Sooner or later—preferably sooner—somebody should tell Ralph Nader about the new consumer crisis in Cincinnati. The trouble began last year when people from hundreds of miles around flocked to town to buy this hot new product called the Big Red Machine. It was a marvelous contraption, guaranteed to win pennants, wreck opposing pitchers and generally devastate the National League for years to come. But now, only a year after it first came on the market, the thing is beginning to look unsafe at any price. Instead of ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa, the now sound is more like ta-pocketa-clunk-clunk-sigh.
The sudden and premature demise of the Big Red Machine—otherwise known as the Cincinnati Reds—has been one of the puzzling developments of the season. Last week, as in the weeks before, the defending National League champions were floundering around down there only a step above the Western Division cellar. The Reds were so far behind San Francisco that their chances of a comeback seemed about as good as the Boeing SST's. Nobody had to remind Manager Sparky Anderson that at this time last year his team was some seven games ahead of the division. "I'm as surprised as anybody," is Anderson's stock reply every time a newsman brings up the delicate subject. "I never would have believed this if I hadn't seen it."
Around Cincinnati it is said that the Reds have not been the same without Centerfielder Bobby Tolan, who will now miss the entire season because he re-injured his Achilles' tendon just when there was hope that he would soon play again. Lefthander Jim Merritt is a problem. Last season he was 20-12; last week he was 0-7. Wayne Simpson, a 14-game winner as a rookie, is in Indianapolis searching for his arm. But blamed more often than any of these three for what is happening at Riverfront Stadium is the new stadium itself. Followers point out that last year's machine built its big early lead while playing in little old Crosley Field—a home run hitter's paradise.
"That's hogwash," says Anderson. "Sure, we miss Tolan. To me he was one of the top five players in our league last year. And we miss help from Merritt and Simpson, although our pitching staff hasn't given up any more runs than last year. The main thing is hitting. We're not hitting."
Indeed they are not. Shut out only once all last year, the machine has been blanked five times already. The Reds also have had 15 complete games thrown against them, indicating they have not exactly been knocking the ears off opposing pitchers. Except for First Baseman Lee May, the Reds' big guns—Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Pete Rose and Bernie Carbo—are shooting lots of blanks, especially with men on base.
Take Carbo. He hit .310 last season as a rookie and was being counted upon to compensate for the loss of Tolan. But his bat has been so impotent that the Reds had to rustle up Buddy Bradford to play center and Bradford is hitting .196.
Then there is Bench, last year's Most Valuable Player. He has 14 home runs, which is not bad, but his average dropped below .235 during a recent slump. Even more disturbing, Bench is not producing with men on base. Of his 14 homers, only six came with a man on—and none with two or three men on. In last week's three-game series at Pittsburgh, Bench was 1 for 12 and he left 12 runners stranded. "I'm not happy with the way I'm swinging," says Bench. "I started trying to hit to right field and I guess I tried too hard. Also, I've seen some awful good pitching this year."
Perhaps the most pitiful figure of all is Perez, the muscular Cuban third baseman. At the end of last May he was batting .376 with 18 homers and 53 RBIs. Now his average is .212 with six homers and 23 RBIs. "I just can't understand it," says Perez, who seems to be getting more confused and dejected every time he makes an out. "I feel great, but I can't hit."
Even Rose, the team's only $100,000 employee, is having problems, although he is not worrying. "It's this damned cold weather we've been having," says Rose. "I hit better in the warm weather because I stay looser. All I need is two or three hits in a few games and I'll be right back in there."
"I've never seen anything like it," says Reds Batting Coach Ted Kluszewski. "And I can't explain it, either. Originally, maybe, our guys were overswinging because they were trying to make up for the absence of Tolan. When you start overswinging you get in a slump and when you get in a slump it's the hardest thing in the world to get out of. But there's too much talent on this ball club for everybody to slump."