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Much More Than Deck Chairs

We often write off criticism of lineups, and in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t much matter whether Zack Cozart bats 6th or 8th. But what does matter, quite a bit, is which players are in the lineup. Sometimes a manager can shuffle the deck in a way that makes a historical difference.

That happened 39 years ago today, when Sparky Anderson shook up his 12-12, third place Reds, with the cooperation of his biggest star.* Sparky moved Pete Rose from left field to third base to open a lineup spot for 26 year old George Foster. While the Reds’ offense had actually been hitting well (averaging 5 runs/game), Foster was off to a hot start (.320/.346/.800 in 26 April plate appearances), and Sparky saw the potential for more.

From that point through the rest of the 70s, Foster hit .302/.370/.558, with 171 HR, an MVP trophy (3 top tens), and, of course, 2 World Series rings.

* Rose’s sacrifice here was tremendous. First, he was off to a great start at the plate (.320/.407/.417). But he also had basically no experience at 3b. Before 1975, Rose had played 16 of his 1,860 major league games at 3b — and had a lousy .931 fielding percentage there. But Sparky saw Rose taking grounders at 1b (breaking in his daughter’s softball glove), and had an idea. Marty Brennaman described Pete’s first chance at 3b: “He looked like a monkey playing with a football. It was incredible.”

** The real odd man out was nominal 3b John Vukovich. He’d started 14 of the Reds’ first 24 games, hitting only .219/.306/.313. Sparky had so little faith in Vukovich that he once pinch hit for him in his first plate appearance – in the top of the second inning, with the score 0-0. Vukovich broke every light bulb on the way back to the clubhouse.

*** Technically, the move was designed to get more at bats for both Foster and Dan Driessen.  But while Foster took off after the move (SLG .511 for the rest of May), Driessen flopped (.158/.267/.211), and Foster became a fixture in LF.

Anyway, here’s George Foster.

I usually make the same face when I listen to Joe Morgan.

Joe Morgan talks with George Foster, two of the Cincinnati Reds from the Big Reds Machine that came to the Millennium for a sports memorabilia show. November 20, 2005 The Enquirer/Tony Jones

And while it’s from his post-Reds days, I can’t leave this one out. It’s just beautiful.

14 thoughts on “Much More Than Deck Chairs

  1. (Channeling Thom) Maybe the single most important date in Reds history. Sparky came up with the decision that turned the Big Red Machine loose.

    • Not sure how you get that out of this story. Heisey is no Foster and will likely never be a full-time starter. Memories are short but he has had at least two chances.

      And unlike Rose at 3B, Hamilton has actually played a lot of SS and performed quite poorly. Also unlike Rose, Hamilton is not established with the bat and has enough work on his plate developing his hitting and baserunning.

      • No of course. I almost added that but figured it was a given. The first paragraph made me think the story was going to relate to the current team. I don’t actually think Heisey is anything like Foster and it seems that Cozart is coming around a bit. I just read the article thinking it was leading to a hypothetical suggestion. It was a good read though!

  2. Would Foster give a few minutes to Bill Lack or one of the editors for Redleg Nation Radio? I’d enjoy hearing more about the Big Red Machine. … Rather odd that there is certainly a bit of a parallel to the Reds then vs. now. Then (before Foster got playing time), the team had been to a few World Series but hadn’t won either one, Sparky was feeling tremendous pressure.

    Now, the Reds have made the postseason three times in four years. In that time, they have blown a 2-0 series lead in a best of 5, been no-hit (and nearly the victims of a perfect game), and embarrassed out of Pittsburgh in a one-game do or die.

    Can’t see this organization, especially under Walt’s leadership, making any such dramatic moves.

    • I’ve tried connecting with Foster in the past, we haven’t been able to work anything out..but I think it’s worth seeing if we can make it happen. I think George would be really great to have on the Podcast.

  3. George Foster hit the most impressive HR the Old Cossack ever saw, a line shot into the top of the foul screen. The ball, or what was left of it after achieving orbital velocity, was still on it’s way up when it hit the top of the screen. The man was simply a monster with a bat in his hands. Without Foster’s inclusion, the BRM never achieves the elite, legendary status it now wears so elegantly.

    That simply emphasizes how many holes the current Red’s roster has to overcome when a player like Foster was necessary to put a team like the BRM over the top.

    • On the evening of the switch, my father and I were attending a “fish fry” or similar sort of supper event at a local American Legion Post. The guest speaker was Gordy Coleman, a former Reds first baseman who at thaf point was the Reds one man “speakers’ bureau”.
      After his short set speech, Coleman open the floor up for questions. The first one was from somebody who wanted to know what Coleman thought of the move of Rose to 3B. Coleman answered the question as though it was a theoretical question versus a request for a comment on a done thing. When Coleman finished by saying he didn’t see this switch ever happening, the questioner replied, “then why did I just hear Sparky telling Marty about on the radio as I pulled into the parking lot”. Coleman paused a second then said well if Sparky said he was doing it, he guessed it would happen…..

  4. It is amazing that it took so long for Sparky to settle on Foster as a regular. 22-year-old Foster was the regular in center field in 1971 when Bobby Tolan was hurt and out for the year. But when Tolan came back in 1972, Foster had to fight for at bats with Geronimo and the slumping Bernie Carbo, the platooning Hal McRae and scrubs Joe Hague and Ted Uhlaender. It was poor judgment by Sparky as Foster had a promising 1971 season and all things considered was a better prospect than any of the others (Carbo was a platoon guy, McRae was not a food fielder and Geronimo was not much of a bat). So from 1972-1974 Foster and his peer Ken Griffey were held back by Sparky in favor of Geronimo and while Driessen and Menke fought over third base starting duties. Beyond that, Rose had started at third base in the 1966 season when Tommy Helms came up for good and was awarded the ROY. He was average at that position, which was a tiny step up from his defensive mediocrity at second base. it turned out that he was a far better outfielder than infielder and the Reds were mediocre enough to actually have played Chico Ruiz in the outfield! But Sparky should have seen the disaster that was third base and tried to get Rose to move over there a couple of years earlier.

  5. But yes, I never heard the glove break-in story before and that was great information! Truly the move to get both Griffey and Foster into the lineup was the key to putting the BRM over the top.

    • On the whole, it seems like you’re criticizing Sparky for not thinking of moving his all-star LF to 3B much sooner, rather than being amazed that he thought of it eventually.

      A couple specific responses:

      1. As noted above, Rose only played the first couple of weeks at 3b in the ’66 season. After Pete made 4 errors by May 1 (a .900 F% is not really average) and neither guy was hitting a lick, they switched places. I can’t imagine that Sparky would remember that a decade earlier (when Sparky was managing in Toronto), Rose had played 16 games at third.

      2. In ’72, Foster had a fair enough shot. He’d been okay in ’71 (he showed the power, but couldn’t get on base at all). For whatever reason, Howsam wasn’t ready to hand him the job. That was probably for the best, because Foster was abysmal in ’72 (542 OPS). But he did have a chance. They traded Carbo a couple weeks into the season, despite him being only a year removed from a 1000 OPS, ROY season. Meanwhile, they’d gotten Geronimo in the Morgan trade, and he actually had a good year. The Uhlaender business looks utterly absurd from here (his AVG was only over .200 for all of 3 days – the entire season), but he had been a decent veteran left-handed bat, and they’d traded for him in t he off-season. Him getting 15 starts in the first two months wasn’t completely insane.

      • Sparky considered playing Rose at 3rd in Spring Training, but had remembered that 66 season when then manager Heffner had moved Rose to third and Rose had balked at the move, so he was hesitant to try it again.

        When he finally did it after consulting Rose, he did it when Howsam was out of town because reportedly, Anderson knew the front office would object.

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