Lou Piniella, Cincinnati Reds manager, reached into his pack of cigarettes Saturday and lit up another. He kept telling himself to stay calm, but it was no use. Finally, he got up from his chair, hoping a little food would soothe him.
He grabbed two chili dogs, took a few bites, and pushed the plate aside. Who felt like eating, anyway? He pulled out another cigarette.
“My God, I can’t believe what’s going on,” he said. “I can’t believe this is happening. This is one of the damndest things I’ve ever been through.
“Everything is going wrong at once.”
It still was four hours before game time.
By the time the night would end, Piniella would feel even worse, walking slowly as the crowd of 37,410 at Riverfront Stadium booed his team leaving the dugout.
The Reds were losers once again, 7-3 in 11 innings, with Joe Carter’s grand slam providing the Padres with their third consecutive victory of this series.
It was the Reds’ 11th defeat in the past 13 games, and their 12th in 15 games. Incredibly, five of the losses have been by one run, and two have occurred in extra innings.
“Damn, can you believe it?” Piniella asked. “We’ve had so many chances to put this thing away, so many chances, and now look at what’s happened.
“It’s time we won. The fans and people of this city don’t deserve this.”
This is a city that’s still in mourning, grieving over the indictment of their fallen hero, Pete Rose, who soon will be exchanging a baseball uniform for prison garb.
But just when the Reds looked like they might become the city’s salvation, winning a pennant for the first time since the Big Red Machine in 1976, they’re collapsing faster than Savings and Loans.
The Reds have managed to turn a runaway season into a three-team pennant race, with the San Francisco Giants steamrolling to within 3 1/2 games, and the Dodgers just eight games back.
It’s hard to believe the same team that was leading the National League West by 11 games just 11 days ago and didn’t have a care in the world about the Giants or anyone else, were in the clubhouse Saturday taking shots at Dodger outfielder Hubie Brooks. It was his mental blunder, the Reds’ player kept moaning over and over, that cost them a game in the standings to the Giants.
“I’m tired of hearing their excuses,” Piniella said, “they shouldn’t be worrying about anyone but themselves. The division was right there, right there for us to take. We couldn’t get it done.
“I tell you what, if we screw up this thing, we have no one to blame but ourselves.”
Who’d ever had thought that the Giants, who were in last place and 14 1/2 games out of first place on May 29, would be a pennant contender in August?
But, of course, who’d ever thought the Reds would collapse like this?
“I didn’t think we could play this bad,” Piniella said, “I really didn’t.”
But when you take a close look at the Reds, they haven’t played anything resembling championship baseball for the past two months.
This is a team that jumped out to a 33-12 record by June 3, leading the division by 10 games.
Check out their record the past two months: 28-32.
“I still believe we’re the best team, I really do,” said Rick Mahler, who surrendered Carter’s homer, “but we’re sure not showing it. That’s the frustrating thing.
“This team is too good to be playing like we are. We shouldn’t be losing games like this.”
The Reds, who have scored just 32 runs in their past 13 games, batting .205, actually broke out of their hitting slump on the night by pounding out 15 hits.
So what happens?
Three times they ran themselves out of innings with base-running blunders, and although they got a reprieve when Luis Quinones hit his first homer of the season with two out in the ninth to send the game into extra innings, it only prolonged their agony.
The Padres, starting with Roberto Alomar’s two-out double in the left-field corner, loaded the bases in the 11th when Mahler intentionally walked Tony Gwynn, then walked Jack Clark.
Carter strode to the plate. It was the 15th time this season that he has batted with the bases loaded, but not once in seven times with the bases loaded and two out had he ever managed a hit.
Four pitchers later, on a fastball over the middle of the plate, Carter ended all that with his second grand slam, and 18th homer, of the season.
“The first thing I saw was (Reds center fielder) Eric Davis’ number,” said Carter. “And when the first thing you see is a player’s number, that’s a good feeling.”
The homer provided the Padres their 10th victory in the past 13 games, drawing them to within 13 games of the Reds. But instead of celebrating closing their deficit to the smallest margin since July 5, the Padres instead are kicking themselves for falling so far out of the race in the first place.
“Oh, man, can you imagine if we get close to winning the division again . . .” said Greg Harris (7-5), the winning pitcher for the third time in the past five games.
But can you imagine what will happen to the Reds if they blow the division title? It will be known as the biggest choke since the 1978 Boston Red Sox, who had a 14-game lead over the New York Yankees in July only to lose the pennant in a 163rd game.
“If that happens,” Piniella said, “we’re going to break this team up. You know, you can juggle all season-long, but eventually, it catches up to you. All the question marks we had in spring training are coming to haunt us.
“It’s too early to panic. We’re still in first place and teams have to play catch-up to us.
“But we’re a first-place team headed in the wrong direction.”
Piniella took the first steps Saturday toward rectifying his team’s woes. He installed a set lineup that he says will remain until the end of the season. No longer will you be seeing first baseman Todd Benzinger or outfielder Glenn Braggs in the starting lineup. In fact, it’s likely that Benzinger hardly will be playing the rest of the season.
Of course, Piniella can’t bench everyone who’s in a slump, or else he’d be left without a team: Benzinger has not driven in a run since June 25; Braggs is batting .107 since July 23; center fielder Eric Davis is batting .224 for the season; outfielder Billy Hatcher is batting .166 since July 23 . . . it goes on and on.
The Reds have become so frustrated by their play that infielder Ron Oester shaved his head last week, and each member of the bullpen shaved lines into his head.
“If I thought it would help,” said Reds outfielder Paul O’Neill, who has just seven RBIs since the All-Star break, “I’d chisel mine in.”
Piniella, who still has his full head of hair, said: “Well, now I guess we’ll see how the Giants react under pressure, huh?
“It’s different, I’m telling you, it’s a whole different feeling.”
Padre Manager Greg Riddoch had a 45-minute informal meeting before the game with first baseman Jack Clark. Riddoch, who’s close friends with Clark, wanted to emphasize that he does not want their close friendship to change just because he’s manager. “I told him how I feel about him, and no matter how we choose to play him, or if he’s traded, will not affect the way I feel about him. He’s a class act. He’s a very caring and generous man; there’s a side to him that not many people know.” Clark, who is eligible for arbitration at the end of the season and could be declared a free agent pending the damages in Collusion III, said that he would be willing to forsake his right to possible free agency in turn for a multi-year contract. “I’m just waiting to see what happens,” Clark said.
Former Padre outfielder Jerald Clark hit three consecutive home runs Saturday for the triple-A Las Vegas Stars. Combined with his homer in his final at bat Friday, it gave Clark home runs in four consecutive at bats. The Stars defeated the Edmonton Trappers, 8-6, in Las Vegas Saturday. . . . Although Tom Lampkin, Padre backup catcher, moved from the Cincinnati area 21 years ago, he learned this weekend that his relatives have not forgotten him. He has been bombarded by ticket requests, leaving about 40 for each of the past three games.
Oh, by the way, when Cleveland outfielder Alex Cole stole five bases this past week against Kansas City, who was the last major league player to steal five bases in a game? Tony Gwynn, who stole five on Sept. 20, 1986 at Houston. “Well, at least I was the answer to a trivia question for awhile,” Gwynn said. . . . Padre starter Ed Whitson yielded his first home run in 61 innings in the sixth when Billy Hatcher homered. . . . Bip Roberts, who started at third base for the first time since July 7, left the game after the fifth inning because of a muscle pull. . . . Former Padre reliever Mark Davis, who continues to struggle this season with Kansas City, said this week that he will no longer grant interviews except after games in which he pitches.
The Major League Players Association is considering reducing the licensing share to coaches and managers beginning in 1991, said Dennis Rasmussen, Padre player representative. The manager, head trainer and five coaches on each staff have been entitled in the past to receive a full share of licensing money, and the assistant trainer was added to the plan this season. Yet, with the increase of licensing revenue, the proceeds are expected to total $180,000 over the next three seasons. The players will vote at their annual meeting in December whether it will continue. They are considering instead a plan to provide a percentage of the licensing.
Former Red second baseman Joe Morgan, who’s going to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on today, discussed the possibility of becoming a manager after already having refused two offers: “There was always something else more immediate to do at that particular time. But now I’m at a point where if there’s a utopian situation--not managing, but to be involved in running a team, it’s something I might consider.” How about managing an expansion team? “An expansion team is going to lose,” he said, “and I’m not into losing. It’s not utopian, but it’s something I might consider if the timing is right, the ownership is right and the city is right.”
The Padres conclude their four-game series at 11:15 a.m. (PDT) today against the Reds. Calvin Schiraldi (3-3) is scheduled to start against Jose Rijo (7-4). The Padres are off Monday, and then will play a four-game series in Atlanta against the Braves, beginning Tuesday with a doubleheader. The scheduled pitching matchups: Eric Show (2-8) vs. Tom Glavine (6-7) in game one Tuesday, and Andy Benes (7-8) vs. Marty Clary (1-8) in game two; Dennis Rasmussen (8-9) vs. John Smoltz (7-8) on Wednesday; and Bruce Hurst (6-8) vs. Charlie Leibrandt (4-4) on Thursday.