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Spring Training Reflections

As I sit here, Reds Opening Day is 25 days away. I’m watching the Honda Classic until Reds spring training against the Padres begins at three. I’m inundated by Farmers, Geico, Liberty Mutual, Jake from State Farm, Allstate, Libbity Bibbity, Emu’s, Gecko’s, Ricky Fowler, Flo, Doug, Mayhem licking Tina Fey. I guess the fact I remember all that means the ads are effective,  but for the life of me I can’t figure out how any of that is gonna help me decide what company to get my car insurance from. Ever try to get a quote online? That generates enough spam, promotions, competing companies’ pop-ups, and phone calls to drive a guy crazy.

25 Days. Pretty soon manager David Bell will name his opening day starter. It’s gotta be Luis Castillo right? Besides staying healthy, not tipping any of his pitches will be one key to his success this year. I felt at times last year batters knew what was coming. He’s been developing one more pitch, a breaking ball. That’s going to help keep hitters from sitting on either his fastball or his excellent change-up. Sonny Gray has a case for being the better pitcher and he could possibly start as well. Good problem to have.
I have lots of traditions when it comes to nearing the start of another season.

I read “Wait Till Next Year” by Doris Kearns Goodman. It’s a charming look at life in 1950s Brooklyn and a ten-year-old girl’s passion for the game and her iconic Dodgers. I still buy the Street and Smith’s Season Preview issue. I’ll watch a few baseball movies. Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, The Natural, Moneyball, Major League 1 and 2, Mr. 3000, A League Of Their Own, The Lou Gherig and Babe Ruth stories, 42 (interesting and sad that in this movie Cincinnati is portrayed as the most racist city. But there were lots of inaccuracies in that film so who knows?).

Today I’m lucky because Castillo is starting this spring training game. Usually, pitchers are working to stretch themselves out, or work on certain pitches. My favorite pitch in my favorite baseball film is the double dipsy doodle hop that Ray Milland serves up in 1949’s “It Happens Every Spring.” Milland is a nerdy college chemistry professor, who develops a compound that repels wood. The solution winds up on a baseball that crashes through his window, and Milland realizes that the ball is repelled by the wood bats. He throws to the college team,  and every time a player swings at his pitch,  the ball jumps and dips around the bat. He’s unhittable. Of course, he makes it to the majors, and hilarity ensues. I like to watch this with my wife the night before opening day. For many years we went to the parade then the game. With the obligatory stop at the In-Between. One year when we lived in a fifth-floor apartment downtown the parade went right by us. I was home for lunch in my suit. Johnny Bench was the Grand Marshall and I leaned out and yelled “Hey JB!”  Bench looked up, waved at me with a big smile. As the warm sun shone through our big windows, I looked at my wife, loosened my tie and said, “That’s it. We’re going to the game!”We found great seats from a scalper outside of Westin’s 5th St. Market, went in and hit the buffet with a few Bloody Marys. A great opening day. Once I had young children it was harder to pull all that off. Especially the In-Between part! One year, after waiting in the stands for over an hour, we had to explain to my 5 and 3-year-olds why there was no game.  It was the day that poor plate ump John McSherry had a heart attack and died on the field. As the temps dropped and flurries swirled around we just said the game was called because of cold. By then the boys had stuffed their faces with every snack imaginable and were ready to go anyway!

Thinking about the past traditions of the game can be akin to lamenting the loss of loved ones at Thanksgiving. I try not to pay that much mind. I focus on the present, enjoy who’s here. Of course, we all went to Crosley with our long-dead Grandpas and Dads. Listened to Wait Hoyt. Watched Pete Rose’s rookie season on black and white TV. Went to playoff and World Series games.  I don’t want to get all maudlin. So I’ll try to acknowledge the loved ones then return to the present. I like the stories of Red Sox and Cubs fans taking World Championship memorabilia to the graves of their long-suffering loved ones. I get that.

I gotta say the Reds look terrible today.  The Padres are dominating in the 5th, 7-0. I know it’s spring training and all, but aren’t some guys trying to make this ballclub? Bats are silent, costly errors have been made,  pitchers getting shelled.A lot of Reds starters aren’t playing today.  It’s a day to prove yourself if you’re not part of the opening day roster. But they’re not getting it done today.

I spent some years in Northeast Ohio going to school,  playing baseball, and working.  Every year we went to opening day at wonderfully decrepit Municipal Stadium. There was no parade, but Indians fans used to losing were still every bit as excited as Reds fans to start the season. Partially because of the Tribe’s famous hot dogs with the brown mustard that must’ve been created not by the Bertman family but by the Gods. The coldest I’ve ever been at a game wasn’t the Bengals’ Freezer Bowl, or the previous year’s Ice Bowl in Cleveland, where Brian Sipe threw the interception to Oakland because it was too cold and windy to kick the winning field goal. Nope, the coldest for me was the Tribe’s Opening Day April 7, 1979. The day started out pretty nice, but we were criminally underdressed and as the wind shifted off the lake it became frigid. We stayed because Rick Waits was throwing a nine-inning shut out as the Tribe won 3-0. I think we all got sick.

The following year’s opening day goes down as maybe the best in Tribe history, as on a warm sunny day rookie Joe Charbonneau sent Cleveland fans into a frenzy by going 3 for 3 with a long homer and a nice catch and then a great throw to lead Cleveland to a win. Charbonneau was legendary for dyeing his hair,  drinking beer through a straw – through his nose! Also opening bottles of beer through his eye socket. He won Rookie of the Year, but a late-season injury messed him up and he never played a full season again.  “Of course, ” grouses Indian fan. Why do I write about Cleveland?I still have lots of friends up there, one of my buddies ‘ ashes are on the warning track,  a Cleveland vs. RedsI-71 World Series would be the most fun ever. With the best hot dogs.

Once the season starts I’ll be writing about the games,  the streaks, the hot players,  our new players, the bums and losers. And I’ll start the second-guessing that’s part of every loss. 162 games of action.  It means I lived through another Cincinnati winter. It means the grey and cold and rain and ice give way to gentle spring temps,  for a week or so before it becomes the blazing heat of summer. There’s the hope that this will be the year the Reds will go far in the playoffs, I’ll be rooting with my wife and my boys. It’ll be that one miracle year we all celebrate together, along with our friends. Maybe my one last big title! If it doesn’t happen, long-suffering great-grandkids can do what the Cubs and Reds Sox fans did and decorate my grave-when the Reds finally win the World Series in 2053!

“…send me dead flowers to my wedding,  and I won’t forget to put roses on your grave. “

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