OK, I'm obsessed with the Big Red Machine, but for good reason: That really was the greatest dynasty ever. So it doesn't matter I'm slightly biased since we moved from South Bend, Ind., to Cincinnati in 1968, when Johnny Bench joined Pete Rose and Tony Perez as early cogs for the Machine. I evolved into a Reds diehard with frequent trips to old Crosley Field and later to Riverfront Stadium. I also dealt with Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson and his loaded roster for the ages up close and personal as a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer during the latter 1970s. I still chat with several alumni of the Machine.
As a result, I'm getting chills just thinking about the miracle last weekend in Cincinnati at Great American Ball Park, where the Great Eight gathered together for the first time since they won the second of consecutive world championships for the Reds in 1976.
That's the Great Eight, as in the most extraordinary starting lineup in the game's history. They returned for the unveiling of the Joe Morgan statue on a busy downtown street corner, and Morgan was the Machine's Hall of Fame second baseman. Among other things, he was an unstoppable blur on the bases with a couple of National League MVP Awards. He also earned five Gold Gloves and eight trips to the All-Star Game after an enlightened trade by the Reds with the Astros following the 1971 season. Now Morgan joins Bench in bronze near the Reds' home ballpark, and Bench is the Hall of Fame catcher who is much more than that.
He is the greatest catcher ever.
Which takes us back to the greatest team ever, and the 1976 Reds acquired that tag after they swept the Phillies out of the NL Championship Series and the Yankees out of the World Series. It gets better. During the regular season, those Reds virtually led the Major Leagues in everything on offense: Runs scored, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases and runs per game. They could field, too. They had four Gold Glovers up the middle in shortstop Dave Concepcion, center fielder Cesar Geronimo, Bench and Morgan. As a team, they had fewer errors than anybody, which is why they also led the Major Leagues in fielding percentage.
In contrast, the 1927 Yankees were great, but they weren't Big Red Machine great. They topped the Major Leagues in all of those offensive categories I just mentioned -- except for hits, doubles and fielding percentage.
Advantage, Machine. And, yes, those 1927 Yankees had baseball's top ERA while the 1976 Reds, well, not so much. Starting pitching wasn't the Reds' thing during the 1970s, but they had one of the best bullpens ever. And get this: Even though the Big Red Machine was a massive steamroller at the plate, it was a Lamborghini on the basepaths. Only the Athletics stole more bases in 1976 than the Reds. As for the 1927 Yankees, they haven't stolen a base yet. They did steal back then, but you get the point. They were an afterthought in that category, which means they weren't as explosive overall as the 1976 Reds.
I can go on and on about the Machine, and I will, because we haven't even mentioned Rose, owner of more hits than anybody. Not only that, he played every millisecond as if it were his last with headfirst slides and the enthusiasm of a Little Leaguer. He was everywhere, too. After starting his Major League career as a second baseman, he mostly operated from left or right field during the early days of the Machine. Then he became its third baseman during those championship years. Plus, he was the people's choice locally as a Cincinnati native.
Rose was there over the weekend with Morgan and Bench. So was Perez, another Hall of Famer, who ranks among the most clutch hitters in baseball history. He was the first baseman for the Machine, and courtesy of his infectious smile, he was the most beloved of those Reds, both inside and outside of their clubhouse.
George Foster also was there, and he was the Machine's left fielder and big-time slugger not named Morgan, Bench or Perez. You could make the case that Foster was the last player before the steroid era to slam more than 50 home runs during a season (52 in 1977). Just like you can make the case that Concepcion triggered the explosion of shortstops in the Major Leagues who could do more than just perform wonders with their gloves. That's right. Before Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken Jr., and Barry Larkin, there was Concepcion, and he was a rarity among shortstops with his consistent success in the field and at the plate.
Concepcion was there, too. So was Ken Griffey Sr., and this Griffey was more than just the father of Ken Jr., the future Hall of Famer who later played for the Reds. Ken Sr. was a three-time All-Star for the Machine in right field, and he joined Morgan as the Reds' primary catalyst on the bases.
Then there was Geronimo, and he also was there over the weekend. He was the soft-spoken guy who nevertheless performed loudly in center along the way to four consecutive Gold Gloves. He also could hit, but who couldn't for the Machine? He spent the 1976 season as one of the greatest No. 8 hitters ever when he batted .307 while stealing 22 bases.
What team can top that?
None back then.
None before, none now and none forever more.