For a team that would win 108 games, the BRM got off to a sluggish start. On May 17th (the end of Chapter 4 of The Machine), the Reds won to end a six game losing streak and climb back to .500 at 19-19. Meanwhile, the smug Dodgers were cruising with a 24-13 record and a 5.5 game lead over the Reds. But for the rest of the season, there wouldn't be any contest. The Reds finished 89-35 (.718) to win the NL West by 20 (!) games over LA. Not until the '86 Mets would an NL team win the division by that many games.
One reason for the slow start was the light-hitting starting third baseman, John Vukovich. The Reds had acquired the infielder in the offseason from Milwaukee (he must have been perceived as a really good fielder, because his career line before '75 was 157/200/212 in 468 PAs). Sparky called him "Balsa." On April 16, Sparky pinch hit for Balsa. In the 2nd inning. PH Dan Driessen fouled out and the Reds went on to lose 7-6. While Vukovich fumed in the dugout, Sparky loudly asked his bench coach how he was supposed to win "without a real third baseman."
The solution for a "real" third baseman, of course, was already on the team, playing left field. Sparky's decision to shift Rose to third and insert the rising star George Foster into the starting lineup made perfect sense. Still, the execution would be tricky. Huge stars like Pete Rose don't get told to move to a new position just like that. Sparky wisely opted for a softer sell:
And now, like fate, [Sparky] saw that opening. He saw Pete Rose before the [May 2nd] game taking a few ground balls at first base. This was his moment. "What are you doing there, Peter Edward?" Sparky said as he walked out on the field. "Aw, just breaking in this new glove for Fawn," he said. Fawn was Pete's daughter. "Yeah," Sparky said. Then he looked longingly over toward third base. "I sure wish you were playing over there instead." "Where's that?" Pete asked. "You mean third base?" "I sure could use you there," Sparky said. "Give me a chance to get Danny Driessen and George Foster in the lineup more." "Are you serious?" Pete asked, and he looked over at third base.
The soft approach was particularly smart given a prior position switch controversy nine years earlier. Then Reds manager Don Heffner told Rose that he would be moving to third, no questions asked. Rose responded poorly on and off the field and was moved back to second a few weeks later. Heffner would be fired that season. Rose said of Heffner: "He was an asshole." Rose had a different opinion of Sparky: "Sparky reminded me a lot of my dad." Now that's a good manager.
A few other things worth mentioning from chapters three and four:
- One thing never seems to change - even the BRM hated playing in LA. In the third series of the season the Reds were swept in a four-game series in LA, and they would go only 2-7 on the year in Dodger Stadium. Even Rose admitted to responding poorly to the booing in LA, suggesting to Sparky if he could sit out a game since he "wasn't helping the team."
- The chutzpah of Johnny Bench was something else. On his first day with the Reds, the 22 year-old told the other catchers on the team that he had come to be the starter, not anyone's backup, and that everyone might as well know it up front. Then there's the famous story of the bare-handed catch. In a game against the Dodgers, Bench thought it was obvoius that veteran starter Gerry Arrigo didn't have his good fastball. Bench kept signaling for a curve but Arrigo would shake him off. At a mound meeting Arrigo told Bench to pipe down and get back behind the plate. To prove his point Bench then caught an Arrigo fastball with his bare hand.
- If you ever go on a bender with Marty and plan on calling in sick the next day, make sure you tell Marty your plan. On May 16 Bench took Marty out for what turned out to be a late night. A groggy Bench asked Sparky for a day off the following day, citing the flu. A beaming Marty walked into Sparky's office shortly thereafter, inadvertently thwarting Bench's plan by telling Sparky about his wild night. Sparky' was of course livid. His ensuing tirade was a supposedly the clubhouse meeting to end all clubhouse meetings. It would be nice to see that kind of emotion from a Reds manager. Anyone here got some good stories about getting caught in a lie by your boss?