When they win they refer to themselves as The Big Red Machine, as in, "The Big Red Machine won again. Let's hear it for the machine! Yeah, machine!" When they lose.... But that's the point. When do they lose? A straining National League has been asking itself the question through spring and into early summer. As of last weekend the Cincinnati Reds were 32 games above .500 and 9½ games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The longest losing streak they had known all season had stopped at two.
Now, the Dodgers are a good baseball team. Were they in the Easy, Easy East this year they would be running away from all those Metsies, Pirates, Cubbies and Cardinals. But they are in the West, and their view of the pennant race is not remarkably different from the one greeting visitors to Cincinnati: a forest of BIG RED MACHINE stickers pasted on the rear of what seems like every car in town.
Not since 1955 and the old Brooklyn Dodgers has a club in, traditionally, baseball's tightest league entered the month of July playing over .700 ball. Yet last week, as the Reds transferred from Crosley Field to their new home in Riverfront Stadium, the San Francisco Giants, who had not begun their desperate flight to (as always) second place, were so far out of the race that their franchise was barely breathing, and supposedly contending Houston was 20 games out of first place. Most of baseball was in awe of the machine, and well it should be. At a time when expansion has obviously thinned out the talent in the majors the Reds have arrived with a busload of stars. By last weekend they had hit 110 homers. Tony Perez, with 27, and Johnny Bench (see cover), with 25, are close to the pace that Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle set back in 1961 when they collected 115 between them. Perez is known as a big RBI man, having driven in 122 runners in 1969 (he has 84 so far this year), but Bench, at 22, is now in the same class. Not only can he hit, but he is a superb fielding catcher. Only 16 bases have been stolen against Bench and his infrequent substitute, Pat Corrales, this year. They have thrown out 20 runners. An aggressive running team counts on succeeding in at least two out of every three attempted steals. "When John Bench throws," says Harry Dalton, the director of player personnel of the Baltimore Orioles, "everybody in baseball drools."
As a matter of fact, it is the Reds who have been stealing the bases. Ted Williams, a close observer of talent and styles, noted the other day, "Sure they can hit. Anybody can see that. But what most people do not realize is how well the Reds run." Pete Rose always seems to be sliding headfirst into some base, and Bobby Tolan, the .300 hitting centerfielder, has stolen 26 bases.
Wes Parker of the Dodgers, a realist, examined the plight of his club recently and said, "It's possible for Cincinnati to be caught, but someone else is going to have to start beating them. We're not going to take them down alone. We've jelled now, but a lot depends on how well they stay together. They got out quick and good and we've yet to have our run."
Last week the Reds opened their new stadium to a crowd of 51,050, the largest ever to see a sports contest in Cincinnati, and next week the team will play host to the annual All-Star Game. After that, the Reds must face up to the most trying part of their season, one that will test a pitching staff that some consider still questionable. Beginning on July 16 they play 27 games in 25 days. The experience could be excruciating.
One Dodger who thinks the schedule might prove too much for the Reds is Claude Osteen, a thinking man's pitcher. "Their pitching has been great to date," he said last week, "but I felt that the last time we faced them it was starting to fade a bit. Their pitchers weren't as sharp; they didn't have as much control as they had the first time we faced them. We had a clubhouse meeting to talk over what could be done about catching them and we decided we're going to have to play our game and forget what they're doing. When it's all over we'll look up and see who's in first."
Osteen believes that the move to Riverfront Stadium from cozy little Crosley Field with its short fences could hurt the Reds. "They're a power club and power is great in the big-scoring games. But when things are tight, power hitters begin to press and are not always consistent. You're going to see a tremendous number of one-run games, and those cheap shots over that left-field fence will be gone. This will bother them. The closer games make your approach to pitching to a batter totally different."
The other day Manager Sparky Anderson was sitting in his accustomed seat—front row, right-hand side—on the team bus, and smiling his accustomed smile as he thought about his club. "It's a young team," Anderson said, "and this has helped our rookies to come along as well as they have. Most of the veteran players have not been around so long that they've forgotten the problems a rookie has to go through. I suppose a lot of people were surprised when I named Rose the captain of the team as my first move. The Reds hadn't had a team captain in nearly 40 years, but I thought that Rose deserved it. I don't think I have ever seen anyone who loves to play baseball as much as Pete does. He's always looking, listening and learning, and he can be a manager if he wants to when he is through playing. I feel the same way about Bench. To me it is an enormous thrill just to be able to manage Johnny Bench, and I really get a kick out of him. He calls me John McGraw."
At 36, Anderson is the youngest manager in the major leagues; in five seasons of handling teams in the minor leagues he never had a losing record. His intent this spring was to get the Reds into first place by the time the club moved to Riverfront. "I believe," he said at the time, "that if we can go into our new ball park in first place the excitement and enthusiasm of the fans in the new park will help keep us there."