CINCINNATI -- Were the 1975-76 Reds the greatest teams of all time? That is debatable, but where these teams fit into Cincinnati sports history is not. Few sports figures are as beloved as those who comprised the Big Red Machine of the mid-'70s, and if that adoration hasn't worn off by now, it probably never will -- multiple generations of Reds fans are making sure of that.
"People like to hold onto things that are constant," Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench said. "People like to sit and listen to the oldies. Well, we're kind of the oldies."
Twenty members of that golden oldie team, better known as the Big Red Machine, were in town on Friday to commemorate the 40-year anniversary of the 1976 World Series champion Reds, and to jump-start a weekend celebration of their sparkplug, Pete Rose, who will be inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame on Saturday.
While it's debatable whether the '76 Reds lineup -- nicknamed the "Great Eight" was the best ever -- fans of the '27 Yankees and '55 Dodgers may quibble with that notion -- it would be hard to find a team that rivaled the one the Reds had that year.
The Reds finished the '76 regular season 102-60 and swept the postseason, beating the Phillies in the National League Championship Series before taking four straight from the Yankees, claiming their second consecutive World Series title.
Three of the Great Eight -- Morgan, Bench and Perez -- have been enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, in addition to the team's manager, Sparky Anderson. Rose, serving a lifetime ban for gambling, remains the all-time hit king with 4,256 hits.
The best ever? Four Hall of Fame-caliber players and three more perennial All-Stars would seem to be a good place to start the argument.
"I would never get on TV or radio and say we were the greatest team ever," Rose said. "But I know one thing for sure. We were one of the best teams, but we were also one of the most entertaining teams ever. We had everything you needed to be entertained."
Rose then ticked off the check list. Speed. Defense. Power.
"We had batting champions, we had basestealer champions, we had home run champions," Rose said. "We had a flamboyant manager in Sparky Anderson. We had Gold Glovers everywhere."
They led the Major Leagues in 10 offensive and defensive categories and dominated All-Star teams, to the point where pregame introductions at the MidSummer Classic sounded more like just another Reds home game.
"From that respect, we were really a good team," Rose said. "The best ever? I don't know."
Then, in a perfect display of his wry sense of humor, Rose added: "I don't know if we'd beat last year's Kansas City Royals or not. We're all in our 70s, maybe we'd struggle. I know we'd beat the '27 Yankees, because they're all dead."
The '76 Reds were honored during an on-field pregame ceremony prior to the second of four games between the Padres and Reds on Friday. The former players emerged onto the field on a red carpet from the home dugout and stood next to star-shaped placards that contained the players' names and uniform numbers.
The Great Eight were introduced last: Joe Morgan (who was unable to attend), Dave Concepcion, Cesar Geronimo, Bench, George Foster, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey and Rose.
The video board then played a tribute to Anderson, who passed away in 2010. After brief remarks by Bench to the crowd, former pitcher Jack Billingham threw the ceremonial first pitch to Concepcion. The team then gathered around Reds CEO Bob Castellini for the unveiling of a '76 championship plaque that included the names of every player and top staffer from that team.
The ballpark was near capacity for this game, and the same is expected all weekend throughout the celebration of Rose and the Reds storied history.
"They still remember," Perez said. "They cannot forget the Big Red Machine. I think they're going to be remembered forever because [fans are] translating that to their kids. I am surprised when kids recognize me. They're 15, 20 years old, and they recognize you. And they never saw you play. But their parents tell them what we did and who we are."
Added Bench: "We were the Big Red Machine. Someone gave us that name, and it was prideful. It was something that everybody took the greatest pride in saying. And we walked out on the field with it. This was a magical time. To think 40 years later, and most of us are here, it's an unbelievable feeling. We reach back, and we're there again."