It's opening day in Cincinnati, the favorite day of the year for Reds owner Marge Schott. Never mind that her team's home debut has been delayed two weeks by the spring lockout; Schott is in her element. An hour before game time she is touring the field, hugging players, signing autographs and pampering her Buick-sized dog, Schottzie. She scans the stadium, searching for someone. "Where's Sweet Lou?" she asks. "I want to see if he wants to play with Schottzie."
Sorry, Marge. Sweet Lou—Cincinnati manager Lou Piniella—has better things to do on this day than pal around with a Saint Bernard. He's busy, very busy, managing the hottest team in baseball. Since the first day of spring training, Piniella has been doing it all for the Reds—talking to players, talking to coaches, teaching, learning, clapping, cheering. One minute, he's congratulating centerfielder Eric Davis: "Hey, great catch last night. Way to go." The next, he's giving third baseman Chris Sabo another detailed hitting lesson. Then he's counseling infielder Luis Quinones—in Spanish. Or he's laughing with his players as they watch reliever Randy Myers dump a mound of shaving cream on outfielder Ken Griffey's head during a TV interview.
"Lou's been great," says first baseman Todd Benzinger. "This was definitely a gloomier clubhouse last year. Look around. We're having fun."
Times certainly have changed in Cincinnati. The black cloud that hovered over this team last season has lifted. The distractions that accompanied Pete Rose's suspension for gambling are gone, and the talk in the clubhouse is of baseball, not bookies. Five years of disappointment and broken promises seem to have strengthened the Reds' resolve; this, they insist, is their year. We've heard that before, but now there is reason to believe it. Cincinnati won its first nine games—its best start ever—before losing on Sunday, and is displaying the attitude of a team that believes in itself. The War of the Rose is over. Now playing: The Hunt for Red October.
"Lou says there's no pressure because they're picked to finish third or fourth," says Cub manager Don Zimmer. "But they're so talented, if they don't win it, something's wrong."
So far just about everything has gone right, including a lockout-altered schedule that had the Reds facing weaklings Atlanta and Houston eight times in their first 10 games. Shortstop Barry Larkin concluded the weekend with a league-leading .512 average. The bullpen, nicknamed the Nasty Boys, has been meaner than nasty, ringing up four victories, six saves and 48 strikeouts in 38 innings. Sabo, who hit six home runs last season, had four as of Sunday. The Reds had stolen 21 bases in 25 tries. Says Larkin, "We can beat you so many ways."
The rest of the National League West knows he's right and has to be worried that Cincinnati is finally playing up to its vast abilities. The principal reason is clear enough: the arrival of Piniella, or perhaps more accurately, the departure of Rose. Says one National League manager, "We were all hoping Pete would be back, because we knew the Reds would never put it together as long as he was there. We all knew if me, Lou, you, anyone, took over, the Reds would be better."
Says a National League scout, "The Reds have had the best talent in the division for five years, but Pete screwed them up." And an American League scout: "I think the Reds would have won the division four straight years if Pete hadn't been the manager, and I like Pete."
Cincinnati's players generally agree that Rose was an easy skipper to play for, but his hands-off approach contributed to the team's failures. He rarely talked to his players, rarely tried to inspire them. Further, despite being the greatest hit producer of all time, he seldom worked with his hitters. "As a manager, Pete never worked to improve his craft," says a former Reds scout.
Piniella has been Rose's opposite. Bob Quinn, Cincinnati's new general manager, calls him "the consummate motivator." Says reliever Norm Charlton, one of the Nasty Boys, "Pete wasn't a strong communicator; that wasn't his style of managing. Pete would just say, 'O.K., boys, here's the balls, here's the bats, go get 'em.' Lou is much more active."