Sunday, June 29, 1997
Anchor Smiley pulling
Reds further down

The Cincinnati Enquirer

John Smiley is the immovable object. The Cincinnati Reds can't trade him. They won't release him. They resist reassigning him. They would seem to be stuck with him.

Smiley isn't getting enough people out to interest other teams, and he makes too much money for the Reds to easily eat his contract. He carries a $3,750,000 salary and a 6.07 earned-run average, which is the kind of dollar value usually associated with Pentagon purchases. He ends a winless June as a large left-handed liability.

The Reds' most seasoned starting pitcher threw another round of thinly veiled batting practice Saturday, allowing seven runs in 2 1/3 innings in a 12-6 stampede by St. Louis. The defeat was Smiley's 10th of the season - he matches Cardinals starter Fernando Valenzuela as the National League's loss leader - and it raised the question of how bad a veteran pitcher has to be before he gets banished to the bullpen.

The answer, surprisingly, is John Smiley is going to get more slack. Reds manager Ray Knight said he had not considered removing either Smiley or Dave Burba from his starting rotation, despite their season-long struggles. Knight figures if either of these pitchers can be straightened out, the Reds may yet make a run in the bleak National League Central. He suspects the Reds finances and their farm system allow for few other alternatives.

''It's not something you rule out,'' Knight said, of shifting Smiley to the bullpen. ''But it's not something I've given any thought to. Our choices down there are not such that we could do it smoothly.''

A pitching summit

Unless Brett Tomko can be cloned, Knight may be forced to trust his season (and perhaps his job) to salvaging Smiley and Burba. He left Cinergy Field Saturday planning to spend his evening examining videotape for technical flaws. Today, Knight and Reds General Manager Jim Bowden have scheduled a summit meeting with their problem pitchers.

''The best thing for the club is to straighten him (Smiley) out and get him and Burba pitching consistent,'' Bowden said. ''If we're going to contend all year, then John Smiley and Dave Burba have to perform.''

Because they have previously performed brilliantly - Smiley was once a 20-game winner; Burba finished last year with 11 wins in his last 16 decisions - the Reds are reluctant to write either man off. Yet there comes a point with any underperforming asset where patience becomes paralysis. That point is fast approaching.

With Saturday's salvo, the National League is now hitting .310 against Smiley for the season. If he does not find himself soon, Smiley might best serve the Reds by returning to the disabled list and enabling the club to collect on its insurance policy. Some of his bosses wonder if the pitcher is still pestered by the groin pull that put him on the disabled list this month.

Smiley insisted that this was not the case, but he has yet to identify the source of his struggles.

''It's one of those things,'' he said. ''I don't know if I'm trying too hard or not trying hard enough... Everything I threw today was hit real hard or hit real soft. I couldn't get them to hit the ball at anybody.''

Losing command

Smiley threw two quick strikes to Royce Clayton, leading off the first inning, and then walked him in a sudden burst of wildness. He then fell two balls behind Ron Gant, who pounced on the next pitch for a two-run homer.

When Dmitri Young's subsequent two-out single scored Willie McGee from second base, Smiley was so flustered he forgot to back up home plate. When Knight finally came out to remove him in the top of the third, Smiley was halfway to the dugout when he handed the manager the ball.

''I know there's a solution,'' Knight said. ''I think with John, it's more mental than physical. Sometimes you just sit there and you're stunned because you know he's capable of dominating people.''

Before he became an immovable object, John Smiley was once an irresistible force. Of late, it seems a long time ago.