A recent Reds series in Houston was a case in point. In the previous meeting between the two teams, on April 11, Dibble had fired a pitch behind Astro leadoff man Eric Yelding, igniting a Riverfront Stadium free-for-all and earning Dibble a three-day suspension (an appeal is pending on this one as well). When the Reds reached the Astrodome on April 22, White, who plays the assistant principal in Dibble's bad-boy act, was on hand to ensure order. But after some shuttle diplomacy by Cincinnati infielder and former Astro Bill Doran, Dibble met Yelding and Houston manager Art Howe under the stands and apologized for his role in the fracas. "I can't say he admitted he was throwing at me," Yelding says, "but he did say he was sorry it occurred."
Other Astros weren't as generous. "I have no respect for someone who throws behind a hitter's head," said assistant general manager Bob Watson. "As hard as he throws, he could kill somebody. I know he calls himself intimidating, but there are different ways to go about it. Let's put it this way: His style of pitching stinks."
The next night, Dibble walked the lead-off man to start the eighth but then left six Astros flailing like geriatric prizefighters. That flurry tied a major league mark for consecutive strikeouts by a reliever. "The pressure was on, the fans were on me pretty bad, all eyes were watching," Dibble said afterward. "For my own peace of mind, I had to have a good outing."
Though Dibble tires of being perceived as the man in the proverbial black hat, when he bought a Stetson in Houston, that was precisely the hue he picked. Fact is, he has always felt he had something to prove. He was an all-state soccer forward and baseball player at Southington (Conn.) High, playing centerfield and hitting leadoff when he wasn't pitching. But it wasn't enough. "I was probably the most insecure kid you'd ever meet," Dibble says. "I always felt that being more talented than other people made it harder on you to fit in. You were kind of unique, kind of an outcast."
At 19, as a newly signed first-round pick who had just dropped out of Florida Southern, Dibble listened to the Reds' major league pitching coach tell him that he would never make it with his mechanics. Those words made Dibble sullen and hostile, leading to a reputation as uncoachable and almost getting him traded in 1987. He dyed his hair Billy Idol-white while playing for Cedar Rapids in 1985, and when the manager told Dibble he wouldn't pitch unless he got rid of his locks, he shaved his head. He drank too much; he recalls with horror a backseat ride after a binge when a Vermont teammate swerved off a road. Only two guard wires prevented the car from plunging into a 50-foot-deep ravine. In Nashville, when Dibble felt he was being improperly used by his Triple A manager, Jack Lind, he winged three warmup pitches 400 feet from the bullpen into the dugout where Lind was standing.
Now Dibble battles the Cincinnati media. He demands to be taken seriously and with a grain of salt at the same time. The son of a radio newsman, he admits his stance is sometimes intentionally provocative. "People are always trying to knock you down a notch," Dibble says. "I enjoy people telling me I can't do something. It makes me work that much harder to do it." Says Reds catcher Joe Oliver, "He's got a positive arrogance about himself that he built through the tough times in the minor leagues trying to prove something. Sometimes he has to come in and get a little ticked off, because when he's mad and he's able to channel it the right way, he's untouchable."
Indeed, Dibble often seems to plant himself in the crossfire, chin out, while others are diving for cover. His crack last fall about Drabek, the 1990 National League Cy Young Award winner, during the National League playoffs was meant to fire up his teammates, who were, in Dibble's estimation, being cowed by Drabek. His potshot at Schott came after the World Series, when he thought she had mistreated injured Reds outfielder Eric Davis. Says Dibble, "My principle is this: You'd want me on your team, because when things hit the fan, I'd be there."
Dibble's bluster around the ballpark belies a softer side. Lefthander Norm Charlton—who along with Dibble and Myers constituted Cincinnati's fearsome Nasty Boys bullpen last year—has roomed with Dibble since 1986, when no one else on the Vermont club would. With their combined salaries of more than $1 million this season, the duo briefly upgraded to a suite of rooms on the road but found that they preferred closer quarters. They eat cheeseburgers every day for lunch, hold salad-plate toss competitions on hotel roofs and have gained illicit access to the roofs of several stadiums (Charlton's preferred lock-picking device: a piece of a waxed-paper cup) in order to check out the view.
"If you talk about Dibs, you're talking about two different people," Charlton says. "On the field, he's all adrenaline, intensity, win at all costs, and the day he gets calmer between the lines, I'll tell him. Off the field, he's a nice guy, a family man. He's really shy. You'd think he'd be the kind of guy to grab a waiter by the tie and send his food back if it's not done right. But if he orders it well-done and they bring it out raw, he won't say a word."
Joanne has been a shrewd and bemused witness to Rob's seemingly unfathomable tendencies ever since she was 14 and he was 16. At Southington High, Rob mouthed off about the lackluster cheer-leading for the soccer team; Joanne, a cheerleader at Southington, heard about his remarks and gave him what for. They have been together ever since, and she has seen it all, sometimes twice: The first time Rob shaved his head he did it as a pledge of his love for her. They were married in 1987, after Joanne got her degree in sociology from Boston University, and it is around her and Ashley that Rob's life spins. Says Rob's high school coach, John Fontana, "When I call to ask what Rob's doing, Joanne usually tells me, 'He has the dog at his feet and Ashley in one arm, and he's doing curls with the other.' "