Posnanski on 'The Machine'

Some people root for baseball teams. I root for baseball books, for two reasons. One, a fair number of my friends have written baseball books, so rooting for a book is like rooting for a friend. And two, I've written a few books myself, and know what it's like to pour one's life into something for many months and wind up eliciting hardly a yawn from the Big Wide World.
Anyway, I'm rooting for Joe Posnanski's new book, The Machine, about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, which was officially published today. Joe and I haven't yet met, but I do know he's an easy guy to root for, all the more because I've read his book. Well, I thought I knew Pete Rose and Johnny Bench already -- and I did -- but now I know them better.

Monday, I cornered Joe via e-mail for a few questions about his book and the Big Red Machine:

Rob: This is an inside-baseball sort of question, but I can't resist. One of the great strengths of the book is its fly-on-the-wall quality, as we're treated to intensely vivid and colorful verbal exchanges from the locker room and the dugout. Now, being the bright boy my mama raised, I know that nobody had a tape recorder running in 1975, so you had to rely on lengthy memories. Whose memories, though? Was there anyone in particular who was particularly useful to you, when reconstructing those scenes from nearly 35 years ago?

Joe: The great thing about writing about the 1975 Reds -- and I had NO idea about this when I started -- is that there were four Spink Award winners around that team (Hal McCoy, Ritter Collett, Si Burick and Earl Lawson). And Tom Callahan -- who would go on to his own fame as a sportswriter at Time and author of "Unitas" -- was the Cincinnati Enquirer columnist. I was literally stunned by how much of that stuff that you and I both love -- those vivid and colorful verbal exchanges -- was written about in the papers. The coverage of that team was amazing. A lot of the best quotes and exchanges and little story lines were buried deep in the notes or well into the newspaper game stories, but I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that a vast, vast majority of the exchanges in the book were reported in the papers or in one of the books written just after the season. I was also lucky because the Enquirer beat writer was Bob Hertzel who loved these exchanges and reported them with glee, both in the paper and in his two books of the time -- one a diary with Pete Rose and another a recap of the '75 season. It was great, great stuff.

I did talk with the players too and many of them were extremely helpful reconstructing those scenes. Jack Billingham, Will McEnaney, Gary Nolan, Pat Darcy -- the pitchers off that team seemed to have especially sharp memories. The writers were very helpful and they were around that team in ways that it's hard for sportswriters to be around teams today. Callahan was amazing. What a memory. Hal McCoy, same thing. And one of my favorite people, both to interview and as a smaller character in the book, is Wendell Deyo, who was the team chaplain that year. I just happened across his name, and I emailed him almost on a lark. I'm not sure anyone had talked to him about the team before. We talked for hours and hours in a pizza place in Cincinnati, and I remember after leaving that interview feeling: "OK, now I know what this book is about."

Rob: I've read quite a bit about the Big Red Machine, and felt -- before reading your book -- like I had a pretty good handle on the personalities of Sparky and Johnny and Little Joe and Little Pete. After reading your book, I think I was mostly right (which isn't to say your take on those characters isn't still immensely entertaining). But one of the central characters in your book did surprise me: Ken Griffey, Sr. Was his discontent well-known and written about at the time. Or was this something you discovered upon interviewing him for the book?

Joe: It's interesting with Griffey: His discontent was not readily apparent in in '75, but it was there between the lines. Tom Callahan wrote a column during the '75 World Series that (rather gutsily, I thought) asked the question if the desire by everyone to make Johnny Bench the hero of Game 2 (when he led off the ninth with an opposite field double) had some racial overtones since it was actually Griffey's double later that inning that scored Concepcion (and the game-winning run). Griffey's quotes in that column were pretty measured, but I think you could feel his frustration in his words. The very next game Sparky pinch hit for him, and Griffey says he waited by his locker for one reporter to ask him how he felt about it. No one did. So I think there was some realization about Griffey's discontent, but that team was so good and had so many stars that I think people just didn't think much about it.

One of the things I most definitely did not know was that in '75, Griffey was very specifically ordered not to steal bases behind he was hitting in front of Joe Morgan, who did not not like having the base runner moving while he was hitting. He found it distracting. When I first heard that from Ken, I have to admit being just a bit dubious. But it's 100 percent true. There are stories from that year where basically Sparky Anderson said that, no, Griffey was not allowed to run. And there are quotes from Joe where he admits plainly that he did not like it when base runners tried to steal with him at the plate. There's a great moment at the end of Game 4 of the World Series -- if you have access to the video you have to watch it. Morgan pops out to end that game. But what's fascinating is that as soon as he pops out, he takes an angry second glance out to the field ... he's looking at Cesar Geronimo who was stealing third on the pitch. And after the game, he admitted to being distracted by that.

Griffey stole 16 bases in '75 despite punching up a .391 on-base percentage and being, by most accounts, the fastest player in baseball. I think he's very proud of being part of that '75 team, but he also feels he could have been an even bigger star if given the chance.

(Rob: I don't want this to count against my three questions, so I'll put it in parentheses ... I recall something in the book about Griffey having the ability to steal 70 or 80 bases, if only he'd been allowed to. But the reins were loosened a bit in '76, and he stole only 34. That would be his career high, and after his Age 30 season, he never stole more than 14 in a season. Players do slow as they age, but did Griffey's speed disappear sooner than usual?

Joe: It's interesting ... Griffey took this head on. I didn't even ask him about it and he said that after '75, he lost his ability to steal bases. Weirdest thing. Said that he was a great base stealer in the minors (he did steal 43 bases in Indy) and said that after '75 he just lost that ability. Said something to the effect of: "If you stop doing something, you lose that ability." He stole 34 bases in '76 but he says he wasn't a great base stealer that year like he had the potential to be. I do think his body type changed slightly -- you look at him with the Yankees and he's just a different body type than he was with the Reds. But he was utterly convinced that if the Reds had given
him the freedom they gave, say, Joe Morgan, he would have stolen 70 bases.)

Rob: This falls (mostly) outside the purview of your book, but I read a review that wondered why you didn't discuss the negative impact of free agency on the Reds' dynasty, which essentially ended immediately after 1976. The notion being, I suppose, that it was free agency that robbed the Reds of their best players after 1976; essentially, the franchise just couldn't compete under the sport's new financial structure. But -- and I don't want to put words into your keyboard -- the stars were all back in 1977, right? It was the pitching that fell apart, and not because of free agency. Also -- and this is really outside the purview -- but I believe the Reds generally maintained fairly high payrolls well into the 1980s. I guess there's not really a question in there; I'm just hoping you might address the Machine's sudden demise as a powerful force in the National League West.

Joe: Well, you're right. The book is really all about the 1975 season. There's almost nothing in it even about the great Reds team in '76. So I didn't really get into why the Big Red Machine fell apart, though it's an interesting topic. I think the general feeling (even in Cincinnati) is that free agency broke them apart. And after thinking about it and talking about it with people, I don't think that's true.

First thing they did was trade Tony Perez before the '77 season. They figured that Dan Driessen was ready to be the everyday first baseman (and he had a very good 1977 season) but the general feeling among players on that team is that they lost a lot when Perez was traded. For one thing, he was the most respected player on that team. And for another, I think the general feeling was that when Perez was traded that management no longer cared about keeping the team together. I'm not sure how any of us can measure psychological effects, but there certainly was a feeling among the Reds players -- even 30-plus years later -- that something fundamentally changed when they traded Perez.

The pitching indeed collapsed in '77. Even though they traded for Tom Seaver that year -- and he was amazing -- the team had a 4.21 ERA that year, 10th in the league. The bullpen, which had been such a key part of the '75 victory, was in shambles. Plus, Gary Nolan was hurt and he retired at the end of that season, Jack Billingham lost effectiveness. The only real free agency effect was Don Gullett to the Yankees, and that stung for one year. But Gullett was badly hurt -- he managed just 158 innings for the Yankees, and he retired the next year.

In '78, the Machine as we know it was more or less still intact and they won 92 games. Rose and Morgan, though, were showing signs of age. Bench was good but not the legend he had been. The pitching staff was pretty average. In looking back, I think that team just got old. Yes, after '78 Rose was gone, after '79 Morgan was gone (and the Reds did win the division in '79 with 90 wins), then Griffey ... but I think by then the Machine was a shell of itself. I think one thing that goes unnoticed is that the great Machine teams of '75 and '76 were not young. in '75, Rose was Rose 34, Perez was 33, Morgan was 31, Bench was 27 (but he had caught A LOT of games already). Jack Billingham was 32. Gary Nolan and Don Gullett were still young (27 and 24) but their arms were not. Even those so-called "young guys" -- Foster and Concepcion -- were 26 and 27, which as we know in baseball is not as young as people like to think. We want to believe players will last forever, but my sense is that the Machine crested in '75 and '76 and then sort of naturally aged.

Joe Posnanski's "The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds" can now be ordered from Amazon for a ridiculously low price.