening Day. Pete Rose, best batter in either league last season, says that another hitting title and a divisional championship will earn him a raise greater than the $15,000 increase he needs to become the first singles hitter to sign a $100,000 contract, and adds, "I'll get it, don't you worry."
Finally, Catcher Johnny Bench provides Cincinnati with superiority at perhaps the most important position on the field. When Luman Harris, the manager of catcherless Atlanta, was asked, "How good is Bench?" he could not answer. Instead, he gazed longingly out across the baseball diamond, dreaming, maybe, that Bench was a Brave.
Despite the Reds' advantages on paper, they certainly will not laugh their way to the pennant in this tougher division of the National League. San Francisco, the perennial Avis of baseball (four successive second-place finishes), has a new manager, pitching specialist Clyde King, who says he will not wait for home-run happenings. Instead, he will attempt to manufacture single runs whenever possible. His idea is that the little numbers will add up to a big No. 1 finish.
Atlanta needed a leader on the field, so Paul Richards, the general manager, acquired First Baseman Orlando Cepeda from the Cardinals. But to get Cepeda he had to strip himself of his catcher, Joe Torre. In recent years only the Baltimore Orioles have won a pennant without an established catcher. And now Cepeda may not be able to lead the Braves. It seems that Manager Harris not only dislikes stereo music in his clubhouse, he will not allow it. Cepeda had an extra locker stall to store the musical equipment that blared noisily at the Cardinals. Without his sounds in Atlanta, he may not qualify as a leader.
While the Reds, Giants and Braves quarrel among themselves, the Los Angeles Dodgers will sit cozily along the perimeter, ready to invade the big three at the first sign of weakness. Last year, when the Dodgers finished in a tie for seventh place, they called their season "Operation Bounceback." Presumably 1969 will be "Son of Bounceback."
The Houston Astros can only hope that the expansion San Diego Padres show proper respect for their elders and not attempt anything absurd, like finishing in fifth place, one step ahead of the Astros.
No matter which team wins in the division, its rewards may be thin if the pennant race is not tight. A repeat of last year, when St. Louis won the pennant by nine games, could be disastrous financially. The established teams in the West all have suffered severe decreases in home attendance the last few years. Cincinnati, for instance, was down to 733,354 paying customers in 1968 and had only four crowds over 20,000. In Los Angeles, the Dodgers' attendance for 1968 was off by more than one million from the pennant year of 1966. And in Houston, as one Astros player said this spring, "People have stopped coming just to see the Dome. Now they want to see baseball."
Attendance problems aside, Cincinnati will be the team to beat. A year ago the Reds dropped out of the pennant race on April 16, five games into the schedule, when it was time to begin the pitching rotation again. Their attack, led by Rose, was the most awesome in baseball, with six regulars hitting over .275. Their pitching staff, unled, was the worst in the National League. If Rose had been able to hit against his own pitchers in 18 games a privilege afforded each of his rivals, he might have hit .400—not just .335.
This year the Reds again have more than enough bats in their lineup, although General Manager Bob Howsam did dilute the attack by trading away Outfielder Vada Pinson and Shortstop Leo Cardenas. Rose, a centerfielder now, Bench, Infielders Tommy Helms, Lee May and Tony Perez and Outfielders Alex Johnson and Bobby Tolan not only are outstanding hitters, they all can run.