CINCINNATI -- The Reds don't look like a team with the best record in the National League and biggest divisional lead of any club in the majors. In fact, things have been downright testy around here lately.
The Reds are a grousing bunch. Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble, two-thirds of their "Nasty Boys" trio of bullpen flamethrowers, are unhappy about how they're being used by Manager Lou Piniella. They want to start, as Charlton did in a spot-duty victory Sunday against the New York Mets. Dibble (4-2, 2.28 ERA) is being booed in Riverfront Stadium. He muttered something through clenched teeth Friday about perhaps needing to be traded.
Cincinnati's players have an ongoing feud with NL umpires. Six Reds have been ejected this year. Piniella, a potentially volatile sort himself, was so upset about Charlton's ejection Thursday he gave his club a spirited verbal spanking between games of a doubleheader against the Mets.
Earlier, his anger led him unwittingly to remove Dibble from the night's first contest when he sprinted to the mound, forgetting that pitching coach Stan Williams already had been there.
All of this came on an evening when the club should have been on its best behavior, with Commissioner Fay Vincent looking on from a box seat next to team owner Marge Schott. Bruce Froemming, chief of the umpiring crew that worked the series, called the Reds constant "bellyachers," and Piniella, even while blaming his players, complained: "I can't remember the last time a call has gone our way."
To top it all off, there is the inescapable matter of Pete Rose. Reds players would like to forget him, but they can't. They pass Pete Rose Way on their way to the ballpark. They see and hear his name in the local media practically every day, with the saturation point nearing now that Rose is due to be sentenced Thursday on tax charges.
The last person they want on their minds is Rose. He reminds them of frustration. In contrast to a city that's suffering along with its fallen hero, the players seem immune to the sentimental pangs associated with Rose being barred from baseball last summer.
But he's still a sore subject in the Reds' clubhouse. They're a team overflowing with disappointments. They last won a division title in 1979. They were left out of the playoffs in the strike season of 1981 despite having the best record in the majors.
They finished second in the NL West four straight years, 1985-88. Last season they were certain they would win the division, but the circus atmosphere of the scrutiny surrounding Rose hounded their every step. They finished fifth.
"It was a nightmare," shortstop Barry Larkin said. "It was all you heard about, all you were asked about: 'What about Pete and this, what about Pete and that? Did you hear what happened with Pete today?' We were like a sideshow. The games were an afterthought.
"You tried to concentrate on baseball, but it was impossible. You just wanted to get away from the park as soon as you could. . . . It's something we want to put behind us. To do that, to really do it, we have to win the division."
They certainly are in good shape to do so. Their 54-31 record is best in the majors. They have been in first place every day of the season.
They were atop the West at the all-star break for the first time in three years, and their eight-game lead was the furthest they've been ahead at the midway point since 1975. They are in the midst of a 12-game homestand and they'll play 49 of their 83 second-half games at Riverfront, where they are 26-12.
They lead the NL in team batting (.272) and in team ERA (3.11). They are tied for second in fielding. They have perhaps the game's best all-around shortstop in Larkin, a budding star in goggle-wearing third baseman Chris Sabo (with a career-high 16 home runs already) and a murderous supporting cast of Billy Hatcher, Glenn Braggs, Mariano Duncan, Paul O'Neill, Todd Benzinger and Hal Morris.
Eric Davis has begun to turn things around from his .230, injury-plagued first half. Jack Armstrong is 11-4, Danny Jackson has allowed no more than two earned runs in 10 of his last 11 starts and Tom Browning has won six of his past seven decisions. The bullpen is virtually unhittable, led by Randy Myers and his NL-best 20 saves. Dibble averages just under 14 strikeouts per nine innings, Myers 11 and Charlton 10.3.
"We have the most talented team in baseball," Davis said. "I guess you could say Oakland is up there too, but I think we have the best talent."
Yet there are reservations. This is a young team, but the players are reminded constantly by outsiders and even their own fans of the organization's recent near-misses. The Reds' links to their World Series-winning clubs of the '70s -- elder statesman Ken Griffey Sr. and his former "Big Red Machine" teammate, first-base coach Tony Perez -- preach caution.
"I tell these kids the pennant race doesn't really start until August and September. Everything until then is a warmup," said Griffey, sporting an All-Star Game 1990 T-shirt he lifted off son Ken Jr. with the explanation that "he owes me, all the gloves he took from me while he was coming up through the minors."
The Reds fear a clubhouse breakdown more than anything else. A locker room full of young stars is a potentially explosive mix to begin with, and Cincinnati's seem unusually high-strung.
Tempers easily could flare in the stretch in which the Reds play 27 games in the first 25 days of the second half. With Dibble and Charlton, the Rose affair and the umpire wars, nerves seem frayed already.
But Piniella dismisses any notion that internal unrest will keep his club from the division title.
"If someone beats us," he said, "it'll be because they beat us, not because we self-destructed. We're going to be tough to overtake."