The Cincinnati Reds were in a nasty frame of mind as they headed north to defend their World Series championship.

The team that complained it got no respect last year is grousing again about the way it's been overlooked in preseason predictions."We're a Rodney Dangerfield team," said pitcher Norm Charlton, one of the "Nasty Boys."

The Reds think they still have some things to prove to their critics this year. And that could turn out to be the factor that makes sure their World Series rings don't weigh them down in 1991.

"The thing is, people don't recognize us as a great ballclub," shortstop Barry Larkin said. "They say we've got something to prove."

They did just about everything last year, when they led the National League West every day of the season - the first NL team to lead from wire to wire in a 162-game season. They beat Pittsburgh in a league championship series that showcased their versatility, then swept the mighty Oakland A's in the Series.

The Reds were underdogs every step of the way, and learned to relish the role. It became their motivation last year: prove the critics wrong. And it's still their motivation as they prepare to open the NL season Monday at Riverfront Stadium against the Houston Astros.

"The sorry thing is that people don't give us (credit) as far as what we did," said opening day starter Tom Browning. "They don't realize the solid year we had last year. We won when we had to win."

In that light, the Reds consider 1990 just a first step towards bigger things.

When they reported for training camp, manager Lou Piniella cautioned them about complacency. Several times during the spring, he went out of way to warn that some players needed to do more to get ready for the bigger challenge of trying to repeat.

When the Reds left Florida on Saturday morning, Piniella was comfortable with his team.

"I liked a lot of things I've seen down here," Piniella said. "In general I'm pleased.

"I like the fact that Eric Davis is sound and ready to go. I like the fact that (Joe) Oliver is throwing the ball well. Bill Doran is ready. For the most part, I'm pleased with everything. I really don't have any concerns."

Neither do his players. Larkin watched the team in training camp and saw no sign of letdown.

"I don't think that's going to happen," he said. "It hasn't in spring training, and if there was a time when guys are not likely to work hard, it's spring training. That hasn't happened."

Larkin has noticed one change: this is a more confident Reds team. The sweep of Oakland has swept away the self-doubts that nagged the Reds during their near-misses of the 1980s.