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Saying goodbye to the big game hunter

Cincinnati Reds Photo Day Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Homer Bailey has, almost certainly, pitched his last for the Cincinnati Reds. He spent 14 years in the Reds organization: since getting drafted in 2004 he ran the gauntlet, and three of the minor league stops he took are no longer Reds affiliates. He rang up 1,001 strikeouts, pitched two no-hitters, and had the single best postseason start in a Reds uniform since Jose Rijo.

Naturally, he is seen by Reds fans as a colossal disappointment.

I have written about Bailey a lot over the years, in a style that was fun enough at the time but now reads poorly. Five years ago is a lifetime ago, and we can’t go back there. I look at it and cringe. But I still have a few thoughts about Homer saddling up and riding his horse into the sunset.

What is Homer Bailey? Is he his best moments or is he 14 years of promise beset by surgeries, rehabs and at times a world-historic bad defense behind him? If back in 2004 Bailey’s agent were to negotiate his signing bonus by saying “this kid’s gonna get you two no-hitters, a stellar postseason, and pitch over 400 innings in the best two-year period this town’s seen since the 1970s,” how could the front office not hand over a blank check? How can we, as fans, begrudge the monster deal which ended up as a golden ticket to Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, and something Farmer or Tucker or something? Homer Bailey was a crucial part of the most fun I’ve had as a baseball fan. Some bummer nights as well, for sure, but also moments I’ll cherish forever.

As Heeringa noted, Homer Bailey may be the worst pitcher ever to throw 2 no-hitters. But you have to hand it to him: he did throw 2 no-hitters.

I want to see the best in Homer, but if I can decide who Homer is, what does that mean for me? Am I my entire corpus: this aching body, this balding head, these regrets and sorrows? Or am I my happiest memories, my worn fingertips and the four-month-old kid sleeping in a rocker behind me?

Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

There’s the answer I want to give, but it’s not the correct one and here’s why: a few weeks ago, I was catching up with an old friend — the kind I see once a year or every 18 months. After some back-slapping and tired jokes we settled into a blow-by-blow of our last chunk of time and asked each other the question just about every two dudes who have known each other for a decade have asked each other recently: what do you think about that Brett Kavanaugh business?

There’s a common paraphrase of Margaret Atwood: “men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them.” In 2018, it was suddenly (finally?) part of the national discourse that a man could put the fear of death into a woman and have it not even register as a memorable life experience.

So what are we: our happiest memories or the sum total accounting of what we’ve done?

Watching Kavanaugh, and later talking about it with a friend who I went through my twenties with, I was reminded of all the times I was at my worst. I suddenly remembered the drinking, the shouted arguments, all the times I’ve hurt someone. I have never dragged a woman out of a party and covered her mouth while I l cackled with a friend, no. But I know that I’ve hurt people and rarely people who did anything to deserve it, all in the name of being a boy-man figuring out his place in the world.

Watching Kavanaugh be accused of the cruelty of being a young man, I winced in recognition of all the times I’ve been a cruel young man. It’s not a nice feeling, but who’s fault is that? Who needs to reckon with my cruelest moments?

Kavanaugh certainly has things to commend him. He is a graduate of many of this college’s most expensive educational opportunities, and he has the sort of hair that is usually only seen on Pac-12 Conference football coaches or prosperity gospel preachers. He has a lot to be proud of, and is proud of those things. It’s just that a man is more than his memories, he is also the memories he has branded onto others.

In male friendships of a certain vintage, you only catch up at the high points: weddings, births, and so on. It’s easy to pretend these moments are who we are. It is certainly easier to remain friends that way, smiling and back-slapping our ways back into each others’ hearts.

But like that high-school coach aphorism goes, you are what you do when nobody’s watching. We are capable of projecting enormous cruelty onto the world while being completely oblivious to whom it lands on, we have the potential to annihilate lives without signing the receipt. There are thousands or millions of moments when the opportunity to be just has begged at our feet and we just whistled on by. How does all of this weigh against the few bright spots I cherish? I haven’t the foggiest idea.

I know nothing of Homer Bailey-the-person, and this blog isn’t about that. But I went from boy to boy-man to boy-dad under the arc of Homer Bailey’s time with the Reds. There were some parallels slopes with his foundering pitching career and my sunken writing career. I’d like to remember him for the diamonds and not for the rough, in large part because that’s how I myself would like to be remembered.

Homer Bailey was a whole pitcher, and there are reasons he both earned a huge contract and hugely underperformed it. He was a better pitcher than many, and worse than quite a few. And he’s no longer doing it for my favorite team.

Was Homer Bailey a disappointment? Only if I expected him to be better and more complete than I ever could. Pretending our favorite athletes, politicians, our anythings are only their best moments is a way to call the ugliness a lie. Homer Bailey had his moments. That’s all any of us get.

Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images