Big John and Little Joe are making their last stand here, back to back like old gunfighters pulling one final bank job against the odds.

Their buddies, Charlie Hustle and Sparky, have watched with compassion this week as team necessity has forced the bobbled pair back into the Cincinnati Reds lineup - inform but still essential.

Baseball, once frolic and fame, has been reduced to pain and pride for Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan.

Big John his 215-pound body carved with scars, pulls on his orthopedic corset. "A catcher and his body are like the outlaw and his horse," said Bench. "He's gotta ride that nag 'til it drops."

Little Joe conducts his private inventory of injury on his 5-foot-7 frame - sprained wrist, strained thigh, pulled groin and torn stomach muscle. "I'm used to laughing at other players," said Morgan. "Now they're laughing at me."

The desperate call to arm was sounded Sunday in the Reds' locker room. The team that won world titles in 1975 and '76 had been shut out four times in a week and had just lost three in a row to Los Angeles.

"If John and Joe could get healthy," said Pete Rose, flourishing in the midst of a 23-game hitting streak at age 37, "this could still be the peak year of the Reds."

Manager Sparky Anderson sounded the same trumpet note.

"Without Bench and Morgan in the lineup, and I don't just mean their names. I mean the real McCoys, we get no chance to win this pennant. "None," said the white-haired skipper. "I could run up a smokescreen. But every player on this team would know it's a lie.

"We're treading water desperately withour 'em, and we ain't swimming nowhere until they're bank.

"A lincup is like a puzzle. With a couple of pieces right in the middle left out, you ain't got a picture of nothing."

So Bench first, then Morgan, more reluctanly, dragged himself back on the field, though no doctor would say that was right place for either.

Bench did not catch a game from May 27 to July 2. A combination of a pulled back muscle, back spasms and total fatigue twice put him in the hospital.

Finally, on Sunday, Bench decided he could fee no worse and wasn't going to feel any better.

"Pain is something a catcher lives with," said Beach Friday after struggling through his fifth straight game behind the plate "Ive done that all my life, acclimated myself to it.

"Once, they X-rayed my foot. The place I had just hurt was fine, but they found three old breaks that I'd never noticed, said Bench who has worked an amazing 1393 of his 1,513 games behind the plate in the last 10 iron-man seasons.

"Crouching forward actually relieves the pain," informed Bench, unsnapping his foot-wide corset. "It's standing in one spot for a couple of minutes that really gets me."

Bench, who has had shoulder surgery, lung surgery (removal of a nonmalignant growth) and a variety of broken bones, long ago consigned his catcher's body to a losing war of attrition.The 22-year-old who drove in 148 runs is gone forever.

Now, hitting has become depressingly simple, Bench, hitting 228, must now "wait for one good pitch. If I'm not looking for the right pitch in the right spot at the right time. I can't hit with authority." His reasons for playing have reached a frightening bedrock.

"We're losing, We need help Somebody has to take the burden off the other guys. And I'm paid excellent money to play," said Bench, coming to his final conclusive point.

"And one other thing," he said, almost defiantly, as though someone can might contradict him, "as long as I can play, we'll win the pennant.

"And one other thing," he said, almost defiantly, as though someone might contradict him, "as long as I can play, we'll win the peasant."

Other players might give a sheepish, self-depreciatory grin at that point. It's almost mandatory. But Johnny Bench is in a corner now and angry. The fans boo him; his pride is injured every time he swings and misses with an old-man's feeble cut.

"I've been booed as much as any man in Cincinnati history," Bench said. "For 1,000 straight games those guys in the stands have expected us to win. As you get older, they'll never adjust or try to understand. You accept that, but it's a mental drain."

Morgan has found the boos of the crowd, the ptiy of his peers, vastly harder to accept. "Joe's never had to hear it before," Beach said with a grin.

The little second baseman has lived a magic baseball life - going 76 consecutive games last year without an error, routinely reaching base nearly 50 percent of the time. Between the stolen bases and the home runs. Morgan has known little except near-perfection. Flawlessness is his trademark.

"It's not enough to be without intolerable pain," said Morgan after returning to the lineup Friday night. I could have stood out there (at second) a week ago. But would I have been Joe Morgan?

"I hate to embarrass myself," said Morgan, a necklace reading "Love-Live-Laugh" around his neck. "I know people say. 'What goes around, comes around.' They say swallowing your pride is just part of life. But I still hate it."

Morgan hates it, but he has done it. "I got to get my act together, summon up my pride," said Morgan. "I didn't want to do it this way (playing hurt), but it looks like I'm going to have to."

As for those amazing boos. Morgan shakes his head. "It's tough, but I've always expected it. Especially here, Man, I saw em boo Bench, the greatest that ever was. I said, Joe, it's just waiting for you.'"

Though Morgan is hitting .255 and Bench has only 30 RBI, Anderson should be delighted to see "my coconuts" back in the lineup. But, deep down, he isn't.

"I'd like to say that John and Joe coming back has given us that . . . that suck-it-up and let's-win-it-all-one-more time feeling," said Anderson.

"I have not sensed that throughout the team yet. I wish I did. It's what we have to have for this grueling thing we gotta go through the next three months.

"But it ain't there yet. I sure as he'll wish it was.

A certain disappointment, approaching bitterness, comes over the central Reds - Big John, Little Joe, Charlie Hustle and Sparky - whenever their fans or the rest of the Reds team is mentioned.

"People here don't understand. They still expect us to bombard everybody," said Anderson. "As long as Birch and Morgan are out. of playing been all year with these injuries, we have no firepower.

"We've played 32 one-run games; we ain't had a laughter in six weeks; we've had to fight for every inch.

"I've had to work," said Anderson. "I've had to do some managing. That and good old-fashioned prayer.

"We've fielded lineups where the bottom third of our order is hitting 160. There are four innings a night when I know we aren't going to make a sound. We better make a lotta noise in the other five."

Rose looks at the respectable Reds' pitching and still dreams of the greatest of all Big Red Machines. But Morgan said, "This team, even potentially, isn't as good as that '76 club."