A ribbon of typewriter jockeys was asking Atlanta manager Joe Torre, whose Braves are once again contenders in the National League West, what he was going to do now that slugging third baseman Bob Horner is apparently out for the rest of the season with a wrist injury.
This question has a tail on it that stretches all the way back to last August when the Braves, leading by five games in quest of a second straight division title, lost Horner with the same type of injury. From that point on, the Los Angeles Dodgers poured through September like Patton's World War II army through Italy, leaving Atlanta three games in arrears on the final day of the season.
''If you think Horner was the reason we didn't win in 1983, you're wrong,'' Torre said, catching everyone by surprise. ''There were six times near the end of last season when, if we'd bunted properly, we'd have won the game. We also failed to get a real strong performance down the stretch from our bullpen. As far as I'm concerned, Horner is no better than reason No. 3.''
That wasn't meant as any knock on Horner, who finished the year with 20 home runs in just over 100 games while hitting .303. But since most managers keep a book on how things go on a day-to-day basis, Torre's figures undoubtedly told the overall story.
Asked if Randy Johnson, who is taking Horner's place, has the tools to be an everyday player in the big leagues, Torre replied: ''Well, he has so far. Johnson has been hitting over .300 and doing the job in the field. We don't expect him to hit home runs because he doesn't have that kind of body. But if Johnson slumps, we have the option of replacing him with Jerry Royster and if Royster slumps, we can always go back to Johnson or someone else. Anyway, it's not something I have to be concerned with right now.''
As for current leader San Diego and defending champion Los Angeles, the Braves' two chief rivals, Torre said: ''The Padres do a lot of good things and they have Goose Gossage in the bullpen. That has to scare you a little. Even though the Dodgers haven't been able to put their best team on the field because of injuries, you always have to be concerned about all that pitching, because so many guys on their staff are capable of complete games.
''When the season starts, of course, you never rule out anybody. You never know when a team is going to come up with a couple of kids who can turn things around. But Houston hasn't been the same club since it lost shortstop Dickie Thon (he hasn't played since an early-season beaning). And when you begin to fall five or 10 games under .500 the way Cincinnati and San Francisco have, it becomes awfully hard to catch up.''
One key for Atlanta has been the pitching of Pascual Perez, who was suspended for the first month of the season after serving time on drug charges in his native Dominican Republic, but who has done an outstanding job since his return. Perez's earned-run average isn't that great, but his won-lost record (6-1) is among the best in the league.
''Considering that Perez had no spring training with us, the guy has been remarkable,'' Torre said. ''I understand he discovered a catcher in prison that he was able to throw to almost every day and I'm sure that helped him. But throwing on the sidelines and pitching against big leaguers in exhibition games under the watchful eye of a coach are two different things.''
Torre has also been getting a veteran performance from rookie outfielder Gerald Perry both at bat and in the field. Perry, the nephew of Reds' first baseman Dan Driessen, hit .375 during a recent nine-game winning streak (all on the road), and is fourth on the club in RBIs. Gerald has also helped soothe those Atlanta fans who have been angry ever since the front office traded popular outfielder Brett Butler to Cleveland.
Another unexpected bonus that came Torre's way this spring was the acquisition of catcher Alex Trevino from Cincinnati. Trevino, who played for Joe when he managed the New York Mets, has now started almost as many games for the Braves as Bruce Benedict, who did the bulk of Atlanta's catching in 1983.
As a manager, Torre says he has become more patient than he was as a player; more knowledgeable than when he had the Mets; and a much better communicator than when he joined the Braves.
''I think a manager can generate a lot of motivation if he: (1) communicates often with his players, and (2) uses the simplest terms possible to get his points across,'' Joe said. ''I'm not saying everybody can run a ball game well enough to anticipate everything that might happen, but how much do you really have to know to replace a tired pitcher or send up a pinch hitter?
''The big thing is to know what every player on your roster can and can't do, so you won't ask some guy to bunt who should be in the clubhouse taking a shower at a time like that. It's the players who win ball games, not the manager.''