On Opening Day in Cincinnati this year schools and offices were closed as usual, and a long line formed early near the shoeshine stand inside the old ball park. Just about everyone from Piqua, Chillicothe, Lexington and Paducah seemed to be wearing an American Legion cap and marching across the outfield grass, and a group of fans, the Rosie Reds, presented a bouquet of flowers to the manager's wife. It was all fine and traditional, but when the crowd settled back in its seats it wanted something more. It wanted something that would help erase the memories of 1966, when the Reds, favored by many to win the pennant, finished a dismal seventh.
Seldom have the wishes of fans been fulfilled so quickly and emphatically. In the first inning Vada Pinson leaned on a fast ball and drove it into the right-field bleachers. One out later, Deron Johnson did the same thing, and the Reds were off and moving toward their best start in 55 seasons. As of last Sunday, they had won 21 games, more than any other ball club in the majors, and they were holding on to first place in the National League.
They did it with skill, with muscle and with luck. Good teams always seem to pick up extra victories in almost impossible ways, and so far this season the Reds are a perfect example. The two best outfielders on the team bump together under a routine fly, the ball drops and two runs score—but it makes no difference, because a Cincinnati pitcher who has not had a hit in 18 at bats lines a single to tie the game. A man carrying a batting average of .000 walks to the plate and triples home two runs. An 18-year-old boy suddenly becomes one of the better pitchers in the league. The conversion of a reserve outfielder to a pitcher works so well that people just look at him and say, "Wow!"
When this season began everyone agreed that the Reds lacked pitching. But suddenly the Cincinnati pitchers, who depend more on sheer strength than they do on finesse, began to look good. The Reds are, man for man, the biggest team in the league—even taking into consideration whippets like Tommy Harper, Leo Cardenas and Vada Pinson—and the pitchers are an important part of that bulk. When opposing hitters look out at Jim Maloney (6'2", 214 pounds), Milt Pappas (6'3", 210), Billy McCool (6'2", 208), Ted Abernathy (6'4", 210), Mel Queen (6'1", 197) or Gary Nolan (6'3", 190), they do not care for what they see, because big pitchers usually mean fast balls and fast balls mean strikeouts. Naturally, the Reds lead the league in strikeouts, even though Maloney, the ace of the staff, is, as usual, not as sharp now in the early spring as he will be later on. Abernathy and Queen have given the staff balance and have filled a desperate need by coming in from the bullpen time after time to nail down winning games.
Cincinnati's hitters are just as intimidating as the pitchers. Harper and Pin-son and Cardenas sting the ball, but Deron Johnson, Lee May, Tony Perez, Don Pavletich and Johnny Edwards, who average 6'2" and 208, can crush it. Pete Rose does a little of both; he has the speed and hustle of the whippets and the strength and impact that the big men have. The awesome size and speed and rattling hitting power jolt and shake Cincinnati's opponents into making mistakes.
There is another factor in the Reds' success, and perhaps it is the most important of all. Rose explains: "We're a 25-man team now. Look. Tonight Vada Pinson can't play because he pulled a muscle in his hip. Tommy Harper moves over to center field, and Floyd Robinson plays right. Keep your eye on Rob-by. He has worked like hell to get ready to help. On days off he'd go out to the ball park and work out and run to keep himself in shape, just so that when the time came and he was needed he wouldn't let anyone down." Robinson had not had a hit yet this season, but that night he broke open the game in the first inning with a triple, got another hit later, scored two runs and stole a base. "When we went to spring training last year," says Vada Pinson, "we didn't have Frank Robinson. He had meant so much to this team that nobody could begin to measure it." Robinson, of course, had been traded to the Baltimore Orioles in a deal that quickly became part of the game's folklore. Pinson says, "We began 1966 with a big question mark. Who was going to replace Frank? And then other question marks kept piling up on that one. We had a bad attitude the first half of the season, the worst I can remember, and this is my 10th year with the Reds. There was too much experimenting, too much fussing, too much dissension. Guys seemed to be playing for themselves instead of doing the little things that help win games."
At the All-Star break the Reds were in eighth place, and Manager Don Heffner, despite a two-year contract, was fired and replaced by Dave Bristol, a 33-year-old coach who had handled most of the Cincinnati players during a nine-year tour as a manager in the minor leagues. The Reds, who had played so poorly under Heffner, turned around under Bristol and won 31 of their next 49 games.
In his third game after taking over, Bristol made a managerial move that has vastly affected this year's quick start. Hopelessly beaten in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, he walked down along the dugout in the eighth inning and told Mel Queen, a 24-year-old reserve outfielder, to go to the bullpen and warm up. Queen, who had a powerful throwing arm for an outfielder, thought the manager wanted him to serve as a bullpen catcher for another relief pitcher. "No," Bristol said. "You're going to pitch the ninth inning." Queen, who had thrown batting practice from time to time, was shocked, but when he came in to pitch he struck out two of the three men he faced and got the third one on a little ground ball. He made six more appearances during the season, and though some were bad, Bristol was convinced that Queen could be made into a major league pitcher. He was sent to the Florida Instructional League, where Pitching Coach Mel Harder went to work on him. When the Instructional League season was completed, Queen was sent to the Aragua club in the Venezuelan Winter League and was spectacular, winning seven games, losing only two and compiling an infinitesimal earned run average of 0.76.
During the fall Bristol also watched 18-year-old Gary Nolan, a $60,000 bonus boy, as he worked in Florida, and he began to wonder silently if Nolan could make it to the majors after only two months in the minors. In spring training Nolan pitched well in intrasquad games, and Bristol continued to dream. In exhibition games Nolan did even better, and the Reds decided to let him try to make the jump to the majors. He jumped. In his first 47 innings Nolan struck out 48 batters, won three games, failed to win another when he lost a shutout in the ninth inning and had an ERA of 2.11.
When writers asked Bristol this spring who would play first base for Cincinnati he answered, "The great Battle of South Florida continues between Tony Perez and Lee May. Equal! Both about equal! May is 6'3" and weighs 205, and when he played for me at San Diego he hit 34 homers and drove in 103 runs. Perez is 6'2" and 204, and when he played for me at San Diego he hit 34 homers and drove in 107. The great Battle of South Florida will continue. Whoever shows he is best will win the job." But when spring training ended, both May and Perez had been to bat an almost identical number of times and each had hit .333. So the battle goes on, and both play.