The Big Red Machine of the 1970s is a tough act to follow, but if you measure this year's Cincinnati team against its competition -- instead of trying to compare it to a legend -- it looks like a pretty good club in its own right.
The 1980 Reds are a lot different in both personnel and style from some of their famous predecessors, but this situation has been evolving for some time. It didn't stop Cincinnati from winning the National League West title last year, and manager John McNamara expects his club to be in the thick of it again.
Some observers wonder about this, for while Cincinnati's top rivals plunged heavily into the free-agent market last winter, the Reds followed their traditional stand-pat policy, preferring to rely on the continued development of players in their own system.
"Too many people judge improvement only by the number of free agents a team signs," said McNamara. "That's a mistake. There are many other ways to improve."
For example, he cites the Red's pitching situation. Unlike the Cincinnati teams that dominated the league through most of the 1970s, the one that closed out the decade was strong on the mound -- and he expects this year's corps to be even stronger.
"We put Mike LaCoss, Tom Hume, and Frank Pastore into a lot of pressure situations last season," he said of three young hurlers who played big roles in '79. "Having gone through that should make them even more effective in 1980."
LaCoss, pitching only his first full major league season, won 14 games -- second on the club to Tom Seaver's 16. Hume, switched to the bullpen after an in-and-out career as a starter, won 10 games and saved 17 to emerge as one of the game's top relievers. Pastore, a rookie recalled in midseason from the minors, won five games down the stretch including a 7-1 decision over Houston in a showdown for the division lead and title-clinching four-hit shutout over Atlanta five days later.
Now this year McNamara has two more promising youngsters fighting for berths after outstanding seasons at Indianapolis. They are right-hander Bruce Berenyi, who led the American Association with a 2.82 earned run average, and left-hander Charlie Leibrandt, who was second with a 2.94 mark and who may have even a better chance due to the scarcity of southpaws on the staff.
Another area where the Reds hope to "improve" just by standing pat is the availability of key players. Last year injuries sidelined George Foster, one of the game's premier sluggers, for 40 games, and Ken Griffey, a lifetime .310 hitter, for 66. McNamara figures the law of averages is against losing two such key players again for such long stretches.
So even though 1979 runnerup Houston sgned fireballer Nolan Ryan to a $1 million per year contract and lured second baseman Joe Morgan away from their own team -- and even though 1977 and '78 champion Los Angeles made a big move to regroup by signing high-priced free agent pitchers Dave Goltz and Don Stanhouse -- the Reds feel that they will still be tough to beat.
"Those teams had to do something," McNamara said. "Hypothetically you could say they improved themselves. They think so. But you win ball games on the field, and we still have to see what happens there."
When you think of Cincinnati's powerhouse of the last decade, of course, many of the names that first come to mind are now gone from the team -- Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Morgan, Manager Sparky Anderson. Furthermore, some of those who remain no longer produce at their old levels -- most no ably Johnny Bench, who is still a fine catcher and a dangerous hitter but is a long way removed from his devastating 40-plus homer, 120-plus RBI capabilities of the early '70s.
The speed, timely hitting, and defensive excellence that characterized those other teams are still there, though -- sometimes in even greater abundance.
"This team isn't like the old one," said McNamara, who succeeded Anderson last year after previous managerial stints in Oakland and San Diego. "It's basically a sound fundamental club, but you can't lose guys like Rose and Perez and still be able to sit back and beat people consistently. We have to execute well and be on our toes all the time now."
The most pleasant surprise for the Reds last year was Ray Knight, a former utility man who took over for Rose at third base and not only turned in an outstanding defensive job but hit .318. Now it's second base that needs filling with the departure of Morgan, and the Reds are hoping his backup of the last two years, Junior Kennedy, can do the job. Elsewhere the infield is set, with perennial All-Star Dave Concepcion at shortstop and veteran Dan Driessen at first.
Foster is a fixture in left field, as is Griffey in right if the knee which bothered him last year holds up and if he isn't traded (a possibility, since Ken is in his option year and could become a free agent next fall). First crack at center field is going to Dave Collins, who tied Knight for the club batting lead last year while appearing in 122 games -- mostly filling in for either Foster or Griffey. This should bolster the offense, though at some expense to the defense , since it would put the veteran Cesar Geronimo, a super fielder but an erratic hitter, on the bench.
All-in-all, a solid team with good chances of being in the race again, and if it's not exactly the Big Red Machine -- well, what team nowadays is? Certainly it's doubtful that any team of the 1980s will match Cincinnati's record over the last 10 years of six division titles, four pennants, two world championships, and a major league leading average of 95.3 victories per season. But all McNamara wants to do right now is start off the new decade the way the "Machine" launched the old one -- with a division title and a pennant -- or perhaps do it one better and go on to take the World Series as well. If he gets even some of the "improvements" he expects, there's no reason why he doesn't have a shot at it.