Bill Fischer was fuming, his face flushed with anger, unhappy with the work of his pitching proteges during the June series in Los Angeles. The Cincinnati Reds' pitching coach lined his men up against the left field fence.

"I was chewing them out," Fischer explained.

Tom Hume, his ace reliever, told a different story. "He asked us if we'd seen the cocaine story in Sports Illustrated," Hume said. "We said we had."

"He asked, 'Do you guys use cocaine?' We said no. He said, 'Then start (using it).' "

Some joke.

But such is life with the absurd Cincinnati Reds. They were once called the Big Red Machine. Bards of Cincinnati now prefer the Big Dead Machine. The team that compiled the best record in all of baseball during last year's fractured season is battling Minnesota for the worst 1982 record in all of baseball--almost 25 games out of first place.

Manager John McNamara, his fate apparently sealed when he admitted that Reds President Dick Wagner was dictating some personnel moves afield, was fired July 21. Russ Nixon, the third base coach, was named as the replacement.

It has been the strangest of seasons in a city not used to losing at baseball.

Going into 1982, the Reds had compiled 14 winning seasons in 15 years, including World Series triumphs in 1975 and 1976. To be wallowing far beneath teams like San Diego and Atlanta is pure sacrilege in this baseball-mad town.

These days, the fans of Cincinnati are angry. Piqued. Feeling betrayed. The source of their anger is directed at the man they perceive as having sucked the life out of the Reds, Dick Wagner.

The nightmare by the Ohio River is all his. It is the product of the Wagner master plan that was supposed to combine reasoned economics--that is, holding the line on exorbitant salaries--and shrewd trading. Bring in a few new faces, count on the veterans, like Tom Seaver and Johnny Bench, and develop the farm system.

So Wagner went to work. Outfielder Ken Griffey was traded to the New York Yankees for Brian Ryder and Fred Tolliver, who are in the minor leagues. Third baseman Ray Knight was dealt to the Houston Astros for Cesar Cedeno; Knight now leads the league in batting.

George Foster, the National League's most valuable player in 1977, was sent to the New York Mets for catcher Alex Trevino and pitchers Jim Kern and Greg Harris. Dave Collins, the Reds' speedy but defensively unreliable outfielder, was left free to test the free-agent market and was grabbed by the Yankees. Catcher Joe Nolan was sent to the Baltimore Orioles for minor leaguers Dallas Williams and Brooks Carey.

"You either give them the key to Fort Knox," Wagner has said, "or you let them go."

Wagner, in interpreting the conservative Cincinnati organization's thrifty fiscal policies, let his people go. It is the Reds' front office philosophy that by developing a strong farm system, you create surpluses that may be used to acquire players to fill needs at other positions.

Through the '70s, the Reds' way of doing business worked. The team won six division titles, four NL pennants and two World Series, while drawing more than 2 million fans yearly to Riverfront Stadium during 1973-80.

The question of 1982 remains: "Was the Big Red Machine dismantled too quickly? Did Wagner give up too much at one time?"

Foster, Collins and Griffey, as last year's outfield, accounted for 192 of the Reds' 464 runs scored and 147 RBI. The armchair general managers are having a field day.

Exacerbating the problem has been the unthinkably poor 1982 experienced by Bench and Seaver. Bench hit .309 last year while Seaver was 14-2 with 2.55 ERA. This year Bench is hitting .236--he was under .220 in McNamara's last days--with eight home runs and Seaver is 4-10 with a 5.46 ERA.

"I think," Wagner said, "the thing we had hoped for was a couple of people to lead us out of the wilderness by their performance and I haven't seen that."

A list of Cincinnati underachievers needs a table of contents.

Cedeno, expected to provide a Gold Glove in center field with 20 homers and 50 stolen bases, has been less than a defensive flash, though hitting .292, with seven homers, 43 RBI and only a paucity of stolen bases. Trevino, looked at as the Reds' starting catcher of the future, has had little success throwing out runners and is splitting playing time with young Dave Van Gorder.

Outfielder Paul Householder, a can't-miss prospect with good power, was a first-half washout with four home runs and a .188 average before the All-Star break. Clint Hurdle, seen as a starting outfielder, is in the minor leagues. Kern, the Reds' middle reliever, has been solid, but has fallen short of his 1979 form, when he was 13-5 with a 1.57 ERA for the Texas Rangers.

Former Red Pete Rose of the Philadelphia Phillies said at the All-Star Game, "The Reds traded their outfield (Foster, Griffey, Collins) and Ray (Knight) and they got one good player in Cedeno. They tried to fill in the gaps with young players and they didn't replace them with major league players."

Attendance is down close to 20 percent and the Cincinnati Enquirer is running a contest for predicting when the Reds will be statistically eliminated from the NL West race. The contest winner gets two tickets, the worst seats in the house, to a Reds game. The runner-up gets four tickets.

Wagner may not have yet developed a siege mentality, but as the architect of the mess, he is living in a daily Dunkirk.

On July 2 came a story from the San Francisco Examiner. In it, former Red Joe Morgan blasted his former boss and assailed the Reds' management.

"The management only cares about dollars and cents, not winning and losing," Morgan said. "What saved them for all of those years was the players cared. It's not going to save them now. Pete Rose. Joe Morgan. Johnny Bench. George Foster. Tony Perez. These were guys who wanted to win in spite of all of the other stuff that was going on."

Through it all, though, the man Cincinnati loves to hate has remained calm. Wagner has not panicked but has decided that it is time to go with youth. The bus from Indianapolis has brought with it outfielders Eddie Milner and Duane Walker, Van Gorder and infielder Tom Lawless, all of whom have played well.

"I guess, in a way, it's good that these young guys are getting the chance to get experience in the big leagues, but it's a two-edged sword," said Reds batting instructor Ted Kluszewski. "If the guys we counted on to play well were coming through for us you wouldn't see these young guys up here."

The Reds, meanwhile, remain way down there--headed for their worst finish in 45 years. The Wagner Master Plan has been an unmitigated failure through 100 games. The team with a new manager and an infusion of youth now must pick up the pieces of this shattered season.