What's wrong with the Cincinnati Reds?

In this strange baseball season, that is one of the most-asked questions. The answer seems simple: pitching, or the lack thereof.

The Red's staff has an earned-run average of 4.62. A year ago, despite the cries that their pitching was mediocre, the staff's ERA was 3.51.

But the answer is not that simple. Even with its pathetic pitching, most observers agree that manager Sparky Anderson's team should have a better record than the 52.51 mark it carried into last night's game with Chicago.

"I don't blame people for asking why we're not doing better," said Anderson, forthright as ever. "People deserve an answer. When you see a ball-club the caliber of ours, there's no question we should be playing better."

Many Reds-watchers point to a lack-adaisical attitude that started in training camp and has stayed with the team. Curfews have not been met, discipline among the stars has been lax and dissension, once thought of as something foreign, has been seen in the clubhouse.

"It hasn't been any one thing," Anderson said."I think you have to go back to before spring training started. We were all wined and dined. The guys went to Hawaii (for the Superstars competition) and made a lot of money."I look at myself and I say, 'Did you lose touch with reality?' I've always been very careful about that kind of stuff. I know that all that glamour isn't what's real. I don't think I lost reality but looking back. I must've, at least for a while."

During the spring, the Reds took things easy and presumed that when the bell rang, they would be there. But when April rolled around, it was the Los Angeles Dodgers, not the Reds, who sprinted from the gate.

Slow starts are not alien to the Reds. They have made a habit of catching the dodgers in recent years in much the same style that a classic distance horse runs down a rabbit in the stretch.

Not this time, however. The Reds are apparently carrying too much weight to get to the finish first.

No one will argue with Anderson about early attitude problems. But Rawly Eastwick, who was the National League's fireman of the year in 1976, but today finds himself a St. Louis Cardinal with a 5-7 record and 3.46 ERA as a result of a bitter contract dispute, says there's more to it than that.

"It wasn't just that the guys weren't psyched up," he said. "All spring we had problems dealing with petty things from the front office. They made it hard for us and they made it tough for Sparky."

"We'd won two world championships and they're trying to tell us to wear sport coats in 100-degree heat, how to wear our hair. Hell, they even tried to tell us what charity to contribute to."

Eastwich also believes that the current pitching problems are the club's fault. He attributes his own problems to "all the things on my mind," but says the Red staffs problems are another story.

"When we left spring training, our arms weren't in shape," he said. "All spring they kept giving work to the young guys who weren't going to make the club.We didn't get enough work and it showed. I think the whole team was that way."

"They've taken a staff that won two world championships and broken it up. They have some good young pitchers over there. But it's going to take them awhile to get it together."

The Reds broke up their pitching staff by trading Will McEnany, Santo Alcala, Gary Nolan, Pat Zachry (for Tom Seaver) and Eastwick, and by sending Pat Darcy down to the minors and losing Don Gullett in the free-agent draft. They also traded Tony Perez, one of the team's leaders.

"I guess that was the start of it," said George Foster, who, with 34 homers and 102 RBI, seemingly has not been affected by the turmoil. "It's been a combination of things. When something's going on involving one guy it works on everyone's mind. Once you start on the mind, you have trouble.

"It's easy to second-guess. We only have three of our 10 pitchers back from last year and our pitching just hasn't done the job yet.

"All the transition, all the new faces, not knowning people, trying to make everyone feel at home, they take your mind off the game. We haven't been able to just hone in one playing baseball all year."

The Reds had a difficult spring with Johnny Bench and Dan Driessen injured and Pete Rose and Eastwick fighting with management.

They stumbled early, righted themselves, and by the time June rolled around, appeared to be on track. On June 19, the day Seaver made his debut as a Red, they were only 6 1/2 games behind the Dodgers.

But then the team began to feel the affects of all the player moves. Slowly, the Reds, most notably the pitchers, crumbled. Their July record was 11-18.

"You know you just can't take 25 guys, throw them in a room and make them come out friends," said Jack Billingham, co-dean of the pitching staff with reliever Pedro Borbon. "There's no way a team can be close-knit when you have nine or 10 new guys.

"People always criticized our pitching. No one ever said anything good about it. But we were all proud of ourselves, proud to be Red pitchers.

"Now, whenever we go out, if we lose it's because of the pitching, it's the pitcher's fault. I'm not saying it's not. That sort of feeling just makes it rough.

"People always say that we've got basically the same eight guys on the field that won the championships. Well, maybe it's a cliche, but it takes 25 guys to win. You need a Doug Flynn to fill in at short, a Bob Bailey to get a big pinch hit. You need 10 pitchers doing the job. It isn't eight guys, its 25."

So it does not appear to be any one thing that has brought the Reds, 66-38 and 10 games in front at this juncture a year ago, down.

The Reds say they still have a chance to catch the Lodgers. But they are realistic. "We've got one chance and that's if we beat 'em all nine times we play 'em," Anderson said. "And that ain't going to be easy."

"Three weeks ago, we all thought sure we were going to catch them," Billingham added. "Now we know it will take a miracle."

Miracle or not, the Reds remain a proud ball club. Anderson already begins to talk about next year with little prodding.

"For this year things didn't go right," he said. "We've missed Tony (Perez) off the field and the pitching has had trouble.

"But I think right now we have the best personnel we've had here in my eight years. Next year we'll get to spring training and we'll be hungry. In the long run, this will be good for us.

"In fact I would make a bet with anyone who wanted to take it right now that we'll win 100 games next year. I'll bet any amount of money they want to."

The irony of it. Someone crying, "Wait 'till next year" because they have been beaten by the Dodgers.