The competitors have been tinkering resolutely, replacing worn-out parts, overhauling tired motors, installing steel-belted radials, but the Big Red Machine still looks like the best-engineered vehicle on this road. One thing that stands between it and another victorious drive home is a history of unplanned obsolescence. The Reds have not been able to put two good models back to back since 1939-40. In 1970 they won, then fell to fourth in '71. They dare not look back now, for the traffic could be much heavier this trip.
The Reds are not lacking in motivation. They desperately want to vindicate themselves for the World Series loss to Oakland, a team they foolishly underestimated. "Last year all I wanted was to get into the Series," says Joe Morgan, who had a brilliant season at second base. "This year I want to beat Oakland. I'd really enjoy that." Now if the A's will only cooperate.
The Reds have all the working parts once again, although some are not functioning quite as efficiently. Catcher Johnny Bench, who won his second Most Valuable Player award after hitting 40 home runs and driving in 125 runs, had a benign lesion removed from his lung in mid-December and may not be his usual sturdy self in the early going. "I'll catch as much as Sparky Anderson wants me to," he says, "but if he wants to put me at other positions once in a while to give me a little breather, that's fine, too."
Pitcher Gary Nolan won 15 games a year ago, but 13 of the wins were before the All-Star break. A muscle irritation in his right shoulder limited him to only six starts for the remainder of the season and he is not being included in the starting rotation. But in Roger Nelson, a righthander who came to the Reds from Kansas City along with Outfielder Richie Scheinblum for Wayne Simpson and Outfielder Hal McRae, Anderson has some insurance. Nelson had an ERA of 2.08 with Kansas City and he won 11 games, although he did not make his first start until June 30. He should fit comfortably into the starting rotation, along with Jim McGlothlin, Jack Billingham, Don Gullett and Ross Grimsley. They are ably supported by Relievers Tom Hall, Clay Carroll and Pedro Borbon.
Scheinblum may have trouble breaking into an outfield now occupied by Pete Rose, Bobby Tolan and Cesar Geronimo, even though Richie was a .300 hitter last year in the American League, where there are not many. All in all, the Reds look well prepared for another rewarding trip.
The Houston Astros should tailgate them along the way. They have moved Outfielder Bob Watson to catcher to make room in left for Tommy Agee, acquired from the Mets. Watson, who hit .312 last year, "Can turn this club around," says Manager Leo Durocher. "If he can catch, I can play Agee in left. This will give me a better defensive outfield with more speed and a better arm and it'll give me a powerful hitter [Agee] leading off." Agee should be happier in the Astrodome, too. He had complained of slippery wet grass at Shea Stadium. He won't have that excuse now.
The Astros have no shortage of hitters, with Cesar Cedeno (.320, 22 home runs, 82 RBIs) in center, Jimmy Wynn (.273, 24, 90) in right, Lee May (.284, 29, 98) on first and Doug Rader (.237, 22, 90) at third.
Durocher also plans to change from a five-to a four-man pitching rotation on the theory that more work will make better pitchers of Don Wilson, Larry Dierker, Jerry Reuss and, especially, Dave Roberts. Roberts pitched 78 fewer innings last year than he did in 1971 for San Diego and he apparently wasted away from disuse, winning only 12 with the second-place Astros after winning 14 with the lamentable Padres. Roberts' old manager, Preston Gomez, is now a Houston coach, and it was he who advised Durocher that "You gotta pitch this fellow every four days and just keep pushing him."
Atlanta may be pushing the Astros and the Reds before the season is too far along. The Braves were the busiest tinkerers of all in the off-season, negotiating blockbuster trades for the pitching help they have needed for so long. In addition to Pat Dobson and Roric Harrison from Baltimore, the Braves got Gary Gentry and Danny Frisella from the Mets and Jim Panther from the Texas Rangers, and they exchanged Pat Jarvis for Carl Morton of Montreal.
All this wheeling and dealing should bring some improvement to the deplorable pitching statistics of last year, when the Braves had a group ERA of 4.27 and served up 155 home runs. Dobson, a onetime 20-game winner, is probably the key man, although Gentry, Morton or Harrison could also wind up in the starting rotation along with Phil Niekro (16-12) and Ron Reed (11-15). Ex-Oriole Dave Johnson, who squabbled with Manager Earl Weaver through much of last season and was, consequently, in and out of the lineup, could become the cement in a porous infield. He hit only .221 during the time of his travail, but Manager Eddie Mathews is convinced he is "the kind of ballplayer who can bounce back."