CINCINNATI — The secret behind the Cincinnati Reds' sudden Central Division surge isn't so much the veteran third baseman with the leadership skills, or the crafty rookie pitcher, or the savvy shortstop, or the clutch-hitting left fielder.
It's that white-haired fellow who brought them all here.
"At this point," said the Reds' Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman, "I'm not sure Walt Jocketty is getting all the credit he deserves."
But then jumping front and center is not the way of Jocketty, the 59-year-old general manager who was deftly pushed out of St. Louis after 13 years, including a world title in 2006.
When he signed on to be Reds owner Bob Castellini's top adviser, Jocketty claimed he had no interest in returning to the GM seat. But fortunately, on April 23, 2008, Castellini talked Jocketty into replacing the ousted Wayne Krivsky, and what has followed has been a series of smart, level-headed moves that have built a contender.
"There's no question that's where it starts," said Reds skipper Dusty Baker on Tuesday night. "You've got to have the horses in the stable. We had some pieces already here, but he's added some pieces."
Important pieces, starting with the 35-year-old cornerstone third baseman, Scott Rolen, acquired in a controversial trade with Toronto last summer.
"There was a lot of scrutiny around that deal," Baker said. "A lot of scrutiny."
"There were people who looked askance at him bringing Rolen here last year because he gave up two young pitchers," Brennaman said. "Nobody talks about that anymore."
Not with Rolen hitting .293 with 14 homers and 40 RBI. He's tied for second in the NL in home runs, tied for seventh in RBI. He might lead the league in leadership.
"He is everything that anybody said he would be," Brennaman said. "He's a pro on the field, a pro in the clubhouse. Guys look up to him."
Much the same can be said of 35-year-old shortstop Orlando Cabrera, signed to a one-year deal on Feb. 1.
"He's got three world championship rings," Brennaman said. "He knows what it takes to project yourself over a full season and do the things that you have to do."
Jocketty's best decision might have been re-signing Jonny Gomes. The journeyman outfielder has driven in 37 runs in just 165 at-bats. It's easy to forget that, as late as Feb. 21, Gomes was still a free agent without many firm offers before Jocketty decided to bring back the free-swinger.
"And he took a chance keeping Mike Leake," said Baker of the rookie pitcher who without benefit of an inning of minor-league baseball is 5-0 with a 2.22 ERA through 11 starts.
"We still might need a couple of more pieces," Baker said. "It's hard to keep a team together this time of year. We'll just have to see."
What observers see in Cincinnati is a general manager who has brought some needed professionalism to the job, who has surrounded himself with good baseball people who can give him good, sound advice.
"He's got two or three former general managers here," Brennaman said. "Once you put those people in place, now, in order to get the most out of them, you've got to be able to sit back and listen. That's the way (Big Red Machine-era GM) Bob Howsam did it."
Example: When the Reds signed Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman to a six-year contract on Jan. 11, Jocketty was in Europe on a two-week vacation.
"He's very even-mannered," Baker said. "He has a temper, but he doesn't show it a lot. He wants to hear what you have to say. He might not be in agreement, but he wants to hear it. And he never tells you he disagrees, he just says 'That's interesting.'"
"I like that so much I've used it myself," said the manager.
In Cincinnati, Walt Jocketty has made things interesting again.
Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or email@example.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.