There was something so beautifully imperfect about Sean Casey at the plate that made watching him a complete delight.
His lefty swing, while sweet in results, looked precisely how I’d envision most normal right-handed folks would look swinging lefty the first time the picked up the bat, somewhat pull-slappy like they still had half their eyes on themselves in the mirror to see if it actually looked correct. His back foot was cocked and contorted enough as he dug in that you questioned how much his ankle ligaments could take. Then, the bat came through the zone with some odd combination of burliness and briskness, but with a pristine precision that rarely, if ever, caused it to miss its target.
Baseball has long been a numbers game, even if some of the numbers we focus on have evolved over time. A .300 hitter, the 500 home run club, the 40/40 club, 300 game winner, ad infinitum. One round number that has long held significance is 100 runs batted in, a sign from one era that a player was the right combination of bopper, producer, and lineup battleship that served as the get ‘em in after the top of the lineup got ‘em on and got ‘em over. It’s that level of myth paired with Casey, the person, that makes both his 1999 and 2004 seasons stick in my head in perpetuity.
Casey, while a brilliant hitter, was never the classic bopper. Three times he topped 20 dingers in a single season and jammed 130 of them for his career, so he was hardly a slouch at the plate in the power department, but in an era of hug biceps and gargantuan blasts, it was evident from the first time you watched him that those simply weren’t his go-tos. A doubles-machine in an era of dingers is a great way to go rather underappreciated, particularly in a season in which all but 6 of his PA came in either the 3 or 4 spot in the batting order.
That was precisely the case in 1999, when on a brilliant Reds club that won copious games Sean Casey simply flourished in his own way before they all ran square into Al Leiter. For the season he hit .332/.399/.539 - good for a 132 OPS+ - socking a career-best 25 dingers to go along with - you guessed it - 99 RBI. A high-average, great contact, inside-the-park guy manning the spot in the batting order occupied more and more by big-swinging, big-missing power bats whose approach was a near inverse of how Casey found his success, making the Icarus-like flirtation with the round 100 RBI number almost the perfect descriptor for how Casey fit in with the rest of his mid-order peers.
If anything, it’s as if that 1 additional ribbie in 1999 would’ve pushed him into a category where he didn’t really belong - not because he wasn’t good enough to be there, but because it would begin to define him in a way that wasn’t really the most apt. A hundred ribbies was something he could do, and almost did, but that’s not nearly the aspect of his game that deserved the most reverence and appreciation some 15-20 years down the road.
That makes his 2004 season that much more memorable in hindsight, really. In his final season before hitting 30, and his last season of any real “peak-Casey” power, he once again flourished at the plate in his typical atypical way. He hit .324, walked 10 more times than he struck out, bonked 24 dingers and a career-best 44 doubles, and did so all while manning the middle of a solid Reds lineup. Again an All-Star, he was picking up ribbies along the way as a byproduct, not as a purpose, something we’ve become much more accustomed to as the game evolved after Casey’s final at-bat. And after driving in a run on September 24th as part of a typically great Casey night - 3 for 5 with a walk and 3 runs scored - he had 99 ribbies to his name that season with a full 9 games left to play.
To wrap this quite tale, I’ll concede that most of you Reds fans know how the year finished. 9 games, 0 ribbies, and a second time finishing with 99 RBI for a season’s tally. Once again perilously close to a very, very arbitrary number, once again ‘falling short’ of it as if that diminishes all the other fantastic ways you can describe his play. I think I’m plenty satisfied that he didn’t add 2 more career ribbies to the 735 he collected over the course of his rock-solid career, and specifically that he didn’t time them to each cross the plate in 1999 and 2004, respectively.
If anything, it gives me one more reason to remember how great Casey’s run was in a Cincinnati uniform, as well as how uniquely brilliant it was.