Can they do it again?

By John Erardi • • April 3, 2009

Even though the reigning pitching phenom Johnny Cueto has yet to throw a pitch that matters ... and slugger Joey Votto has yet to line a hanging curveball into the right-center field gap that counts ... and second baseman Brandon Phillips has yet to dive headlong into the first-base hole to rob somebody of a hit, “Wait Till Next Year” already seems to be the mantra for Reds fans.

The season hasn’t even begun yet, the experts are telling us the best Cincinnati can realistically expect this year is to break its streak of eight straight losing seasons.

The Sporting News , for instance, thinks the Reds are a year away from serious contention. Sports Illustrated is a bit more optimistic, saying the team is poised to finish with a winning record, and possibly contend for a playoff spot. Still, the magazine predicts the team to finish fourth in the NL Central.

The head says the pundits are right.

But then, they said the same thing on the eve of Opening Day in 1961, when another new, young and promising president had just been sworn into the nation’s highest office.

Those Reds were picked to finish sixth in the eight-team league. But somebody failed to convince the players, who won 26 more games than in 1960, took the pennant, and played in the World Series.

“There’s nothing wrong with flying under the radar,” said Frank Robinson, the Reds Rookie of the year in 1956 and National League Most Valuable Player in 1961. “Let ’em say whatever they want to say about you, just put it in your heart and in your head and at the end of the year you can say, ‘Well, we showed ’em, didn’t we?’

“I like this club. I like their energy. They’ve got some good young talent. Their pitching is going to be good. I feel good about them. Maybe it’s going to be another ’61.”

Take that , pundits.

And as for you, Reds fans, open wide. We have just what the doctor ordered:

Ten cc’s of the tonic every fan needs on the eve of Opening Day:

“Hope Springs Eternal.”

A huge turnaround

Nobody gave the 1961 Reds a chance.

They went 67-87 in 1960, good for sixth place in the eight-team National League. The Reds finished 28 games behind Pittsburgh, which would shock the New York Yankees that October to win the World Series.

“I remember thinking as spring training (of 1961) went along, ‘We’re going to be better than they think,’ ” recalled Robinson. “Our pitching staff was young (25.8 years on average) and talented – pitchers, not throwers.

Robinson said he wasn’t sure what to expect from players like Gordy Coleman, the young first baseman. But those players showed a hard-nosed quality that people didn’t appreciate.

“That’s what it takes to have a good year – your veterans to do just a little better than they normally do, and your young guys to pleasantly surprise you, because nobody knows exactly what to expect of young guys.”

So could it happen this year? Nothing’s impossible – but remember now, we’re talking 10 cc’s of “hope springs eternal” here.

The ’61 Reds had a pair of star players in Robinson and Vada Pinson, and some very good role players, but otherwise largely won the pennant with their pitching and defense.

Indeed, baseball teams that shock the world usually have a surprising pitcher or two. In the case of the 1961 Reds, they had three or four.

Joey Jay, a 25-year who couldn’t elbow his way into the Milwaukee Braves starting staff, won 21 games here.

In the first and second halves, respectively, a couple of near-nobodys – Ken Hunt and Ken Johnson – won nine and six games. The end of the bullpen guys, Bill Henry and Jim Brosnan, were lights out.

Have you read all that, Micah Owings and Homer Bailey? Have you put it in your head and your hearts, Jared Burton and Francisco Cordero?

Do you believe ? Because, if it’s 1961 all over again, some or all of you are going to be sprinkled with magic dust.

“Somebody has to emerge on this pitching staff and be a pleasant surprise, because that always happens when a team isn't picked to win but does,” said Reds team historian Greg Rhodes.

“The difference this year is there are some bona fide candidates – it isn't wishful thinking.”

Luck is needed

Yes, the 2009 Reds have to be lucky. Not just in the sense of staying healthy, but in something that statistical analysts refer to as the Pythagorean Theorem, which essentially says that if you score the same of runs for the season that you allow, you will finish .500, give or take a game or two.

But, if you’re lucky, like the 1961 Reds, you can score only a few more runs than you allow, but win enough one-run games to be 8-12 games better than your Pythagorean Theorem.

The 1961 Reds were 34-14 in one-games. In baseball vernacular, that’s sick. In other words, that’s off-the-charts lucky and good.

A typical team is about .500 in one-run games over the course of a season, although it can vary from year to year.

The 2009 Reds need to be lopsided good. A very good year from the bullpen is important. And they’ll need to score at least as many number as they allow over the course of 2009. That means scoring roughly 50 more runs than last year, and allowing 50 less – or some variation thereof – to balance things out.

They’ll need some help from others. The Cubs, for instance, must come back to the pack a little bit in the NL Central.

And just for fun, because we’re looking at 2009 through these oh-so-rose-colored, crystal-ball glasses, let’s go all the way. The Reds’ Edinson Volquez needs to beat the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano in a one-game playoff to rocket the team to its first postseason since 1995.

Presto, 1961 lives again.

That’s a lot of ifs. But where does it say you aren’t allowed to dream?

Didn’t the 1961 Reds set out on a real dream-bender?

“You better believe it,” Robinson said. “We won our Opening Day game and I remember the feeling to this day.

“Hey, we can do this. We’re good. Let’s go.’.”

Must have dreams

They didn’t “go” right away – they started the season 5-10 – but were 20-6 in May.

“I don’t know at what point they called us the ‘Ragamuffin Reds,’ said Robinson. “But we took it to heart. We knew nobody was giving us a chance ..... But we knew we were better than everybody thought.”

Starting pitcher Jim O’Toole, no longer bound by the pitch-calls of veteran catcher Ed Bailey, who’d been traded early in the season, ultimately found his way to newly acquired catcher Darrell Johnson, who encouraged him to move the ball in and out as O’Toole saw fit. The lefthander won 13 of his last 15 starts.

The Reds nipped and tucked and brawled through the season with the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Coleman, who didn’t hit left-handers very well, nonetheless hit the great Warren Spahn like he owned him (16-for-31 with three home runs). Newly acquired third baseman Gene Freese had a career offensive year and a decent defensive one. He and Coleman cut up on one another the entire season and kept everybody loose, O’Toole remembered.

In mid-August, the Reds went into Los Angeles trailing the Dodgers by two games, but won the first game when Frank Robinson threw out Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax at first base on a single to right, and Koufax retaliated by drilling Robinson with a pitch. Reds starters Bob Purkey and pitcher Jim O’Toole then shut out the Dodgers in a doubleheader, and the Reds moved into first.

“I remember thinking, ‘God, we’re gonna do it,' ” O’Toole recalled.

Reds manager Fred Hutchinson fumed and fussed and fueled the Reds to the finish line, once even making his charges stay overtime for batting practice after a doubleheader loss early in the season, and then bed-checking and fining them that night, moves that turned things around, O’Toole recalled.

“We said, ‘Man, this guy is serious ,’ and we picked up on it,” O’Toole recalled. “We went out and really got after it, holding back nothing.”

Are you taking notes, Dusty Baker? Whatever the 2009 equivalent of that is, you’d better go out and do it.

Because that is how you win a pennant, miracle-style.

“Things have to go your way,” Robinson said. “But it can happen. It did happen.”

The 1961 team turned around not just a year, but an era.

"It was a watershed year," historian Rhodes said. "The franchise had only one winning season (1956) since the end of World War II - but after they won in 1961, they had the best record in the National League over the next 40 years (through 2000).

"No, there aren't any Frank Robinsons or Vada Pinsons on this team, but Jay Bruce has a huge upside and Joey Votto is a very solid player," Rhodes added.

"You're always hoping for great producers, run-generators. But there are different ways to win a pennant. One thing's for sure - this is the best starting rotation the Reds have had going into a season since (their last World Championship in) 1990."