Los Angeles — Technically the Cincinnati Reds are Manager John McNamara's Band, but actually their leader is rock-hard catcher, Johnny Bench, who already has a niche waiting for him in baseball's Hall of Fame.
Cincinnati is the defending champion in the National League West; a team with as many valleys as peaks this season but still balancing on the revolving barrel that also represents first place to Houston and Los Angeles.
Probably no one player knows and understands the Reds and their problems better than Bench. It is John who works with the pitchers; recently set an all-time home run record for catchers (314); and was there during the glory years of Tony Perez, Pete Rose, and Joe Morgan, stars who have moved on to other clubs.
"Basically we're playing about as well as we did last season," Bench explained, after being reminded that Cincinnati had won 23 of its first 35 games after last year's All-Star break. "To beat out Houston and Los Angeles we need strong pitching down the stretch from Tom Seaver, who has been hurt, and it's also important that our pinch-hitters and our reserves generally do well.
"For most of the year our kid pitchers [he meant Paul Mosaku, Frank Pastore, Charley Liebrandt, and Mario Soto] have been keeping us alive," John continued. "Seaver pitched well against the Dodgers the other day and lost. But in most games when Tom gives only four or five hits he's going to win."
Two things that Bench seemed vitally concerned about were the Reds' spotty road record this year and all those veteran players on the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"I look at what we've done so far on the road and I don't like it," John said. "We've lost too many games away from home that I thought maybe we should have won. And we've got a 14-game road trip coming up on August 28 [Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chicago and Atlanta] that could make or break our whole season.
"Right after that we come home for seven days, which should help, but then we're back on the road again for 10 more games. Even though most people say we'll be alright if we split those games, we should go out with the feeling that we're good enough to win more than we lose.
"I think the Houston Astros are a good ball club that will continue to be tough even if J. R. Richard doesn't pitch another inning for them this season. But I actually worry more about the Dodgers, partly because they have won two pennants in the last three years and partly because they have so many veteran players. They lost Reggie Smith for awhile and they came in with Jay Johnstone or Rick Monday or Derrel Thomas, all guys who can hit."
Pressed to comment on the front-office decisions, which have led to the loss of Rose, Morgan and Perez in recent years, Bench replied:
"Big league clubs change all the time and I don't think it's a good idea to look back. all three of those guys helped us win pennants and all three are still good ballplayers. But you have to take what the new guys give you and we've gotten a lot of good baseball from Dan Driessen, Ray Knight, and Ron Oester."
Oester, an outstanding second baseman with good range and a strong arm, may eventually be shifted to shortstop when Dave Concepcion retires.
Bench, because of the physical wear and tear on his legs after 14 years of crouching behind the plate, was quoted recently as saying that the Reds would have to find a less demanding job for him next season.
"Yeah, I said it," Bench indicates with a smile. "And the days when I could catch more than 100 games for Cincinnati and still feel comfortable are over. I won't do that again. But people often say things they don't always mean when they're tired and by next March I might feel differently.
"Anyway, I've still got two years left on my contract, and sometimes this winter I'll sit down with the front office and we'll come to a decision.
"The best thing that has happened to me all year was when the Reds signed catcher Joe Nolan after he'd been cut loose by Atlanta. Those couple of days off a week that Nolan has been able to give me have been invaluable. In fact if Cincinnati wins the pennant, Joe will deserve a lot of the credit, not just for giving me some rest but also for hitting so well with men on base."