Leave it to the Cincinnati Reds to focus attention each year on one of America's great social problems. Last year it was gambling, thanks to Manager Pete Rose. This year it's divorce, thanks to their 8-0 start going into Friday night's game against Atlanta at Riverfront Stadium.
The Reds, you see, plan to shave their heads if they go 15-0. Not surprisingly, the idea already is meeting resistance from some very important people -- the players' wives.
Pitcher Jose Rijo announced, "I'll look good, I'll look sexy," but pitcher Tom Browning said, "When I told my wife about this, she said, 'No way, I'll divorce you."'
Such a wacky bunch, those Reds.
They have two sinister relievers who refer to themselves as "The Nasty Boys," a left fielder who was acquired at a bargain price and a shortstop who can go 0-for-35 and still be hitting .300.
The relievers are Rob Dibble and Randy Myers, who have combined for five saves, striking out 22 while allowing just two earned runs and nine hits in 15 innings.
The left fielder is Billy Hatcher, who arrived in a trade from Pittsburgh at the end of spring training for right-hander Mike Roesler and shortstop Jeff Richardson.
And the shortstop is Barry Larkin, who had at least two hits in each of the first eight games and was a ridiculous 21-for-35 (.600) for the season -- not including a 3-for-3 that was rained out.
Even with all that, the most amazing thing about the Reds' start under new Manager Lou Piniella might be that they're winning despite center fielder Eric Davis' .147 batting average.
Davis, however, remains a presence in the cleanup spot. He already has eight RBI, despite only five hits in 34 at-bats. And he's a big reason the 2-3 hitters, Larkin and Hatcher, have combined for eight steals.
"I think pitchers would rather have me steal second base or third base than throw Eric a fastball and be down 2-0 (on a home run)," Larkin said.
Cynics scoffed at the Reds when they swept Houston and Atlanta to start the season, but they also have two victories over San Diego, the team expected to be their strongest challenger for the National League West title.
Piniella stresses fundamentals, and it shows.
No. 5 hitter Paul O'Neill laid down a sacrifice bunt in the eighth inning of the second game, something he didn't do in 428 at-bats last season. The play led to the winning run in a 3-2 victory over Houston.
Another sign of improvement: Leadoff man Chris Sabo drew one walk in each of the first six games. Sabo walked only 25 times in 304 at-bats last year.
Finally, there's Dibble and Myers.
They throw heat.
They act crazy.
They terrify hitters.
Myers, acquired for John Franco, started a strikeout competition between the starters and relievers, and the relievers jumped out to a 43-23 lead. Franco has three saves for the New York Mets, but who cares?
"John is a great pitcher, but if there were bases loaded and John was behind 3-0 on a hitter with a one-run lead, he'd be ice-cold out there," Reds reliever Norm Charlton said.
"Randy has a totally different personality. You can see fire coming out of his head. He brings out the best or worst -- whatever you want to call it -- in Rob and me."
Bad clubs point to the success of the '89 Orioles and say, "It can happen to us." The Atlanta Braves, with all their young pitching, entertained even loftier thoughts before getting outscored 52-22 their first seven games. The NFL Falcons would be proud.
Twelve opposing hitters produced three-hit games during the Braves' 1-6 start. A pair of noted sluggers, Craig Biggio and Franklin Stubbs, did it for Houston Tuesday night, and they were nearly joined by pitcher Mark Portugal, who went 2-for-3 with an RBI.
Opponents also stole 10 straight bases before Ernie Whitt finally threw out Larkin. The Braves managed just one steal, by Dale Murphy. Ten of their first 12 RBI came from leadoff hitter Oddibe McDowell and platoon second baseman Mark Lemke.
Nick Esasky, you ask? He had no extra-base hits, no RBI and 13 strikeouts in his first 31 at-bats. Even worse, he made three errors at first base, where Gerald Perry was thought to be a liability before his trade to Kansas City.
He Has Other Problems: Boston Manager Joe Morgan was more upset by Mike Felder's bases-loaded bunt single than anything else in his club's 18-0 loss to Milwaukee. The Brewers led 4-0 in the second when Felder dropped his bunt with Carlos Quintana playing deep at first base.
"How about that Felder?" Morgan asked. "He bunted with the bases loaded. It's a good thing Bob Gibson wasn't out there, or Early Wynn, or Allie Reynolds. Because the next time he comes up, the man wouldn't have an ear left."
None of the Boston pitchers was capable of administering such surgery. Two of their four relievers that day (Mike Rochford and John Leister) already had started, and a third (Dana Kiecker) was scratched from a start after pitching long relief when Wes Gardner was injured.
Morgan's pitching is so thin, Roger Clemens pitched on three days rest Wednesday night in Chicago. Clemens improved his record to 3-0 in the Red Sox's 7-5 victory, but sooner or later, something, somewhere, has to give.
Orioles fans no doubt recall the feud between Texas Manager Bobby Valentine and Memorial Stadium groundskeeper Pat Santarone last season over the condition of the bullpen mounds in Baltimore.
Now Valentine is applying his landscaping expertise to the Arlington Stadium infield; at his request, the grass will be permitted to grow longer. The Rangers have a ground ball pitching staff, and none of their infielders has outstanding range.
"It won't be like Candlestick (Park) or Detroit, but we've gone from zippidy-do-dah to a slower terrain," Valentine said. Perhaps he will discuss irrigation techniques with Santarone when the Rangers make their first visit to Baltimore May 18 to 20.
The discerning fan surely noticed St. Louis' pickup of Tom Niedenfuer, the reliever who helped decide the 1985 National League playoffs by allowing game-winning homers to the Cardinals' Ozzie Smith in Game 5 and Jack Clark in Game 6.
Two years later, Los Angeles traded Niedenfuer to the Orioles for outfielder John Shelby. Niedenfuer became a free agent after the '88 season and signed a two-year, $1.75 million contract with Seattle, only to be released this spring.
"After all he's done for the Cardinals," St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog cracked, "we owed him the chance."
Ugly Team of the Week: National League champion San Francisco is already 5 1/2 games behind Cincinnati after never trailing by more than three games last season. More from the How Quickly Things Change Dept.: The Giants' 0-5 start at home is their worst since moving to San Francisco in 1958. Their 53-28 home record last year was the best in the league.
The Giants weren't swept in a series until the final weekend last season, but this year it already has happened twice, both times at Candlestick. San Diego beat them three straight despite trailing 3-2 in the eighth or ninth inning of each game. Los Angeles beat them twice.
Ugly Game of the Week: The Mets and Cubs combined for 22 walks, six errors and 29 men left on base Wednesday night. The Cubs won it 8-6 on third baseman Howard Johnson's second error in the 13th.
The Mets left the bases loaded in the third, ninth and 10th.
The Cubs left two on in the ninth and 10th and a runner on third in the 11th.
The home run of the week was Jose Canseco's two-run missile off Mike Witt in Anaheim Wednesday night. Observers said the line drive was never more than 30 feet off the ground. "The shortstop could have gotten on that and taken a flight to New York," Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart said. "I've never seen one that low."
The previous night, White Sox DH Ron Kittle became the 21st player to hit a rooftop homer at Comiskey Park. Leave it to the Boston media to figure out that 11 of those 21 blasts were allowed by former or current Red Sox pitchers.
Milwaukee second baseman Edgar Diaz is fifth in the American League with a .423 average after hitting .215 at Triple A last season. "He's like The Natural," Brewers Manager Tom Trebelhorn said. "He went somewhere else for a couple of years. Now he's come back."
How much do the Royals miss Danny Tartabull? They produced 27 hits in consecutive losses to Toronto and Cleveland this week -- 26 of them singles. Tartabull is on the 15-day disabled list with an injured right calf.