It was the penultimate at bat of the season. It has remained there on my DVR list for 171 days:

Giants @ Reds     Thu 10/11    12:00p    247 TBSHD. The playlist entry on the line above for the movie “Sucker Punch” sits there, mocking me.

I’ve watched the At Bat over and over again, not because I’m a masochist, although I confess a certain belief in the worth of suffering & sacrifice preceding the fruits of victory. I took the ’72 World Series loss to the Oakland A’s hard. I had felt we’d paid our dues in the form of Brooks Robinson two years earlier and again with a lost season in 1971. The year 1972 rightly belonged to a tested and retooled Big Red Machine. They were the better team, merely awaiting the formality of coronation. Then along came an ugly yellow and green-hued fate in the form of Mr. Outlier personified, Gene Tenace and his mysterious power surge; the punking of Johnny Bench during a routine intentional walk; the ignominious end culminating with the sight of owner and carnival barker Charlie O. Finley atop the visitor’s dugout with his wife, tap dancing on the Red’s fresh grave-of-a-season.

I hauled around that wretch of a World Series with me for, oh, I don’t know, some 18 years. For those old enough to remember, the World Championship of 1990 by an underdog team given no chance by the media, was sweet redemption made all the sweeter because of the arrogance of TLR and his blowed-up bash brothers—and how they reminded me so much of the mustachio’d arrogance of those ’72 A’s and their stupid white shoes.

So, on one level, Jay Bruce’s epic October At Bat feels like penance, or perhaps more accurately, a down payment on future glory. It is, if nothing else, a fascinating baseball moment, full of nuance and perhaps implications for a future that starts today.

Or so I like to think.

The Details
After a one out walk by Zack Cozart, a single by Joey and another single by Ludwick that plated Cozart, Jay Bruce strode to the plate, having already gone 1 for 3 with a walk in the game. With the Reds trailing 6-4 in the ninth, the kid referred to by some as “The Natural,” was looking for a mistake, something over the plate, something he could drive—nay, yank into the right field seats and reduce a little ballpark on the river to mass red and white hysteria.

The At Bat

The At Bat

Sergio Romo left one over the plate right away that Bruce fouled off harmlessly. His next pitch was where the first was supposed to be, down and out of the zone that Bruce, getting only the top third of the ball, left himself suddenly down 0-2.  Now, Romo’s plan was simple: away, away, away and wait for the Reds’ slugger to get desperate and chase. Bruce’s job was obvious: protect the plate and just stay alive long enough for Romo to make a mistake and leave something out over the plate.

On October 11, 1972, Johnny Bench had slammed a one ball, two strike Dave Giusti change over the head of Roberto Clemente and into the right field seats in Riverfront, probably not too far away from where Moerlein House now stands. That was the single most exciting moment watching a baseball game I can remember.

Now, here stood Bruce, forty years to the day later, fighting his demons, attempting to turn Romo into a modern day Dave Giusti.

Jay took pitch 3 wide and away, then fouled off pitch 4, a down and away slider. Another down and way slider was fouled off, followed by a middle of the plate offering that ran off the plate, again rejected out of play. The 7th and 8th pitches were similarly spoiled by Bruce.  Pitch 9 was a ball, low and very away. Pitch 10 was on the outside black and Jay yet again got enough of it to stay alive. Pitch 11 was a fastball up and in that might have caught the edge of the plate but was breathtakingly judged a ball.  In retrospect, the two pitches that covered the plate most were the first and last pitches of this novel of a plate appearance.

The At Bat lasted nearly 9 minutes. Catcher Posey visited the mound twice. Bruce fouled off a total of 8 pitches, turning an 0 and 2 count full before flying out to left field.

So what? Game 5 will go down in Reds history as opportunity squandered. But what if Bruce has carried the At Bat around with him all winter in his back pocket? What if Todd Frazier, draped all over the railing in rapt attention, discovered the larger truth of the At Bat.

Does anyone understand process over results better than Joey Votto? In a game where fabulous success at the plate is conferred upon those who fail most of the time, Votto’s perspective, attention to detail, and knowledge gleened from the great hitters who came before, have transformed him from a very good baseball player to one of the game’s elite. Votto strives to be the Ted Williams of his generation. I might even be shortchanging his ambition, so high is his bar.

But Votto is an exotic member of his species. His special gifts may not be viewed as a template for success by younger players who view him from a distance with considerable wonder and awe. Everyone has watched Jay Bruce struggle and grow into his stardom. His example could be more accessible.

We’ve examined the back of every player’s baseball card and then some. With the exception of Arroyo, Phillips and Ludwick, this is a team with hard-to-measure potential. Cozart, Frazier, Meseraco and soon Hamilton will carry the future.  What they learn from process over results, Joey Votto’s example, and yes, Jay Bruce’s At Bat, could be the unknown catalyst that produces unexpected personal achievement and carries this season deep into October.

Whatever the outcome, it’s fascinating to consider as we once again begin the journey on Route 162.

5 Responses

  1. MikeC

    Mr. Fitch, I remember where I was and who I was watching the game with when Bench hit that homerun as clearly as if it was yesterday. One of my friends watching with me was a Pirates fan, having been born in Pittsburgh, making the win sweeter. I never liked the A’s after the ’72 series and felt like you did that the ’90 series was redemption of sorts.

    I played an on-line fantasy baseball game for a couple of years and finished 3rd one year. My prize was a Bert Campaneris signed baseball. What a cruel joke – would have been better off finishing out of the money.

    The result of Bruce’s at bat was not as memorable and I had forgotten about it. Reading your story made me recall how I felt at the time – hoping against all hope that the Reds could pull out a miracle win. And being impressed with Bruce concentrating on all the pitches thrown his way, protecting the plate while waiting for a ball to drive, and wondering if the at bat signified him taking a huge step forward.

    The journey on another 162 begins today. I will be wearing my Reds warm-up jacket to work here in Milwaukee and will enjoy the harassment my co-workers will give me. Go Reds!

  2. TC

    Reminding me of a recent heartbreak on Opening Day is NOT endearing you to me, Richard.

  3. Bill Lack

    Richard…nice post.

    Like you, I remember the elation of the Bench homer as I watched after recently getting home from school and the the ’72 WS loss burned deeply and for a long time. I didn’t sleep that Sunday night after losing game 7 and I have NEVER forgiven Bobby Tolan for the two misplayed balls in CF that allowed all 3 Oakland runs or the sac fly that Hal McRae hit to the fence. The two WS wins in ’75 and ’76 didn’t even dull the pain, only made me wonder “what if”.

    Ugh, you had to dredge all that up, huh?

  4. Chris DeBlois

    As the late, great A. Bartlett Giamatti reminded us, Baseball is designed to break your heart. But I am so grateful that for every painful 1972 there is a joyous 1990, for every crushing Roy Halladay no-no there is a Tom Browning perfect game, for every flashy annoying in-your-face Alex Rodriguez, a classy, professional, perhaps even regal Barry Larkin.

    I am a baseball fan and proud of it, a Cincinnati Reds fan and proud of that too.

    Last year was heartbreaking at the very end. But this year just might be magically renewing. Those moments of disappointment, of pain, of learning and vowing to try again, they all make the triumphs so much sweeter. The brash triumphs like the final out of a World Series, a division clinching home run, a Hall of Fame induction, and the subtler but sometimes even more powerful triumphs like a simple haircut after ten wins in a row. I love them all, the bitter and the sweet. And on this day more so than any other. Wait ’til next year is finally here. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!

  5. PETEY

    Great post Mr. Fitch. I remember having a similar “process over results” reaction to another gut punching post season experience. When Jay Bruce walked against Halladay, spoiling what otherwise would have been a perfect game, I remember thinking,”Man, I hope that poise continues to shine through, to not jump at any bad pitches, and not get himself out in a situation that had to feel like a pressure cooker?” Most impressive.