The Machine by Joe Posnanski
Many Reds fans have been waiting anxiously for Joe Posnanski's latest book, The Machine, which arrives in your local bookstore on Wednesday, September 9th. For those of you who read Posnanski regularly, you understand what a great storyteller he is. If you aren't familiar with his work, I suggest you check out his first book, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America. It's incredible.
As you may recall, Red Reporter is having a contest to give away a copy of The Machine. I imagine some of you are looking forward to the book enough that you don't want to have to wait until the season is over to find out if you've won the contest. In order to make the contest still worth your while, I will make sure to have Poz sign a copy of the book for the contest winner. That way, if you do buy the book before the end of the season, you can pass it on to a friend and receive your signed contest book if you win.
Posnanski was kind enough to answer a few questions for Red Reporter about the Big Red Machine in anticipation of the new book. We appreciate him taking the time out of what I can only imagine is a ridiculously busy schedule. Besides the book, you can also read him pretty much daily at JoePosnanski.com and on SportsIllustrated.com.
RR: When you first started writing the book, you joked about there not really being a need for another book about the Big Red Machine. What did you hope to do differently with this book that hadn't been done in previous books about the BRM?
Poz: My favorite response to the book was from Johnny Bench, who when he heard I was doing it said: "Why, is there an anniversary coming up?" It's funny, there were quite a few books about The Machine -- some of them quite good -- but most of them were written some 30 years ago -- so I guess I wanted to add some perspective if I could. I really wanted the chance to write about baseball and the world in 1975, when I was eight years old. I think that in many ways baseball of that time has been overlooked -- there have been a many wonderful books written about the 1950s and '60s, but not as many about the 1970s. The Oakland A's won three consecutive World Series and not many books have been written about them. The great Earl Weaver Orioles -- not many books have been written about them. The George Brett Kansas City Royals, the We Are Family Pirates, the Steve Garvey Dodgers and so on. So I thought I would dive in with the most enduring team of the time.RR: The BRM is a team filled with Hall of Famers and near Hall of Famers. Based on your experience interacting with the players, does any single player stick out as the biggest driving force behind the team's success or was it truly a balanced team effort? Do the players point to anyone specifically as the guy they always looked to pick the team up?
Poz: Well, part of what made that team so good I think is that they had several driving forces. Pete Rose was, of course, the face for that team and the player most people outside the team thought was the leader. But Joe Morgan was probably the best player in the game at the time. Johnny Bench was in many ways the most famous baseball player in America and he would have an argument as the best player in the game too. And inside the clubhouse, I would say that the real leader was Tony Perez. Everyone looked to the Big Dog, as they called him. And the pitching staff had its own political structure too. I think that's what made the team so interesting. They came from such different backgrounds -- in many ways that was baseball's first great multi-cultural team. You had a third baseman from Cincinnati, a shortstop from Venezuela, a second baseman from Oakland, a first baseman from Cuba, a catcher from Oklahoma, a left fielder from Alabama, a center fielder from the Dominican Republic and a right fielder from Donora. Pa. You had a great starting pitcher from Kentucky who hardly ever talked and a closer from Massachusetts who painted. And so on. Every great team has a great story, but that story really spoke to me.
RR: In your eyes, what made Sparky Anderson the right manager for that team?
Poz: Well, one of the things that surprised me a bit was just how shrewd a baseball manager Sparky was in '75. I mean, sure, I knew all about Sparky, but it really struck me while writing that book that he really was quite a bit ahead of his time. A lot of the so-called Moneyball principles -- valuing the walk, not wanting to give away outs with sacrifices, stealing bases at a high rate -- were all Sparky principles. And for better or worse he really was a pioneer when it came to the use of a bullpen. In '75 he set the big league record for most consecutive starts without a complete game -- after all, he was called "Captain Hook."
But what made him a great manager for those Reds in particular was that he really knew how to handle egos. For instance, in early May Pete Rose moved from left field to third base. Well, another manager would have not been able to get Pete to make that move -- he was an established superstar at the time and absolutely could have blocked the move. But Sparky was smart enough to go to Pete, hat in hand, and ASK HIM to move. That spoke to Pete's ego, and he made the move, and it worked out well.
RR: If you had to guess, do you think the BRM would have been helped or hurt by the current model for managing a pitching staff? Would potential health benefits for Gary Nolan and Don Gullett have outweighed the fact that Anderson rode his key starters and 2 or 3 main bullpen guys year to year?
Poz: That's always tough to say but it is no doubt telling that Gary Nolan and Don Gullett both made it up when they were 19 (Nolan was actually a few days shy of his 19th birthday) and both had seasons of 200-plus innings before they turned 21. I think Nolan's case is especially egregious -- he was hurt and the Reds management simply thought the pain was in his head and they demanded he pitch through it. At one point -- one of my favorite stories in the book -- they actually sent him to a dentist to relieve the pain in Nolan's shoulder. Hard to believe that was less than 40 years ago.
Then again, pitchers get hurt all the time now too ... I'm not sure baseball management has it all figured out just yet. Just in the last few years, there is Mark Prior, Francisco Liriano, there in Cincinnati you have Edinson Volquez. Lots of other examples. Pitchers get hurt, it's still part of the game. But absolutely, I do wonder what some moderation might have meant for Nolan and Gulett because they were two of the most promising young pitchers in memory, and both were done before they turned 30.
RR: If you did a Director's Cut of this book, what story would you make sure was put in that couldn't be fit into the current edition?
Poz: Well, actually there's a series of stuff ... in my original version I had individual stories -- vignettes, I guess -- about the Big Red Machine players now. I really liked them, but they just didn't fit in the structure of the book. I left a couple in, including a long one about Pete Rose in Vegas that actually closes out the book. But I had stories about Pat Darcy and Will McEnaney and Jack Billingham and Ken Griffey and George Foster and so on and so on ... maybe I'll post a few of those on my Web site to boost sales like a DVD extra.
RR: When and where is your first book signing scheduled in Cincinnati?
Poz: I believe it's Sept. 19 at the Reds Hall of Fame. But I think I have several things planned in Cincnnati for that weekend, and I'm supposed to be at Joseph Beth (my favorite bookstore when I lived in Cincinnati) on Sept. 21. I think a lot of that stuff is still being worked out.
RR: You recently called this year's Royals squad the worst you've seen from the franchise. Coincidentally, I've called this year's Reds team the low point in the 9 consecutive losing seasons. Given that the Royals swept the Reds in June, who would you say has the worse team this year - the Reds or the Royals? Why?
Poz: Well, I personally think the Royals have evolved into the worst team in baseball but you are certainly right ... I went to a couple of those Reds games back in June and that Cincinnati team was awful. Absolutely awful. That night when Luke Hochevar shut them down on 80 pitches was one of the most staggering displays of bad offense I've ever seen.
I don't see the Reds very much, but I've always been an Aaron Harang fan, that bullpen's pretty nasty and Joey Votto is special (and I'm a Jay Bruce fan too). They're probably pretty similar. But the Royals have been playing so badly the last couple of months that I would still pick them to lose in a best of seven right now.
RR: Thanks again to Joe for the answers!