Some of my earliest fond memories are of watching and attending baseball games with my Grandpa Brinker. Exactly how he came to be a baseball fan I will never know, but we regularly sat together on a Saturday afternoon and watched professional baseball games in his living room. He would also take me to Little League games when I was probably 3 or 4 years old, and instructed me in the fine arts of the game. Though I would always have rather played than watch, being with him during a game was a special treat. It didn’t matter what teams we were watching, but I always felt like an adult as we sat in the big living room chairs and watched the pros perform. It was in that way that I got to see Ernie Banks hit his 500th home run.
As I grew older, the idea of getting to see a professional game seemed an impossibility. My father was no big sports fan, and his level of interest in doing such a thing always seemed to be at zero. Living in Parkersburg, we were many hours from Cincinnati, where my beloved Reds played, and equally as far from Pittsburgh, our archrivals. Cleveland and Detroit were in the wrong league, and equally far away. The entire situation seemed hopeless.
You can imagine my surprise then, when my parents informed me that my 17th birthday present (1971) was to be a trip to Cincinnati. I honestly do not remember the anticipation, the drive, or the hotel the night before, but game day is, even now, one of my clearest memories.
We arrived at the ball park early. Riverfront Stadium was relatively new, but all my energy was focused on getting to watch batting practice. I propelled my parents along at a rapid pace as we walked across the bridge from Kentucky to the stadium. I wanted to be the first person into the ballpark, but my hopes were not to be realized. The date we attended was a scheduled double-header between my Reds and the Mets - the last pair of games before the All-Star break. Due to the length of the day and the fact that it rained/sprinkled right up to game time, no batting practice would take place. My disappointment was tempered by the unexpected present, received at the gate, of an 8X10 black-and-white glossy of Tony Perez, who had long been my favorite player. It became the object of my fervent prayers that the rain would not prevent the games from being played. That would have been the ultimate disaster, since there would have been no possibility of our return at a later date.
Our seats were located in the upper deck, just one row back from the railing, and along the 3rd base line, about one-third of the way between the base and the outfield wall. The view was very clear for that distance, and I was pleasantly surprised that a lovely young lady wiped the mist off our seats as we found our way to them. The sun peeked through the cloud cover, and the day promised to improve.
I scanned the field carefully, looking for the players that I knew so well. For several years, I had traded assiduously for cards of the players on that year’s team. As I listened to each game on the radio, I would line the cards up in the batting order so I could look at my guys as they came to bat. (One of my few regrets in life is that my parents moved from our small Vienna house to the new one they had built while I was at college, and neglected to find my box of baseball cards, which are long since lost and gone forever.) I knew I would recognize them as they stepped onto the field, but disappointment awaited me again as very few of them bothered to run or throw. As my heart slowly sank again, my soul was delivered from despair as Lee May and Tony Perez emerged from the dugout. Even at my distance, it was immediately apparent that they were literally larger than life. The two men strolled from the dugout to 2nd Base, with a stride that was more swagger than nonchalance. The slow walk was mesmerizing as their impossibly broad shoulders swung side-to-side. Their return to the dugout completed their warm-up, but left me in awe that human beings could look so powerful at such a distance.
As the first game began, so did a relationship between myself and the 4 Mets fans sitting in front of us. The Mets were pretty good at that time, and their fans were feeling pretty frisky. The Reds had not yet pulled off the series of trades that would complete the construction of the Big Red Machine, but one could clearly see that they were building a potential winner. The New Yorkers were characteristically mouthy, but not in any rude sort of way, and as it turned out, the banter between us would provide nice punctuation marks to several incidents on the day.
The first game began, and many of my cherished beliefs about the game began to change, foremost of which was my belief in the possibility of the Home Run. During that first game, numerous balls were crushed by the batters, only to wind up falling harmlessly into the gloves of various fielders. I eventually told my mother that I had become certain that home runs were only a trick created for television to keep the viewers interested. My mother, who had caught something of the baseball bug from her father, had her own opinions about the progress of the game, believing that batters should get credit for a “hit” as long as they put the ball in play. (“They hit it, didn’t they?”)
Despite the dearth of long balls, the game was quite entertaining, and had more than its share of exciting moments. Bud Harrelson leapt about 15 feet in the air to snag a screaming line drive. At another point, he raced into Center field for a short fly ball, only to drop to all fours at the last second as Cleon Jones reached over Bud’s back to make the catch. The Reds pounded out hit after hit, with Pete doing all kinds of damage, but with Singles of course. The highlight of the game, for me, came when Hal McRae caught a ball in the Left-Field corner. The ball had been hit pretty hard, and McRae had to sprint full-out with his back to the plate. As he reached the wall, he leapt, pushed one foot off the padding, and reached out for the catch. Just as the ball was entering his glove, he blew a bubble with his gum! It seemed completely impossible that someone could make such a play. The Reds won easily (7-2), seemingly all on Singles. Still, it was great to see my team win the first game I had ever attended.
Then came the bonus. There is no one who more deeply feels the pain of today’s lack of double-headers than I. To me, that was one of the great things about baseball. In no other sport could the athletes perform twice in one day, and the second game always brought about several interesting twists in line-up or strategy that made them special. If they are followed up by an off-day, there is no logical reason that today’s teams could not play them regularly.
If there was anything disappointing about that first game, it was that Tony really did not contribute anything significant. Since I felt that a major reason for my being there was to witness his greatness in person, that cut pretty deeply. Perhaps the second game would provide other opportunities. When the line-up was announced, the Reds and Mets both stayed pretty much with their starters, indicating how important they both thought this game before the break really was. What it meant to me was that Tony would definitely play.
Early in Game 2, Tony lofted a ball to Right Field that looked pretty lazy, and the Met Right-fielder eased back to make the catch. As he drifted with the ball, he eventually found his back against the wall, and since the ball was on a moon-shot trajectory, it dropped just over the fence for a 2-Run homer. By golly! Home runs actually do exist! Admittedly, it was less than dramatic, but it had been hit by my favorite player on my day and gave my team a lead. That’s all pretty good.
In baseball time, my joy was pretty short-lived, because the Mets came back to forge a 2-3 lead (I always put the opposing team’s score last) that lasted well into the late innings. The longer the game went, the more chatty the Mets fans in front of me became. It was obvious that they expected their team to get the split, and that would justify their long day in enemy territory. As the game progressed, it appeared that they would be right.
As fortune would have it, the bottom of the 8th inning became the focal point for the entire game. Hal McRae again played an important role, as he reached base safely, then went to 3rd on Lee May’s Single down the First Base line. Virtually any other batter would have had a Double on the hit, but Lee was less than swift. Still, with runners on the corners, we had a chance to extend the game, especially since My Man was coming to the plate.
As any Reds fan of the era knows, Tony was called “Doggie” by his teammates, because he was the Top Dog when it came to getting runners home. Ironically, as this is being written, the Reds are honoring Tony with a statue outside their newer ballpark. Much has been said about “Doggie” this weekend, but the announcers last night touched on the key point of his greatness. As they capably stated, it wasn’t that Tony drove in more runs than anybody else, or that his RBI came in more important games, it is that they came at optimal times. Though it cannot possibly be true, anyone who watched baseball in the years Tony played, must come away with the impression that every RBI he ever had occurred at a clutch moment. From his game-winning Homer in the 1967 All-Star game to his vital Homer in the 1975 World Series, it always seemed that Tony came to the plate at the most critical times and came through with an RBI hit.
And thus, Tony coming to bat at this particular point signified to me that the Reds were actually in the driver’s seat, even though behind in the score. It should be pointed out that the Mets were not conceding the game at this point. Tom Seaver had been knocked out of the game early two nights previous, and the Mets signified their commitment to winning this particular game by bringing him on in relief. To the four fans in front of me, this was the death knell for the Reds. “Tom Terrific” would slam the door, and that would be that. (Ironically, years later Tom would join the Reds to throw the only No-Hitter of his career.) Their generosity reached such a peak that they even let me borrow their binoculars to get a closer look at Tony, who they confidently expected to be retired summarily, crushing my (and every other Reds fan’s) hopes of glory.
Seaver was firing fastballs that looked mighty impressive, even from my distance. They were explosive, following a taut line from his hand to Catcher’s glove. Thing is, Tony was fouling them all off. Eight times he fouled off a pitch, some by tiny amounts, some fairly solidly. One of my disappointments on the day had been that no foul ball had come near our part of the stadium, but now my wild imagination had Seaver throwing a 100-mph stick of dynamite that Tony would rip off in our direction. To catch that would have been a great consolation prize, even if the Reds lost. It did not happen.
The Mets fans were certain that sooner or later Tom would fire one past him, but I had been studying Tony for years, causing me to have a different theory. I handed the binoculars back to them, adding that Tony frequently fouled off many pitches before finally connecting fully with one. As if on cue, the very next pitch was followed by a resounding crack of the bat. Instantly the crowd rose to its collective feet, roaring with excitement as the ball soared off toward Center field. Having already seen so many other hard-hit balls, one might think that there was some hesitation about whether this one would be caught, but there could be absolutely no doubt.
The ball traversed the necessary space in just a couple of seconds, but the image is indelibly imprinted on my brain. It appeared to still be rising as it contacted the windows of the luxury boxes in the Center field stands. It is a fact that it deflected upward as it struck. The roar from the crowd was intense. The silence from the Mets fans was palpable. Following the obligatory nervous 9th inning, the Reds had won the second game on the strength of my favorite player. The result could not have been better for me.
I remember the trip home no more than I remember the trip there, but I know for a certainty that no author could have written a better story line for a young man to forever cement his love of a game, team, and player. Today I still have that glossy of Tony, as well as a bobble-head and a signed oversized card. Though I am a grandfather now, he will always be a part of my life and the sport I love most. I hope I can pass on my love of the game to my grandson the way my grandfather did for me. I’d love for him to have such a moment to remember all his life as clearly as I do.