There’s nothing unusual about a kid having a favorite player or two. Our sports heroes, like teachers, firefighters and movie stars, serve as role models that we mimic on our path to adulthood. Like many teenagers growing up in Cincinnati during the Big Red Machine era, my favorite player was Pete Rose. Today, 24-hour sport networks, unlimited online information and intimate camera angles tighten the bonds between children and their faves even further.
But hero worship peaks during adolescence as we begin to settle into our own lives. The role models of our youth fade in importance as we move to adulthood. The song, Puff the Magic Dragon, by Peter, Paul and Mary, is about that loss of childhood innocence. Its lyrics tell of Jackie Paper, a little boy who outgrows, for instance, the wonderment of scaring away pirate ships (presumably from Pittsburgh).
While we may outgrow our role models, sports figures in a general sense continue to entertain as we reach adulthood. We cheer in awe of their skill and the beauty of their athleticism. Sometimes the best player on your local team or a hometown star catches your attention.
But truth told, adults also often have favorite sports players. They are part of the deeper psychology of being a sports fan. We connect with favorite players in ways beyond simple excitement. They fulfill more complex emotions, like belonging, escapism, validation or identification.
Favorite players aren’t role models for adults like they are for children. They’re the opposite.
They are the toys of our adulthood.
Homer Bailey is my favorite player. No big surprise there to anyone paying attention. During the time I’ve posted at Redleg Nation, I’ve written a Texas gusher’s worth of pixels about him, including my first post (where the heart is). Later, I wrote about how close (four pitches) he’d been and, after that, how he (roars into 2013) was ready to be a star. And I was fortunate enough to witness in person and write about (Homer’s homers) my favorite player throwing a no-hitter.
Professional journalists aren’t permitted to be fans of the players or teams they cover. They aren’t allowed to cheer in the press box. Happily for me, bloggers aren’t bound by the same norms. People who read sports blogs understand this, right? If you want analysis cloaked in presumed objectivity, read a national writer like Ken Rosenthal or a local beat reporter. When you come here, you’re reading subjective opinions, inevitably colored by the emotions of being a fan.
I attended Homer Bailey’s first major league start. Even though the 2007 season was barely two months old, the Reds were already fifteen games under .500 and in last place. The conventional wisdom today is that Homer Bailey was rushed to the major leagues. But back then with the club’s record at 23-38, most of us didn’t care.
He had steadily progressed through the Reds’ minor league system, from La Grange High School to Great American Ball Park. Yet on that humid June night, amidst equal part hope and hype, I honestly didn’t know much about Homer Bailey.
Nonetheless, along with 38,000 others in the park and countless more watching on television, I cheered the arrival of the 21-year-old Texan. As a friend and I walked together into the stadium that night, the vendors were already selling Reds t-shirts with “BAILEY” on the back.
The park throbbed with electricity. And then Homer Bailey struck out the first batter he faced, Grady Sizemore, with a fastball. The Reds eked out a 4-3 win over Cleveland and Cliff Lee that night. David Weathers earned the save. But Bailey needed every one of the 114 (!) pitches that manager Jerry Narron let the tall right-hander throw to David Ross in his five innings of work.
The team was still in last place, but Homer Bailey was 1-0.
One of the many great things about attending spring training is how close you can get to the players, especially when they’re practicing. You can walk right up to the chain-link fence behind the players’ bench, just like at your local little league field. And, if you’re lucky, you can stand a couple of inches from your favorite player and watch and listen to him work.
One morning in the spring of 2009 (the Reds were still in Sarasota), Homer pitched three innings in a simulated game against the minor league players. Pressed up against that chain-link fence, I watched him pitch and listened in on a couple of his conversations while his team hit. When Homer finished the third inning, he had this exchange with Reds’ pitching coach Dick Pole.
Pole: “When I went home last night, there was a snake climbing the wall. I didn’t know they could do that.”
Homer: “Yeah, they can climb walls, they can swim, too.”
Pole: “I knew they could swim. It had a lot of colors, so just to be safe I beat it to death with a shovel.”
Homer: “I always say, the only good snake is a dead snake.”
And then the sweaty pitcher turned around and, without looking, spit on me. I guess that’s what I deserved for standing so close and should consider myself lucky that Dick Pole didn’t come after me with a shovel.
Homer Bailey’s best game for the Reds wasn’t one of his no-hitters. It was Game Three. Despite losing Johnny Cueto eight pitches into the series, the Reds had won two games in San Francisco. A win and sweep over the Giants in Game Three would give the Reds three days off before playing in the NLCS.
That season, Homer hadn’t pitched nearly as well at home as he had on the road. But in Game Three, on that immense stage – the biggest of his career – Homer Bailey took the ball and dominated San Francisco for seven innings. He struck out ten and walked one. He took a no hitter into the sixth, at one point, striking out six Giants in a row.
I remember the intense passion in the park that afternoon. Baseball crowds usually aren’t like football or basketball crowds. But we were that day. I’ve seen Michigan vs. Ohio State in Ann Arbor and Columbus. I’ve been to the Rose Bowl. When I was in college, I saw UK basketball in Rupp Arena against Bobby Knight. I saw the Fab Five play Duke at home. Rabid hometown fans, all.
But on the bank of the Ohio River that afternoon, Homer Bailey and the Reds turned forty-five thousand GABP fans into a college football or basketball crowd. As the game went on, we shouted Ho-mer! Ho-mer! Ho-mer! as #34 walked to the dugout after every shutout inning.
I remember Homer being really, really angry at being lifted in the bottom of the seventh inning for a pinch hitter in a 1-1 game. He’d only thrown 88 pitches. My heart wanted him to stay in, but my brain suspected that pulling him was the right move.
Early in his career, Homer Bailey reportedly was stubborn to the point of being uncoachable. His fastball was too straight and curveball too loopy. His wind-up was too long and messy like his rookie-season hair. And man, did he give up more than his share of heartbreaking home runs.
But Homer Bailey is no longer a 21-year-old rookie. His fastball jumps, his splitter dives and he controls his slider or curve. Batters swing and miss. Mercifully, the cringe-inducing home runs are much less common.
Beyond the numbers, there’s the way the velocity surges on his fastball late in the game. I love watching that happen.
If favorite players are indeed the metaphorical toys of our adulthood, then like the real toys of our childhood, sometimes we lose them. Or they’re stolen by the fat-walleted Dodgers or Yankees, or other bullies. And just like with magic dragons, we learn to handle the loss and make way for other toys.
But that didn’t happen with Homer Bailey in Cincinnati this week. And because I’m not a professional journalist, there’s nothing wrong with me expressing elation at the prospect of five more years watching my favorite player pitch for my hometown team.