Sunday, June 04, 2000

Take us all back to 1975

        Long ago, in a sweet and innocent time we'll never see again, a future Hall of Fame catcher placed a signed, blank contract on the general manager's desk and told him to fill in the blanks.

        “Pay me what you think I'm worth,” Johnny Bench said to Bob Howsam in the winter of 1974.

        At about the same time, a batting champion dreamed of being “the first $100,000 singles hitter.” Pete Rose was.

Now and then: Jack McKeon and Sparky Anderson greet at home plate.
(AP photo)
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        If your career as a fan started sometime during the last 20 years, you're thinking this is a joke. It isn't. It wasn't.

        We didn't know it then. But in 1975, Cincinnati was Camelot. It was home to as good a love affair between a town and a team as sports has seen. And it will never happen again. They brought the 1975 Reds back to Cinergy Field Saturday night. If only they could bring back 1975.

        “Cincinnati was a conservative city, and I wanted the players to represent that properly. The way they looked, the way they played, the way they wore the uniform, the way they acted off the field. We wanted them to become part of the team but also part of the community,” said Bob Howsam, who would never make it as a GM today.

        I am old enough to remember when every sports conversation didn't include yak about money or yak about attitude, when sports conversation concerned, yes, sports. You didn't go to the games to worry about free agents skipping town. You gave your heart to players because you knew they weren't renting month to month.

        “At one time or another, all the players were on the Bob Braun Show or the Nick Clooney Show,” '75 pitcher Jack Billingham recalled. “We were pretty visible in the public.”

Players watch the pre-game ceremonies.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        Take me back. Take us all back, to when the games were reasons for joy, and anger was directed at umpires and not at “spoiled millionaires.” Back to when “people came to the ballpark for the pure enjoyment of watching a great team play,” as Reds radio man Marty Brennaman put it.

        Howsam managed to create one of the greatest teams ever, while molding its personality to match the town's. The '75 Reds were loved because they won and won again. Playing against them was like going to war against a billion Chinese, armed with a squirt gun. The Big Red Machine was easy on the eyes.

        But a reason The Machine endures is the fans liked who the players were. Or at least who they believed the players to be. “Everybody was good people,” Billingham said.

        This is what we miss about our games. This is what used to be. Before free agency, fans identified with their teams. Their teams came to wear the face of the community they played in. Think of the '70s Pittsburgh Steelers, the '60s Packers, the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Big Red Machine.

        You couldn't have a Machine now. The money would strangle it. The players wouldn't buy into the conformity. The fans wouldn't be so trusting. They'd be bitter, the way they are now.

        Saturday night was sweet, though. Sparky Anderson jogged onto the field. He threw out the first pitch; Bench caught it. Ken Griffey Sr. looked like he could play two today. So did Joe Morgan.

        Reunions at best are happy anachronisms. This one qualified.

        I asked Howsam about Bench's blank contract. “I think we paid him a little more for doing that,” he said.

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