On September 7, 1986, the Cincinnati Reds played the Chicago Cubs on a “getaway” day. It was a Sunday and the second place Reds were heading off to take on the first place Houston Astros after playing the Cubs that day.
Cincinnati’s pitching ace, Bill Gullickson, was on the mound that day. Pitching for Chicago was an unknown rookie named Greg Maddux, who had an 0-1 record.
After three innings, the Cubs had knocked out Gullickson and taken a 9-0 lead. They battered six Reds pitchers that day for 19 hits enroute to an 11-3 win. Even Maddux had two hits. And he got his first win. The Reds limped off to Houston, where they were facing Nolan Ryan the next night. The Reds had a 70-66 record and were eight games behind Houston. It was a big series.
After landing in Houston, the Reds took a bus to their hotel. Manager Pete Rose was sitting in the front of the bus with Roger Kahn, a well known writer who had chronicled the Brooklyn Dodgers in a best selling book called “The Boys of Summer.” Those were the Dodgers of Gil Hodges, Duke Snyder, Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson.
As the bus drove through the soggy, wet streets of Houston, a reserve player for the Reds broke out in a song. A few other players joined in. The Reds were facing Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott the next two nights in a desperate series to stay close and they were singing.
“You traveled with Reese and Robinson,” said Rose to Kahn. “Did they ever sing after losing 11-3?”
Reese and Robinson? Are you kidding? Pete Rose knew the answer to that. Everyone with half a brain and a sense of baseball history knew the competitive fire and intensity of Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson.
Kahn’s reply was for Rose to turn the bus lights on and tell the players to shut up. Rose shrugged. “Wouldn’t do any good. Could make it worse. The ballplayers are different these days.”
Only 11 years earlier in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series, it was Pete Rose who walked up and down the Reds dugout out firing out obscenities and urging his teammates on as Boston led that deciding game by a 3-0 score and the Reds squandering scoring opportunities. And after Tony Perez launched a two-run home run into the Boston darkness, Rose knocked in the tying run with a base hit and Joe Morgan delivered the game winner an inning later, the Reds were world champions.
So if ballplayers were different in 1986, where are their heads at now?
Are the comments by wonder child/Washington National Bryce Harper that baseball is a “tired” sport a sign of the times or just the utterance of a new generation? Most fans want to like the great young players of baseball today like Mike Trout or Harper but it’s hard to when the Nats outfielder talks about bat flipping, admiring the emotional quarterback play of Cam Newton and has, on occasion, loafed running to first base.
I could rattle off a long list of reasons why I believe ballplayers are softer today than they used to be. That’s an article in itself. The reasons are obvious. But I wish that All-Star Games were competitive affairs, I long for pitchers who want the ball every fourth or fifth day, I love to see young players hustle and credit their teammates for success but most of all I love the inner fire that special ballplayers have.
Frank Robinson had it. When teammate Vada Pinson would get knocked down at the plate, Robinson would yell out to the pitcher, “Do that to me!” If Rose was on first base and a double play ball was hit, the infielder making the throw to first knew there would be heck to pay.
That’s not “tired” baseball. That’s the way baseball should be played. But there are new rules, astronomical salaries and pitch limits for young pitchers that break down more frequently than ever before.
Still, I’m curious as to which Reds player broke out in a song on that bus ride in Houston back in 1986. When I interview Peter Edward Rose, that’s a question I’ll ask him.