In his suffering he was visited by a ghost. "Ooooh," moaned Sparky Anderson, staring at the specter beyond the upturned faces of his interviewers, "if Branch Rickey was alive today to see that play...." He shook his head in lament. Then he rose from his chair, something of an apparition himself in underwear and shower clogs, brandishing a half-eaten ham sandwich, and he seemed to address the spirit of the old Flatbush Mahatma directly. "Yes, that's right," he said to the wall of his office. "In a situation like that, when the runner is picked off clean, you show him the ball, and if he doesn't stop, you throw. Simple as that, eh?" Anderson laughed, a Pagliacci in briefs. "If Mr. Rickey had been alive today and seen that play, it would've killed him."
The play Anderson had in mind indeed would have done in the old Dodger boss. After all, Anderson, manager of the Cincinnati Reds and a Rickey disciple, barely survived it himself, typical though it may have been of the Reds' dolorous season. In the third inning of a critical game last week before the usual packed house in Los Angeles, Fred Norman, the plucky if star-crossed Reds' lefthander, spotted Dodger base runner Davey Lopes napping off first base and threw to Dan Driessen. A perfect pick-off play? No, more like opéra bouffe. Driessen threw the ball to Second Baseman Joe Morgan, who returned it to him as the fugitive Lopes skittered between them. Driessen shoveled the ball to Shortstop Dave Concepcion, who tossed it again to Morgan, who flipped it underhand and low to a fifth member of the Cincinnati comedy act, Third Baseman Pete Rose, who dropped it. Everyone in and about the infield, with the exception of Catcher Johnny Bench, had handled the ball, and still Lopes had reached second base safely.
From there, Lopes was sacrificed to third by Bill Russell and brought home by Reggie Smith's single to left. So Lopes scored the only run of the game, pinned yet another defeat on the Reds, who finished the evening 12½ increasingly hopeless games behind the Dodgers in the National League West, and summoned for Anderson his admonishing specter. "Mr. Rickey believed in schooling," said Anderson. "Maybe that's what we need, more teaching around here. You don't see a rundown that bad in Class A ball."
Had the low-down rundown been the only gaffe of this season—or even of the week—it might have been forgivable. Alas, it was all too representative of the Reds' deplorable play in 1977, a startling turnabout after Cincinnati had won two consecutive world championships, including a seven-game sweep of the playoffs and Series last fall. In the preceding game, for example, Ken Griffey led off the fourth inning for Cincinnati with an infield single, his specialty. Morgan then looped a soft single to right. Now, this looked to be the start of a typical Reds scoring drive. Griffey, naturally, would race to third on the right-field hit, putting runners on first and third with nobody out. And because the runner on first would be the larcenous Morgan, he would naturally steal second, putting two runners in scoring position for George Foster, the major leagues' leading RBI man. Presto, a big inning.
But not on this night—and not in this season. Griffey unaccountably stopped at second on Morgan's hit. In fact, he stopped a little beyond second and was nearly thrown out hustling back to the bag. Morgan, startled by his teammate's mental lapse, stood with hands on hips at first base, the game plan ruined. For his part in the sorry scenario, Foster bounced a perfect double-play ball to Russell at short. The Reds did not deserve it, but this time they got lucky. Lopes misplayed Russell's throw and only Morgan was erased, with Griffey finally reaching third. He scored on Bench's single, and Cincinnati went on to win the game 4-0 behind the brilliant one-hit pitching of young Doug Capilla and his reliever, Pedro Borbon. The Reds won, but certainly not by playing alert baseball—except where they are not supposed to play it, on the mound. They salvaged a split in the four-game series with the Dodgers, gaining no ground and losing more time in their quest for a third straight championship.
There were other excursions into the bushes during the week. In the Wednesday game, Rose and Concepcion nearly collided on a pop-up back of third, and Foster and Centerfielder Cesar Geronimo almost bumped heads on a routine fly ball to left center. On Thursday, Morgan and Concepcion played who's-on-second in a double-play situation before Morgan finally accepted the responsibility. The Reds were not even especially taken aback when the landing gear on the plane carrying them from Los Angeles malfunctioned on the approach to the San Francisco airport. The upset was that they landed safely. It has been that kind of a season for the champs. "Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong," says Rose. "Last week Frank Taveras of the Pirates—you know what a power hitter he is—hit a ball off the end of his bat that bounced around the outfield and went for an inside-the-park grand slam."
Funny bounces do not account for all that has been happening to the Reds. Nor does bad pitching. In the past it has been fashionable to blame the Reds' staff for anything untoward that occurred during their relentless pennant drives. And by Anderson's assessment, the pitching was indeed horrible during the first three months of the season. Even now, after considerable improvement of late, the staff earned-run average is nearer five than four. The mighty Red sluggers have scored 10 or more runs three times and still have been beaten.
Through a series of bewildering transactions, the Reds lost what few quality pitchers they did have, Starters Gary Nolan and Don Gullett and Relievers Rawly Eastwick and Will McEnaney. What remained was a slow-pitch softball staff. But in recent weeks the pitching has been dramatically better. In its most recent 15 games, Cincy's staff has had a 3.65 ERA. Capilla, a promising 25-year-old lefthander with a history of wildness, was acquired from St. Louis in a trade for Eastwick, who had criticized the Reds' management for penuriousness. At the time of the deal, the trade itself seemed to be Capilla's biggest achievement. "It's an honor to be traded for a pitcher that good," he said. "Rawly is a better pitcher than I am right now. But not for long."
Arriving with Capilla on the June 15 trading deadline was Tom Seaver, whose departure from the Mets received no more media notice in New York than V-J day. Then 21-year-old Mario Soto, who shut out the Pirates early last week, and 23-year-old Paul Moskau were brought up from the minor leagues in July. Of the starters who began the season for Cincinnati, only Norman remains in the rotation. Anderson insists that the new staff—two veterans and three youngsters, all of whom have good stuff—gives the Reds what they have always lacked, "pitching respectability." Says Griffey, "The only positive thing about this season is the young pitchers."
So the Reds are no longer losing games by scores of 16-15; they are dropping them 1-0. By the end of last week they had been shut out six times in the space of a month, four times since the All-Star Game, eight times during the season. The 4-3 defeat by the Giants on Friday night was their 22nd one-run loss against 14 wins. When poor Norman is pitching, the once sturdy Red bats become strands of pasta. In his last seven starts, a period covering 41 innings, Norman's teammates have favored him with exactly one run. The Reds had a team batting average of more than .290 before the All-Star break. Since then, they have been hitting .250. The splendid Seaver, grown accustomed to pitching for a team that scored a run a week, found himself, to his consternation, with another team that scored a run a week. Aware that his strong right arm was supposed to hoist his new team past the Dodgers, he wryly observed last week, "When I came here, we were 8½ behind. Now we are 12½ back. It's absolutely amazing what one man can do for a team." In truth, Seaver has done as well for Cincinnati as could be expected. He was 5-2 as a Red after beating L.A. 5-4.