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Authors: Joe Posnanski

The Machine

BOOK: The Machine
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The Machine

A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds

Joe Posnanski

For Elizabeth and Katie

PROLOGUE

October 22, 1975

BOSTON

World Series Game 7

Losers. Pete Rose stomped the dirt off his cleats
and marched through the dugout, a crazed look on his face. He stopped in front of each man, glared, his face a mask of rage, an angry drill sergeant, a harsh father, an unforgiving judge. In the moment, Rose hated every last one of these sons of bitches. He knew that, in the moment, they hated him too. But they did not hate him enough. They could not hate him enough. They could not hate him with the white-hot disgust that burned inside him right now. The Cincinnati Reds were going to lose. He could not believe it. Impossible. The Machine was going to lose. He already could feel the acid of defeat seething in his guts. He wanted to take a baseball bat to their heads. Yes, it was a problem. Nobody could hate quite as hard as Pete Rose.

“Bunch of losers,” Rose shouted. “We can’t lose this game! We will not lose this game!” His words echoed through the dugout, bounced out into Fenway Park, drowned in the roar. In the stands of Fenway Park, the fans shrieked and begged and hollered. In the Boston chill, their breath came out like smoke. But it wasn’t only these fans here cheering, no, it was all of Boston, all of Massachusetts, hell, it was the whole eastern seaboard—and it was more piercing than shrieking,
louder than hollering, something closer to wailing. The Red Sox were about to win the World Series. This was Game 7, the sixth inning. The Red Sox led the Cincinnati Reds by three runs.

Two hundred years had gone by since Paul Revere rode from Boston to Lexington to warn John Hancock and Sam Adams that the British were coming. Fifty-seven years had gone by since the Boston Red Sox had won the World Series. Now fathers and mothers from Boston to Lexington, from Bangor to Providence, shook their sons and daughters awake—The Red Sox are coming! The Red Sox are coming!—and New England families stood together in front of televisions, bleary-eyed, tears welling, and they screamed too.

Pete Rose could see them all in his mind. This was his curse. Even in the midst of the biggest game of his life. Rose could see the big, stinking Boston tea party they would throw when the Red Sox won. He could float over the scene in his mind, a Goodyear blimp, and see a hundred thousand people crowding into Copley Square or Harvard Square or Kenmore Square or some damned square, all those Boston Red Sox fans, make it two hundred thousand of them, men and women and children topped by red and blue baseball caps, all of them screeching with the inflection of John Kennedy, all of them raising a pint to the Cincinnati Reds, the Big Red Machine, the Big Dead Machine, the team that blew it again.

Rose could see it all so clearly. He might have been an ignorant son of a gun from the West Side of Cincinnati. “I’ve written more books than I’ve read,” he blustered to those reporters who circled around his naked body after every game. But he could see.

This had been a World Series for the ages. Each of the first six games had something to mesmerize the nation—a hero, a goat, a moment of controversy, a dramatic and unexpected turn. The crescendo had crashed the night before, in Game 6. The improbable kept happening. Brilliant catches. Perfect throws. Far-fetched home runs. Comebacks. The air was heavy with tension. The Red Sox loaded the bases in the ninth, nobody out, and Boston’s phenom Fred Lynn
lifted a shallow fly ball to left field. Pete’s lifelong Cincinnati friend Don Zimmer, Boston’s third-base coach, screamed, “No! No! No!” Denny Doyle, the runner at third base, heard “Go! Go! Go!” George Foster’s throw beat him to the plate, and Cincinnati catcher Johnny Bench slapped Doyle with the ball. The fans were spent. In the eleventh inning, Cincinnati’s second baseman Joe Morgan crushed a fly ball to right field, a home run for sure, but the ball died in the thick Boston air, and Boston’s Dwight Evans ran back, leaped, desperately stabbed his glove in the air. The ball hit his glove and stuck there. Exhaustion. Nobody could see straight. Rose saw. He babbled like a child hours past his bedtime.

“Isn’t this great?” he kept asking teammates, opponents, umpires, anyone. “Isn’t this great? This is the best game I’ve ever played in. Isn’t this great? People will remember this game forever. Isn’t this great?”

The Red Sox won the game in the twelfth inning. Carlton Fisk cracked a home run that bounced off the left-field foul pole. He elbowed his way around the bases through the frenzied and drunken crowd. They rang church bells in small New England towns. Sparky Anderson, the Cincinnati Reds manager, woke up in the middle of the night again and again in a cold sweat. Rose still felt good. He knew the Reds would damn well win the seventh and final game. He knew it with all the arrogance he had in his chest. The Reds would win Game 7. They were too good to lose it.

“That was their World Series victory,” he told teammates before the game. “Now it’s time to get ours.”

Everyone nodded, pumped their fists, smiled. But did they see it the way that Pete did? Well…no, apparently they did not. Here it was, the sixth inning of the game they could not lose, and the Reds were losing badly. They were playing dead. The offense had not scored a single run. They were about to blow the World Series.

“How could we come all this way to play like a bunch of losers?” Rose shouted. There were two outs in the inning. There should have
been three. Pete kept the inning going. He was on first base, and his teammate, friend, business partner, nemesis Johnny Bench hit a routine ground ball—a double play, for sure. Only Rose would not allow a double play, he could not allow it, he barreled into second base with all the fury and violence he had been raised to unfurl. His beloved father, Big Pete, a savage sandlot football player well into his forties, taught Little Pete one lesson about fighting: hit first. Pete raced in with everything he had; he was ready to knock Denny Doyle into left field. Doyle managed to jump out of the way, but his throw soared too high to finish off the double play. Pete was out, but the inning was still alive.

“What the hell is wrong with this team?” Rose shouted, dusting off the dirt from his kamikaze slide. “What the hell is wrong with you?” He paced back and forth, choking in the dust of the dugout, a lion in his cage. He slapped the knees of players. He pumped his right fist. The din outside grew louder, the howls of those desperate and bundled-up Boston Red Sox fans. Fenway Park seemed to be dressed in black wool. And the noise sounded like a wave crashing over a junkyard—all roar and rattle and squeak.

“We’re not going to lose this game,” Rose shouted. “No way. You hear me? We are not losing tonight. You know what people are going to say about us? We’re nothing. They’ll say we’re losers.”

Pete walked up and down the bench and looked hard at each player’s face.

“We’re not fucking losers,” he shouted.

 

Joe Morgan played second base. He was Pete’s best friend. Every day, Pete and Joe would go at each other, mocking, testing, pushing the limits of that friendship. Joe would taunt Pete about his lack of power—“Why don’t you just wear a dress to the plate, Rose?” Pete would mock Joe’s five-foot-seven height—“Don’t stand too close to the bat rack, Morgan, someone will pick you up by mistake.” And it would go
from there, back and forth, every day, nastier and uglier, gathering pent-up rage about race and strength and what it is to be a man. Of course, they didn’t mean any of it. And of course, they meant it all. Joe Morgan became the best baseball player in the world in 1975. Pete was on his ass every step of the way.

Dave Concepcion played shortstop, and he played it brilliantly. His father back in Venezuela had wanted him to be a doctor; Davey could not stand the sight of blood. But he did have those surgeon’s hands. He picked up ground balls to his left or his right with precision; on the field, he never bobbled the ball, never looked off-balance. Off the field, though, balance was harder. “I am a
superstar
,” he would tell his teammates, challenging anyone to disagree.

“Shut up, Bozo,” Pete would say.

“Yeah, shut up,” Joe would say. “There are four superstars on this team, and you’re not one of them.”

The next day, Davey would again remind them all that he was a star.

George Foster, the left fielder, rarely spoke. It was easy to forget he was in the room; then, every now and again, he would offer up a surprisingly droll line, and he would deliver it in his high-pitched voice, and everyone would laugh. He hit long home runs. George said he got his massive power from the Lord, and he did not drink or smoke; he could be seen by his locker reading the Bible almost every day. The religion made Pete and the others a bit uncomfortable. But he hit long home runs.

At least George talked sometimes. Center fielder Cesar Geronimo was almost mute. His parents had sent him to the seminary in the Dominican Republic, and he had every intention of becoming a priest. But at night he would listen through the static to New York Yankees games on the radio. And during the day, he played softball and hoped that a miracle would happen. A miracle did. The New York Yankees thought he might make a good pitcher and signed him at a tryout camp. The Reds scouts watched him play and thought
he could be a beautiful defensive outfielder. The players called him Chief. He played center field like a dream.

Right fielder Ken Griffey might have been the fastest player in the National League. The Reds’ first-base coach, George Scherger, used to say that when Griffey ran, you could not hear his feet touch the dirt. Griffey was always smiling, but he was not always happy. He had a lot on his mind, but he didn’t think that was anybody else’s business.

Johnny Bench, of course, stood at first base. They were the two icons of this team—Johnny and Pete. Johnny was probably the most famous baseball player in America in 1975. He hung out with comedian Bob Hope. He performed on television. Pete, being from Cincinnati, was the most beloved player on the Reds, the player everyone cheered. (In Cincinnati they often booed Bench.) Writers often flew into Cincinnati to do stories contrasting Johnny and Pete, and they usually came away with something about opposites. Bench was an Oklahoma farm boy, Rose a hard-edged city kid, Bench a round-faced power hitter, Rose an angular man who slashed singles, Bench a graceful and confident catcher, Rose a street hustler with no true defensive position. They managed to sound like friends in the papers, though teammates suspected they despised each other. They had gone into business together for a while—they owned a bowling alley together, they owned a car dealership, they shared the same agent—but they did not talk much. And when they did talk, when they joked around, their exchanges lacked the light touch of ballplayers mocking each other.

“You look tired,” Bench would say. “Poor guy. Maybe you should try catching for a while. That’s real work.”

“Maybe you should try hitting,” Rose would say. “You can save your energy because when you hit .250 you don’t have to run the bases.”

“Look at you, Rose. Breathing heavy. You don’t know what hard work is like.”

“Well, Bench, I’ll tell you this. I probably would have gotten tired doing what you did last night.”

The sportswriter Tom Callahan probably hit closest when he said that Pete owned Cincinnati and Johnny owned the country…and they each wanted what the other guy had. They had feuds. They turned on each other. They nearly came to blows. When Joe Morgan joined the team, he was told that he had to pick Rose or Bench—he could not be friends with both.

But it wasn’t simple. They were connected too. Pete was one of two players who showed up at Johnny’s wedding. And Johnny protected Pete. In 1973, during the last inning of a playoff game between the Reds and the New York Mets, all hell broke loose. The Shea Stadium crowd—fueled by alcohol, adrenaline, and leftover anger after Pete Rose had brawled with the Mets’ beloved shortstop Bud Harrelson—amassed around the field as if arranging a siege. Rose stood on first base, an open target. The fans wanted Rose. Bench saw blood in their eyes, and he pleaded with manager Sparky Anderson to get Rose the hell out of the game. Anderson refused. So Bench stood on the top of the dugout steps, bat over his shoulder, ready to rush the field and take them all on to save Pete Rose.

 

Then, finally, there was Tony Perez. He was standing at home plate, ready to hit. They called him “the Big Dog,” or “Doggie” for short. Doggie had grown up in Cuba, before Castro’s men came rushing down from the mountains. He had been raised to spend his life lugging bags of sugar at the refinery near his home. That’s what his father did, that’s what his brothers did, and when he turned fourteen that’s what he did too. He would never forget the way his body felt at the end of those days. He had always told his mother that he wanted something more: he wanted to play baseball in the United States under the bright lights. She told him to grow up and stop dreaming about nonsense.

“You will work in the factory just like everyone else in this family,” she told him. He signed with the Reds for $2.50, the price of a visa. While he played ball in America, Cuba fell to Castro. Doggie had not seen his mother in more than a decade.

What made Doggie different was hard to explain…it was a kind of peace. He never made anything too complicated. See the ball, hit the ball. That’s what he said. He knew when to joke with a teammate, and he knew when to lay down the law. He knew how to break tension. The sportswriters around, they liked Tony fine, for what that was worth, but they did not know him. The sportswriters were on deadlines, and they needed quick quotes and witty one-liners, and that was the realm of Pete and Johnny and Joe. Inside the clubhouse, though, everyone looked to Doggie. He seemed to have the answers.

“Why you so worried about, Skip?” Doggie had said to the manager, Sparky Anderson, just a moment before he went to hit. Anderson looked lost. He had indeed jolted awake in the middle of night, sweating, an unremembered dream still haunting him. He could not remember falling asleep, but he remembered waking up another dozen times with the uneasy feeling that the Reds had already lost this game. Anderson relied on hunches and premonitions. He had dropped out of high school and was so self-conscious about his lack of education that he would not write letters. “I don’t spell too good,” he used to say. The man had an almost infallible instinct about baseball and men.

BOOK: The Machine
5.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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