(Editor's Note: This "Kentucky by Heart" column by Steve Flairty first appeared in Lexington's KyForward.com. Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.")
It’s major league baseball time again, and as the Cincinnati Reds get their 2016 season underway, my thoughts drift to years past as a fan of the team while growing up about 25 miles from home field. I count over a half-century as being a Reds fan.
Looking back at my staying power, the number of wins are only a part of it. That’s a good thing, because many of the seasons were victory-challenged. The most recent one, in 2015, is an example. The Reds lost 96 games—the worst since 1982. The same organization that brought fans the Big Red Machine dominance of the 1970s and a 1990 World Series sweep of the supposedly invincible Oakland As, well, has been pretty human at times, too.
My fondest memories, perhaps, have to do with my Dad.
Can’t remember if my younger brother went, but dad took me to my first game in 1962 at the cracker box-sized Crosley Field against the New York “Amazin’” Mets, an expansion team that finished with a record of 40-120. Not much competition, but I was in heaven.
I suspect the Reds won that night -- can’t remember –- but I most remember future Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn playing for the Mets—his last season. It is said that Ashburn feared not being a regular, and he reportedly commented that if he had to be a benchwarmer for the Mets, he’d commit suicide. He retired before that happened.
On June 14, 1965 -- I checked it -- Dad and I also saw Reds’ pitcher Jim Maloney throw a 10-inning no-hitter, then lost the game in the 11th inning on a home run against an improved version of the Mets. In 1971 at Riverfront Stadium, we saw Phillies’ pitcher Rick Wise throw a no-hitter against the Reds and topped the night off by hitting two home runs.
In 1975, Dad and I were there the night Pete Rose was switched to third base from the outfield, a move that allowed power-hitter George Foster to become a regular outfielder for the team, a genius move by manager Sparky Anderson. The Big Red Machine was revving high rpms in those days.
Through the years, Dad and I had snags occur in our communication with each other, but the subject of Reds baseball was often an icebreaker for us. And as I came to realize, there were many times it was more fun to talk about the Reds than see them play.
Others have similar recollections. I talked to several people about their early days doing life with Dad and the Reds and got some interesting responses.
Rick Craig was a Knothole League teammate of mine while growing up in Campbell County. He recalls his father, the manager, taking their little league team, sponsored by Licking Valley Oil and named as such, to see a special “Kids Glove Game” back in the early 60s.
“It was the first game I had ever been to and I remember walking in and seeing the most beautiful ballfield I had ever seen,” said Craig. “The grass was so manicured and so green. During the game, Johnny Edwards, the catcher, hit a home run that went over the scoreboard in center field. To me, he was the best catcher ever. The pitcher, Sammy Ellis, was a pitcher I wanted to mimic during my entire Knothole League. What a great time, seeing these two young players, keeping track of the game with a score card, and having the best hot dog in the world.”
Craig also gave tribute to his dad for being the manager of his team and “taking time to build a memory.” Allow me to express the same sentiments about his father, Paul Craig. I was a player on his team, and of Amazin’ Mets quality. Mr. Craig never made me feel inferior about my lack of talent, but stressed my strengths. I often share that at speaking events today.
Ted Sloan, Frankfort, appreciates his father for his loving acts long ago.
“My dad cared little for baseball, but he went along with my love for the game and the Reds,” Sloan said. “At great personal sacrifice, he took us to a game or two at Riverfront Stadium every season for several years. At the time, I didn’t appreciate enough what a hardship it was for us to buy tickets, pack up, and drive almost two hours to see a game. Now, I do.”
Sometimes special moments at Reds’ games provide “inside” humor for families. Just ask Cassidy Beymer, then a nine-year-old, who is a recent UK business graduate and a former student of mine.
“The Reds played at Riverfront Stadium, and Willy Mo Pena was an outfielder and known for his long-distance home runs,” she said. “(But) It was time for me to visit the Dippin’ Dots stand, and while I was gone, Willy Mo hit a home run. Not just a home run, but a two-run homer to put the Reds in the lead and eventually win the game. When I returned to my seat, my family informed me what happened, and my nine-year-old self was less than impressed. So, to this day, my dad asks me, ‘Where were you when Willy Mo went yard?’ And I respond with the same childish grin, ‘Gettin’ my Dippin’ Dots.’ ”
Spouses Jenni and Jeremy Shannon are huge Reds fans. Jenni recalls the stories her grandmother told about walking across the bridge from Kentucky see them play, seeing Hank Aaron tie the all-time record for home runs, and watching “that precious Joe Morgan” play. Jenni’s father was a Cardinals fan, as he grew up in Paducah, close to St. Louis. Obviously, the grandmother’s influence was greater for Jenni, for whom she says a big thanks.
But then, there is her husband, Jeremy. The story gets even more compelling.
“Jeremy is the biggest Reds fan I have ever known,” said Jenni. “When we met at Georgetown College his freshman year when I was a junior, we bonded over our mutual love of the Redlegs. Although we broke up after dating a short time in college, we began talking again years later when I broke the awkward ice by texting him about a potential Reds trade. In fact, the first time Jeremy told me he loved me was during the fireworks after a Reds game.
“We had bounced around baby names as we first started talking about trying to conceive. He tossed out the name Crosley for a baby girl, honestly thinking I would shoot it down quickly. I immediately fell in love with the name that shares our love of a team, a tradition, and our history. We tossed around boy names for months but never loved anything as much as we did her name. We were thrilled when we found out we were having a little girl.
“Crosley’s middle name, Lane, is after that same grandmother. So when people hear the name Crosley and ask us if it is a family name…we both usually smile and say ‘kind of.’ We just joke that she is lucky we didn’t name her ‘Riverfront.’ Jeremy’s 93 year old grandfather calls her ‘Ball Park.’ ”
Whit Criswell recalled the game against the Giants with his dad and uncle when they met Willie “Stretch” McCovey along the seat railing. “He told my uncle: ‘Really miss you, Cuz.’ I asked him why he missed him and why he called him ‘Cuz,’ said Criswell. The reason was a surprise for the young, baseball-loving Criswell.
“He said he hit a lot of home runs off of him in the minor leagues. Then Willie Mays came over to the rail and said hello!”
The last game at Crosley Field was played June 24, 1970. Now Wilmore mayor Harold Rainwater was there with his father and brothers, a bit of a celebration as one brother had recently come back safe from the Viet Nam War. The Reds won with an exciting comeback, but the real highlight came afterwards when–in a special ceremony–a helicopter landed on the field and transported the home plate to Riverfront Stadium, the new home of the Reds.
Things got a little dicey, however, as fans tried to take home souvenirs from the ballpark, which was slated to be demolished soon.
“People started tearing stuff apart,” said Rainwater, “and my dad, in his wisdom, knew that his adult boys were in jeopardy and he said ‘Let’s get out of here.’ We held onto each other like little boys holding hands. Anything you could take, people were taking. It was really out of control at that point. We didn’t drink, but everybody else around us was. My brother still has the tickets from that game.”
Jason Eades enjoyed the chance to snag balls when he went to Riverfront in the late ‘70s with a gathering of kids and dads. He remembered the day a favorite player tried to be nice to his group.
“We were in the right field bleachers and got to see ‘The Cobra,’ Dave Parker, up close and personal along with ‘Pops’ Stargell. Dave was kind enough to toss a ball our way, but unfortunately there was an oversized kid, a young adult who proceeded to push his way through to catch it. I’m still looking for that guy to this day,” Eades said with a big grin.
And something compels me to close with this joke heard often in Reds Land days growing up:
“Do you know the Reds are not going to sell beer this year at the ballpark?”
“Because they lost the opener!!”
Hopefully not this year…
Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.”