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Here’s a story I’ve never told, at least not in its entirety. I’ll get through it as quickly as possible, so we can get to the actual baseball-y part of it.
From around the time I was born until I was about seven years old, my dad had a job working for a Phillips television manufacturer. He worked in their accounting department, and made enough money for my mom to stay home and take care of my younger brother and I, who were hand-crafted by Satan himself to make her life a nightmare. We had a mix of old Alabama songs that we would pop in the tape deck of the 1996 Plymouth Voyager we still own, which at the time served as the only vehicle my family had, and listen to it on the entire drive to and from dropping my dad off and picking him up at his job 45 minutes away. Once my dad was out of the car, my brother and I would demand McDonald’s breakfast from my mom, and when she would reluctantly say yes, we rewarded her by punching each other in the face and balls.
I actually liked those drives a lot, until they stopped. See, in the early aughts, the plant my dad worked for announced that they would be the latest to move out of the country. My dad, along with hundreds, if not thousands of other people, was being laid off. I’m not here to get into the politics of those moves, that’s just what happened (my family would go through the same thing when the Goodyear plant he would go on to find a job at would lay him off in the process of leaving the country years later). For a family with two kids and a third coming soon (who would soon be diagnosed with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes someone to be born with a hole in their spine), the news wasn’t easy to handle, and the coming weeks and months put my parents through a lot.
As this process was going on, my parents were able to get tickets for my family to go down to Cincinnati for a Reds game, seemingly just to get us out of town for a day. I know I’d been to a couple games when I was younger, but this was the first one I actually remember being at. And I remember how different my dad seemed that whole day. He was happy to be bringing us to the ballpark, happy to point everything out to us as we walked in, happy to tell us which players he liked. The last part I could already answer for myself, from names I’d heard him talk about when he would watch games at home. Sean Casey, Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, and the like were already familiar to me before I walked into the stadium, and getting to watch them that day was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Watching my dad watch them was even cooler.
I don’t remember everything about that day. I don’t remember if the Reds won (probably not), if the starter lasted many innings (probably not), or if anyone homered (probably!). But I remember having fun, and I remember seeing the way the Reds took the focus away from the problems my family was having at the time, especially for my dad.
I wouldn’t figure out until much later that the Reds were a bad team, only in the early stages of what would be nine straight losing seasons. I wouldn’t find out until later that sometimes teams trade their good players when they’re trying to get better, like what they did with one of my childhood favorites in Felipe Lopez. I wouldn’t find out til later that home runs weren’t the most important stat in baseball. I wouldn’t find out til later that my first Reds postseason game I got to witness as a real fan would result in them getting no-hit, or that at 22 years old, I still wouldn’t know what it’s like to see them win a postseason series.
I doubt any of that would have mattered then, though. And to be honest, it still doesn’t. Baseball’s funny like that. As our own Eric Roseberry pointed out last summer, even a bad baseball team can be there when you need them to be. For most of my life, the Reds have been a bad team. But they were there for my family that day when we needed them, and they’ve been there ever since.
On the way into the stadium all those years ago, I stopped at a vendor and picked out a plaque that had Sean Casey’s baseball card in it. I wanted it because I thought he was my dad’s favorite player. It was only ten bucks, but once my dopey seven-year-old eyes saw the shiny gold plate that had Casey’s name engraved on it, I thought it would be my most valuable possession for life. Children are easily tricked.
But for four years of college, that plaque sat in a corner of my desk, and it’s still with me today as I start an internship in Wisconsin, almost 500 miles from where I grew up - reminding me where my love for this team started, and what it still means to me.
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