1970-1971: A Retrospective…or is it?

So many things to write about this week while suffering through the rumors, suggestions, and threats inherent as a fan before the trade deadline; but also the utter torment of watching the Reds accomplish something without precedent.  Getting swept by the Mets.  Instead of discussing subjects that are, and will continue to be, beaten to death, I decided to go back to a time when all was right with the world.  40 years ago. The beginning of the Big Red Machine.

I was quite young in 1971.  I can say without any fear of exaggeration that I remember nothing of the year.  The Cincinnati Reds had, gone to the playoffs for the first time in 9 years in 1970.  The Reds were competitive during the 60s but they were not champions.  Now the team was young.  In 1970 only 6 games were started by a pitcher 30 or older and the Reds had just 171 at bats by a 30+ year old.  Johnny Bench won his first MVP award.

So after this kind of success in ’70 expectations were high in 1971.  The season never went the way Reds fans, players or management wanted.  So with the help of baseball-reference.com, lets step back to a simpler time.  ( One with only 4 divisions in baseball.)

As you can see at first glance, the first 4 parts of the Big Red Machine fell into place in the 1970 playoff run.  Dave Concepcion was added to the major league team as a rookie.  Pete Rose was into the prime of his career, turning 30 a week into the ’71 season.  Bobby Tolan had the best year of his career in 1970 but in an infamous off season pickup basketball game, Tolan ruptured his Achilles tendon and could not play in 1971.  This was the first incident in a series of ‘disagreements’ with Reds management that ultimately resulted in Tolan being traded in 1973 for reliever Clay Kirby.  It also forced the Reds to make a trade to fill Tolan’s shoes in 1971.  On May 29, 1971 the Reds executed a trade with the San Fransisco Giants for an extra outfielder they had named George Foster.  Bobby Bonds stood in his way in the Bay area so he was expendable.  This led to one of the two lopsided trades that created the Big Red Machine.  Foster came to the Reds for Frank Duffy and Vern Geishert.

Johnny Bench is another interesting story.  He won the NL MVP award in 1970 with 148 runs batted in.  He followed that with a catastrophic 45 point drop in batting average and even worse a drop in RBIs of 87.  Safe to say the majority of players who have ever laced up their spikes have never driven in 87 runs let alone dropped in production by that amount.

While Foster won the MVP in 1977, Geishert never pitched again in MLB and Duffy was notable in Giants lore only as a part of another disastrous trade.  One that sent Duffy and a 32 year old Gaylord Perry to Cleveland for “Sudden” Sam McDowell, the 1970 Sporting News Player of the Year.  McDowell’s career crashed at this point while Perry won the Cy Young Award in 1972.  Eventually McDowell’s life became the model for Cheers star Ted Danson’s character Sam Malone.

The bench players on these teams included several players of note.

First there is Hal McRae, he always showed signs of being a great hitter but his fielding was a weakness.  In one of Bob Howsam’s worst trades he was offered to the Kansas City Royals in 1972 for Roger Nelson and Richie Sheinblum.

Woody Woodward reached the end of a relatively unspectacular career at just 28 years of age.  He did feature in one of the most bizarre stories of the 1971 season.  On Sept. 5 Woodward had a sack of flour fall from the sky at his feet, no explanation from where the flour originated has ever been found.

Jimmy Stewart along with popular starters Lee May and former Rookie of the Year Tommy Helms were traded to the Houston Astros in what remains one of the biggest coups in baseball history for Joe Morgan, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, and Denis Menke.  Hall of Famer Morgan will always be thought of for his years with the Reds and Billingham formed a critical park of the ’75 and ’76 starting rotation.  Geronimo completed arguably the best middle of the diamond defense in baseball history joining Morgan, Bench and Concepcion.

Pat Corrales was Johnny Bench’s backup meaning he had time to really study the game from the bench.  He is currently the bench coach for former Reds manager Davey Johnson, now with the Washington Nationals.

Darrel Cheney was also a back up for Davey Concepcion, another good way to be sure no one ever remembers who you are.

The starting rotation for the Reds was strong in 1970.  Gary Nolan was the workhorse of the staff transitioning from Jim Maloney who had led the staff for most of the past decade.  Wayne Simpson splashed onto the Reds in 1970 but at the end of the July he began to have trouble with his elbow eventually after tearing ligaments in his pitching arm.  He never again had success like the beginning of the 1970 season.  He was eventually included in Hall McRae trade for Nelson and Sheinblum.

Jim Merritt represents the most dramatic change from 1970 to 1971.  His collapse is worse even than Johnny Bench’s precipitous fall.  His ERA rose by a mere 1/3 of a run but he went from winning a career high 20 games in 1970 to winning just a single game in 1971 on 11 losses.

Jim McGlothlin went 14-10 in 1970 and fell to 8-12 in 1971 even though his ERA was quite good in 1971.  Of note with McGlothlin his record did improve to 9-8 in 1972 and 3-3 in 1973 before the Reds traded him to the Chicago White Sox for a player who never actually played again.  Sadly, McGlothlin only appeared in 5 games for the White Sox and was diagnosed with Leukemia.  He died at 32 years of age in December of 1975 a little more than 2 years after his last appearance.

On a happier note two players debuted during these two years.  In 1970 Don Gullett got his start as a reliever while just 19 years of age.  In 1971 Gullett lead the Reds with 16 wins.  Ross Grimsley made his debut in 1971 and earned 10 wins to start his successful career.

The bullpen featured two closers and the transition from Wayne Granger to the Big Red Machine’s Clay Carroll.  Joe Gibbon was thrown into the mix for a year in 1971.  Aside from the two workhorses no one else found much success.  I threw in stats about Pedro Borbon who was not really involved in the bullpen in ’70-’71, but becomes a key to the Big Red Machine.

The point to all of this history and trivia is we don’t yet know what we have.  Our current team is underachieving on the field after a year in which they played above their abilities.  The Reds won 102 games in 1970 only to follow in 1971 with the only losing season in the decade finishing 79-83.  If this current Reds team wins 1 more than they lose their remaining 57 games; winning 29 and losing 28, they too will finish 79-83.  While not the result for which many still hold out hope, it is a realistic proposition.

With the trading deadline less than three days away, the Reds have serious decisions to make.  Being swept by the Mets puts much into focus.  Walt Jockety may need to step back from a strategic sense and look to trade for a long time solution and not a rental for the rest of this year.  Forty years was a long time ago but aside from a bag of flour isn’t it amazing how similar the story seems?  The one difference between the 70s and now is that this team still relies on veterans who probably have no chance to truly contribute to a Championship run.  While on average players tend to be older today, the 2011 Reds have a number of players that seem to be at the end of their useful career.

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