After two innings, San Francisco led the Reds, 8-0. Terry Whitfield of the Giants was three for three before the Reds' Cesar Geronimo even batted once. Thinking to spark life, the Reds flashed a pair of hands clapping on their zillion-dollar animated score-board. The idea was to have the paying customers, an announced 52,115 of them, clap along.
The 104,230 hands sent the Reds a message. The love affair is over. Here's your ring back, buddy. Because Cincinnati had the first pro baseball team in 1869, the Reds traditionally open the major league season. The opener is a cultural event here, usually told out three months early.
Not this year. The 52,115 tickets were gone only yesterday. The Reds' president, Dick Wagner, is seen by some natives as a fiend. Imagine, if you will, Jimmy Carter selling the Lincoln Memorial to Philadephia and trading the Washington Monument for Grant's Tomb. Wagner did something worse. He couldn't keep Pete Rose in town and he fired Sparky Anderson.
"TRADE WAGNER FOR FINLEY & $4,000-OK, BOWIE?"
That's what a bed sheet proposed from the left-field bleachers in the third inning today. Only speed-readers caught it, though, because two stadium cops confiscated the suggestion seconds after its appearance. Cynics would think, from the quick work, that Wagner had his men on alert.
At the merciful end, the Giants won, 11-5. The Reds made five errors, three in a second-inning performance that catcher Johnny Bench likened to (a) mass confusion, (b) total disorganization, and (c) cancer.
Tom Seaver, the starting pitcher, threw away one at third base. Bench threw away one at third base. The third baseman, Rick Auerbach, dropped one. Seaver threw a wild pitch, gave up five hits and took and early bath.
The customers did not like it at all. It confirmed for them all their worst fears. If they know Pete Rose was no Nureyev at third base, at least they didn't see thrown balls whizzing past him while people ran in circles around the bases. And when Sparky Anderson was the manager-instead of this John McNamara guy - they didn't see Seaver throwing to third while the third baseman's back was turned, which he did today.
"It was," said Bench in his "I Love Cincinnati" t-shirt, "a perfect drill of how not to do things. Those are things you're supposed to get out of your system in spring training."
Bench is not the player he once was. Time has treated him brutally. Injuries have robbed him of ability, but not of confidence. He says what he thinks, and he thought nothing good today.
"We threw the ball around like we didn't know where anybody was," he said. "It was mass confusion. We just showed total disorganization. I'm surprised they didn't score more than eight runs in that inning."
How could a team with world championship pretensions - Wagner fired Anderson, he said, because he wanted a "new direction" for the Reds, who finished second in the NL West last season-play like also-rans from the sandlot?
"It's like cancer," Bench said. "You can't explain it, it just eats at you."
On a gray and chilly afternoon after a morning rainstorm, customers had little taste for the buffoonery of their once-beloved Reds. By the fourth inning, the stadium was half full. By the ninth, only relatives and loved ones hung on. It was one of the quickest vanishing sellout crowds in history.
"I don't deal with fans anymore," said Joe Morgan, the littlest Red who once was a mountain in this town. He was the league's MVP in 1975 and '76 when he hit .327 and .320 and collected 44 home runs, 205 runs batted in and 127 stolen bases. Last year he hit 236.
"Fans are fickle," morgan said, biting off the words.
How sad the little man's words were. They loved each other once, Cincinnati and Joe Morgan. Now he says he pays the customers no attention. The Big Red Machine has a broken heart.
Red Dickerson knows that. His barber shop is hard by Riverfront Stadium and Sparky Anderson was a steady customer for eight years. Sparky's picture is pasted on the shop's front window, facing the stadium. Inside the shop, Dickerson, 51, has banners of the world championship years.
"Oh, my God, people are mad about Sparky being fired," Dickerson said. Putting it in personal terms first, the barber said, "It cost me three regular customers-Sparky and two of his coaches, Alex Grammas and George Scherger.
"I'm mourning not seeing Spark. He came in every 10 days or two weeks and I kept him looking beautiful. And he was a great person. We had as high as nine people stampede him while I was cutting on his hair. He'd catch 'em all, from little infants up to grandmas, and handle 'em smooth as oil.
"People in these parts loved him and-hear-this-he was always talking about how he couldn't believe it. He would say, 'I still can't believe a damned hillbilly from the Dakotas is managing a big league team." He was the best there was, that's all."
The Reds' problems go beyond a manager, though. The Giants, now moving past the Reds to challenge the Dodgers, can follow their pitching ace, Vida Blue, with solid arms named Bob Knepper and John Montefusco. Behind Seaver, the Reds have-er, who?-Bill Bonham? The Bill Bonham whose arm required surgery last winter? That one.
"The Reds are going to play ball," said Red Dickerson, the barber who keeps on a shelf a lock of Sparky Anderson's gray hair (honest), "but they're not going too far unless they get some pitching. I don't care if the manager is Casey Stengel or Sparky Anderson."