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Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Big Red Machine

As the baseball season heads into its last weeks, and I search about for a team to root for, since my favorite team, the Tigers, are out of it, my thoughts turn to the Cincinnati Reds. This morning on Sportscenter I saw the highlights of their win over the Brewers, with phenom Aroldis Chapman picking up his first win, and I was taken back to the mid-70s and the days of The Big Red Machine.

I've been a Tiger fan since I can remember, because my father was (and still is). But for a while I had a second team. My father and his family are from the Cincinnati area, and my grandparents and their parents were big Reds fans. My grandfather told me about seeing Babe Ruth play at old Crosley Field (it would been when the Babe was on the Boston Braves, at the end of his career), and my grandmother recalled the 1940 World Champion team, with players like Eppa Rixey, Paul Derringer, and Ernie Lombardi.

My grandparents moved to Detroit in 1951, when my father was ten, so he grew up a Tigers fan, and so did I, and my grandparents' loyalties eventually shifted. But we all still had a soft spot for them, especially since one of their stars was Pete Rose, a kid from Cincinnati who was my father's childhood friend.

During the mid-70s, when the Tigers were in midst of a win drought, I became a big Reds fan. That team was a model of efficiency, especially the batting order, which I can still remember as if it were yesterday--Rose, Griffey, Morgan, Foster, Perez, Bench, Concepcion, Geronimo. The pitching staff was a patchwork affair, with old Captain Hook (Sparky Anderson) making constant pitching changes. The starters included Don Gullett, Jack Billingham, and Fred Norman, with Rawley Eastwick, Clay Carroll, Pedro Borbon and Will McEnaney out of the pen.

My favorite player was Joe Morgan, mostly because I always wanted to be a second-baseman for some reason, and he had two great seasons in 1975 and 1976. They won over 100 games in both seasons, and even if they were behind going into late innings, you always felt like they would pull it out.

Of course they almost lost the '75 series. It was one of the greatest ever played. I watched as much of it as I could, but being fourteen I couldn't stay up to the wee hours, as some of the games went into extra innings. The most famous moment was the end of Game Six, when Carlton Fisk hit the home run off the Fenway Park foul pole to win it. But the other key blast in that game was Bernie Carbo's home run in the eight inning. The Red Sox had been down, 6-3, but he tied it, after almost striking out on the pitch before. He tipped the ball, and Reds' catcher Johnny Bench called it the weakest swing he had ever seen. Carbo hit it out on the next pitch.

I listened to some of that game on the radio while in bed, but was asleep by the time of Fisk's heroics. I watched the entire Game Seven, though. The Reds were down early, 3-0, against Red Sox hurler Bill "Spaceman" Lee, but when Tony Perez hit a two-run home run I knew they would end up winning. They did, on a bloop single by Morgan that scored Rose.

The next year was an even better one for the Reds. They swept their playoff series against the Phillies, and then swept the Yankees in the World Series. It was to be the last gasp for that team, though. They were surpassed by the Dodgers the next two seasons, and Sparky Anderson was unceremoniously fired (to my pleasure, he was hired by the Tigers). The Reds won one more division in 1979, but that group of guys had largely broken up by then. It was my last time being a serious Reds fan. When they won the World Series in 1990, I was a disinterested observer.

But I think I'm fully on board for the Reds this year. The Padres and Cardinals are fading, and the Braves and Phillies are flawed. This just might the year for the Reds to win the pennant. I had to look at their Web site to see who even plays for them--aside from triple-crown threat Joey Votto, I wasn't even sure who was in their lineup.

So I hope they win this year, for old Granny Hodges, my great-grandmother, who used to go to the park on Ladies' Day, and apparently yelled as loud for the team as any man did.

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