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It is a splendid April day, and the Dibbles are at their house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Loveland, Ohio. Rob, the Cincinnati Reds' All-Star reliever, has washed the Nissan and fixed a sandwich for himself. His daughter Ashley, who's 1½, has finished her daily viewing of The Little Mermaid. Joanne, Rob's wife of 3½ years and his sweetheart since forever, is sitting at the kitchen table, laughing a lot.
But when the conversation takes a turn to a comment made on TV this spring by Hall of Famer Joe Morgan—Morgan suggested that Rob's fastball couldn't possibly travel 100 mph—this plain vanilla day suddenly becomes white-hot. First, Rob simmers: "I don't understand how he can say that." Then he steams: "He can get a bat and let me throw to him if he doesn't believe it." Finally, he boils over: "Hall of Fame, my ass." Then he takes another bite of his lunch, as calm as you please.
There is little that is predictable about the 27-year-old Dibble, who can blow away hitters or blow sky-high with equal excess. He is a 6'4", 230-pound bundle of surging emotions and conflicting impulses. He adopts the glassy-eyed look of an ax murderer on the mound, but he resists his image as a menace. He wants his pitching to speak for itself with the press, but in interviews he delivers pronouncements more incendiary than his heater. He wants to play down his Nasty Boy handle off the field, but he has a weekly radio spot called Pitching and Bitching with Rob Dibble. He yearns for a more mellow middle ground in his life, but he fears that a patch of serenity might tranquilize his fastball. "He's a psychologist's life work," says Joanne with another laugh. "Some guy could make a mint off figuring out Rob."
Dibble often explodes in what he excuses as "the heat of the moment"—the moments being those when his talent is questioned, his teammates are threatened or his temper is in some other way engaged. Compile the residue of those occasions and you have what Dibble almost affectionately calls "my little dossier," a litany of suspensions (18 days), fines (Dibble says $5,000) and flare-ups over a 2½-year major league career that has seen him heave a bat halfway up the screen behind home plate after giving up a run-scoring single, twice blaze a pitch behind a batter who made the mistake of coming up after a pitcher had gotten a hit off Dibble, dump a bucket of ice water on a sportswriter in the Reds clubhouse and, most recently, on April 28, disgustedly hurl a ball from the mound into the Riverfront Stadium bleachers some 400 feet away after earning a less-than-perfect save (two runs allowed in two innings) in a 4-3 win over the Chicago Cubs.
That misguided missile hit a 27-year-old first-grade teacher, Meg Porter of Batavia, Ohio, on the elbow, causing her to miss two days of work. Dibble later apologized and picked up Porter's medical tab. "I have to mature," he admitted, as if waking from a dream to find it real. "I have to come to grips with handling the pressure." National League president Bill White, recognizing that Dibble is frighteningly armed and frequently dangerous, suspended him for four days. That suspension is under appeal.
The Dibble dossier is also replete with matters of the mouth: He has impugned the manhood of Pirate ace Doug Drabek ("a sissy"—actually a variation thereof), bellyached about his salary in the middle of Cincinnati's championship drive last season ("pay me as a stopper") and blasted team owner Marge Schott ("If she was a man, other men would have kicked her butt by now"). When Dibble talks about such outbursts, he gropes like a child in the dark and then brightens when he stumbles on what seems to him to be a reasonable explanation. "I would have been good in the era of the Knights of the Round Table," he says. "I'd be a knight in shining armor, except I'd be the black knight. When the black knight goes home, he takes off his armor, and he's just a man. But when that armor's on, he's a dastardly dude."
Dastardly? No doubt. As a reliever, he's in a class all his own: unhidibble. In 1989, his first full season, the righthanded Dibble averaged 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings, a major league record. Last season he was the first setup man ever to be named an All-Star; in the postseason, he whiffed 14 in 9⅔ innings and earned co-MVP honors, with closer Randy Myers, in the National League Championship Series. As for this year, through Sunday he had fanned 29 in 16⅓ innings and had eight saves in eight chances.
Dibble's delivery is itself a study in the unusual. Entering his windup slowly, he takes his hands over his head almost to the back of his neck and puffs his chest out defiantly. His left leg kicks high, then his right side whirls rapidly homeward and the cannonlike force generated by his body comes thundering down on his stiffly planted left leg. For all his wild contortions, Dibble's control is surprisingly sharp (only two walks this year), and he is very durable (only 15 days on the disabled list in his career). Still, some pitching experts wonder if his motion places too much strain on his arm. Says Dibble, who of course gets peeved by such talk, "If you're throwing as hard as I do, you must be doing something right."
His heater is so ridiculously hot—yes, Joe, it does hit the century mark, according to the radar guns—that even an accomplished slugger like the St. Louis Cardinals' Pedro Guerrero has inspected Dibble's first pitch, dropped the bat and laughed out loud before striking out. Then there's Dibble's slider, which blows in at about 90 mph before dive-bombing into the dirt. That's two pitches too nasty: To gear up to hit one, you can't possibly cope with the other. "Do you know what happens to hitters when they cheat to hit a 100-mph fastball and then the bottom drops out?" asks Reds pitching coach Stan Williams. "Their legs melt."
"When Rob gets up to go warm up in the bullpen, you can almost see the other team deflate," says Cincinnati first baseman Todd Benzinger. "The on-deck hitter and the hitter in the hole start pacing, wondering if they'll have to hit off him. It's hard not to be intimidated by a guy who throws that hard. On top of everything, he's brutally honest, and he says things that are very inflammatory. The hitters want so bad to make him look bad, but he still gets them out. They want to kill him, but they can't. That makes what he does even more impressive."