Trade raid gives Johnson, Cincy look of a champ NL put on RED ALERT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cincinnati Reds manager Davey Johnson said he isn't sure what happened in Baltimore last off-season. He thought he had the inside track on the Orioles' managerial opening, but they never called back.

What he does know is that everything turned out for the best. He remained in Cincinnati and has the Reds on top of the National League Central. Despite a horrible start, the club has had the best record in the league for much of the season.

"I was very disappointed, because I thought it was a good fit," Johnson said. "If they had wanted me, I would have been there, but I had a job I didn't get a chance to finish here and now I've been given an opportunity to finish it.

"Things happen for the best. I think that has always been the case with me. Life works in mysterious ways. I've been fortunate because somebody has always looked out for me."

Johnson was speaking in spiritual terms, but somebody down here has been looking out for him, too. General manager Jim Bowden has pulled off two major trades in the past couple of weeks to shore up a club that already looked like a lock to reach the playoffs.

The Reds acquired pitchers Mark Portugal and Dave Burba and Gold Glove center fielder Darren Lewis in an eight-player deal that sent flamboyant outfielder/NFL star Deion Sanders to the San Francisco Giants. Then Bowden further addressed the club's injury-marred pitching staff by picking up 10-game winner David Wells from the Detroit Tigers.

It was a decisive front-office assault at a time when the second-place Houston Astros were trying to make a big move in the division race. The Astros have since been dealt a devastating setback -- Jeff Bagwell suffered another fracture in his left hand and will be lost for three to four weeks -- leaving the Reds in excellent position to defend their place at the top of the standings. Tomorrow night, they open a three-game series against the Atlanta Braves that could be a preview of the National League Championship Series.

"I think if you look at the talent we received and what we needed to make us a more complete ballclub, we certainly got exactly what our club needed," assistant manager Ray Knight said. "We need to get quality starts from four or five starters. Burba gives us flexibility. And acquiring Lewis was a big plus. He is one of the best two or three center fielders in the National League. With our pitching staff, it's particularly important to play solid defense."

Some might say that the Reds also benefited from some addition subtraction. They moved Sanders well before he might be faced with another difficult baseball/football decision. He once left the Braves during the playoffs to appear in a road game for the Atlanta Falcons, causing an unwelcome disruption that may have contributed to the decision to trade him to the Reds in May 1994.

The prospect of something similar happening in Cincinnati might be reason enough to send Sanders packing, but that apparently did not play into the decision to make the deal with the Giants.

"That wasn't an issue," Johnson said. "He gets a $1 million bonus if he finishes the baseball season. Would you give up $1 million to go back to football?"

Indeed, the players and coaching staff say that Sanders was a positive influence on the club. His tremendous athletic talent and his contagiously positive approach to the game, they say, contributed greatly to the winning chemistry that carried the Reds into the division lead.

"The only thing that concerned me about the deal at all was the losing the tremendous presence that Deion held in our locker room," Knight said. "He had a tremendous positive aura. A lot of energy. Guys really respected him. He knows how to win. That's something you don't want to delete from your ballclub. And he's not yet the baseball player he's going to be.

"Deion is a sensitive person, but he's a very loyal person. There were a lot of things that went into what happened in Atlanta. He's not a disruptive force. That was never a consideration. If he commits to something, he's going to see it through. I have great respect for him."

The Reds traded him because they had an outfield surplus and because they were able to get a tremendous return for Sanders, whose growing popularity in San Francisco -- where he played last year for the Super Bowl champion 49ers -- made him more valuable to the Giants than he might have been to any other baseball club. The Reds were faced with the prospect of going down the stretch without injured starter Jose Rijo, so they had to pony up a marquee player to bolster the starting rotation.

"For our team, it was tough to see Deion go," said second baseman Bret Boone. "He was well-liked. I enjoyed playing with him. He's a super guy. All he wants to do is win. But with Rijo going down, the necessity was to get some pitching. You have to give up quality to get quality."

The thing is, the Reds appear to have gotten too much bang for their buck. No one would have blinked if they had traded Sanders straight up for Portugal, who was one of the winningest pitchers in the majors the past two years. But they got Burba, a solid middle reliever, and Lewis, who ranks among the best defensive outfielders in the game. They gave up some decent prospects, including promising first baseman Dave McCarty, but no one who figured to play a prominent role on the club in the next couple of years.

"If you look at the players San Francisco lost, they lost quite a bit of talent," Lewis said. "Portugal is 32, Burba is 29 and I'm 27. But that's the way the business is right now. Sometimes, it's not the players themselves, but the salaries. It's a business, and those are decisions they have to make. We have to get the most out of ourselves."

The Reds have gotten the most out of a balanced offensive club, enough to let Sanders go without missing a beat. Right fielder Reggie Sanders and left fielder Ron Gant have combined to drive in 127 runs through the first 91 games, and the combination of Boone and Barry Larkin might be the best all-around middle infield combination in baseball.

The loss of Rijo was daunting, but the Reds were getting some good pitching before the arrival of Portugal and Wells. Pete Schourek is tied for the league lead with 12 victories, and veteran John Smiley is 11-1.

"We have to get quality starts from four or five starters," Knight said. "If you don't, you're going to be in trouble, because that taxes your bullpen. So we need for Schourek and Smiley to continue pitching. If that happens, we shouldn't have any problem maintaining the pace we've established."

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