I have a lot of good Reds memories. Most of us do, I guess.
I remember sitting on the floor in my living room, watching Eric Show give up THE HIT to Pete Rose. The REAL hit came a few days earlier in Chicago, but nobody knew it then and we celebrated like we’d won the lottery. I screamed so loud, our pet beagle, Murphy, had to leave his customary spot in the sun next to the door to get away from all the noise.
I was in attendance on Johnny Bench day in the early ‘80s when Bench hung up his spikes. The game was humdrum, but they gave a Johnny Bench handout at the gates to the first X-thousand guests. I still remember how it looked, sitting in the corner of my room next to the door. No amount of music posters, Chicago Bulls memorabilia from the ‘90s MJ teams, or hastily built bookshelves could supplant it from that place of honor. I kept that handout stapled to my wall until I graduated high school and THEN I kept it with my baseball cards. I lost both it and the baseball cards when my parent’s basement flooded in 1998. So it goes. Bench was always my favorite player. I wore my baseball cap backwards from birth in deference to him. I still do, even though I’m nearly 40 and I look weird when I do it. It just feels wrong to wear it right.
I attended nearly every Findlay Market, Opening Day parade in the ‘80s, and I got to stand behind home plate on opening day in 2004 when I worked at GABP as a beer vendor. Dick Cheney tossed out the first pitch. It was a presidential election year (oh, to have Bush and Kerry to choose from again. #smh). We had to pass through Secret Service every time we got a new bucket of beer, which took forever, and since most of the people in that section were political donors who didn’t really care about baseball, none of them wanted to buy alcohol. I made $30 that day, which was worse than any businessman’s special, including the rainy days. My friends Frank and Abe, twin brothers from my high school days, worked the upper decks and had a section of firefighters competing against a section of policemen to see who could drink the most. They each made over $1000 a piece, and laughed at me all the way to the parking garage afterward. I have never forgiven them for that.
Or Dick Cheney, for that matter.
Despite all that, my best Reds memory, other than sitting on the back porch with my dad and Grandpa, listening to Marty and Joe on 700 WLW, of course, was when my little league team had first row blue seats at Riverfront in ‘88 the night Ron Robinson came within one pitch of throwing a perfect game.
The Reds were playing the Expos that day. It was one of those clear blue days in May that make you want to stand outside, look at the sky, and marvel at how much beauty there was in any direction. My little league team had first row blue seats along the third base line. Usually, they gave us tickets for the nosebleed seats because those were cheaper, but this time we had seats right there in the front row.
We got there early to watch batting practice and all of us nearly dove out of the stands, trying to catch the ball each time someone hit a grounder into foul territory. At one point, Ben Tilton, our starting third baseman, went head-first over the bannister trying to grab a ball and we had to hold him by his legs to keep him from falling. Chris Sabo, having seen the accident that nearly took place, ran over, handed Ben a ball, and warned us not to risk life and limb. “you guys see these things all the time,” he said. “There’s no sense killing yourself for it.”
Naturally, we redoubled our efforts from there.
The game started normally. Robinson retired the first three Expos he faced in the top of the first, and Kal Daniels homered to give the Reds a 1-0 lead. A man behind us had WLW on a portable radio and, as the Reds took the field for the inning break, Marty called the score.
“We head to the break, Expos zero and the Reds one.”
“The Reds won!” we screamed, giddy with excitement. “The Reds won!”
Things settled down from there, neither team doing much for several innings. Riverfront stadium was an odd place for baseball. Looking back on it, I can’t imagine why I think of it so fondly. It was a concrete brick, situated in the middle of a mud pit on the banks of the Ohio River. The seats pivoted to allow for both football and baseball games, and you could see the tracks in the outfield. I’ve been to many great stadiums since, and they all make Riverfront seem amateurish. But back then, from the eyes of my childhood, nothing was better than walking around those gigantic concrete slabs to see the knee-crippling astroturf below, knowing that soon, very soon, we’d get to see our favorite players live and in-person. And it would be magical.
The Reds traded innings with the Expos the first hour or so. It wasn’t until about the fourth or fifth inning when Andy Bello, our starting pitcher, looked at the scoreboard and said, “Hey, look at that. Ronnie’s got a perfect game going!” The whole section turned, as if to somehow find a flaw in his reasoning. But the logic was impeccable. Ron Robinson, the Red’s number 4 starter that season, had himself a perfect game going.
There was no way he’d keep it going, we thought. He only had three strikeouts through five innings, and everyone seemed to be hitting him hard. It just seemed that, wherever they hit it, there was someone there to catch it. As twilight turned to darkness and Chris Sabo put us up 3-0 to end the sixth (we were minding our manners with the railings by then), we started to wonder if maybe, just maybe, he’d pull this off.
Tim Raines hit a liner to left to start off the seventh, and Hubie Brooks lined out to first to end the inning. Two more to go, and it was all anyone could talk about. None of us could remember anyone having thrown a perfect game before. One of the dads said something about Sandy Koufax in the ‘60s, and another kid, who was an Indians fan for some strange reason, mentioned Len Barker but, for most of us, a perfect game was unimaginable. Only Hall-of-Famers like Nolan Ryan or Doc Gooden (we thought at the time) did something like this. Not bottom of the rotation starters like Ron Robinson.
Robinson blew through the 8th inning, coercing Tim Wallach and the Big Cat, Andres Galarraga, to gound out and line out respectively. The Reds went down in order in the bottom of the inning so quickly it seemed like they wanted to just get the particulars out of the way so we could all get to the REAL contest. Ron Robinson took the mound in the top of the ninth inning, having retired 24 straight Expos. Three men, the bottom of the Expos batting order, stood between him and greatness.
The whole stadium stood and cheered as he started. Mike Fitzgerald hit a grounder to short that Barry gloved and whipped to first in plenty of time. Good, we thought. It’s best he hit it there and not to someone like Paul O’Neil, who’d likely have dropped the ball and ended this thing before it got started. One down. Two to go. We stood on our seats instinctively and screamed like wild animals, waiting for what was to come.
Tim Foley hit a fly ball to Eric Davis in center and we all gasped, sure this would be our undoing. From where we sat in the blue seats, the ball looked like it would surely crest the wall in center. But Eric flew to his left and caught the ball with ease. Sometimes it’s easy to see how people could compare him to Willie Mays. He was never as great as Mays consistently, but he had flashes of brilliance that made you hope against hope for more.
The final at-bat. Buck Rodgers took out the Expos starter, Pascual Perez, who himself had pitched well, going 8 innings, striking out 4, replacing him with pinch hitter Wallace Johnson. “Wallace who?” we asked, joking that no middling replacement such as this could stand in the way of history as it unfolded before us.
Ron got behind 3-0, but battled back. He threw a strike and we cheered “TWO TWO TWO,” and we’re going wild, like Lord of the Flies, except no one’s trying to cut anyone’s head off. A foul back behind home plate and we cheered again. “ONE ONE ONE!”
It’s strange, the way moments stick with you. I can still smell the operating room where my first son was born. I can still hear the sound of my wife’s voice the moment she said that, yes, she would marry me. I can still feel weight of the bat in my hands the moment I connected on a line drive to left to win the little league All-Star game a year after Ron Robinson’s brush with excellence. And I can still feel the buzz of excitement as what seemed like the whole city stood on its seat, cheering, screaming, willing strike three as Ron Robinson reared back and released his final pitch.
Strike three didn’t come. Wallace Johnson hit a line drive into short left, just in front of Kal Daniels. You could see the look of defeat on Robinson’s face as he knew with certainly he’d come THIS close to his dreams, and watched them brush past him.
Then we cheered again, louder this time. Because greatness doesn’t always mean completing what you set out to do. Sometimes you can fall short and still be great. That night, Ron Robinson was, for one shining moment, the greatest pitcher in all of major league baseball, and no one could take it away from him.
That moment was short-lived, of course. Tim Raines came up next and hit a homerun to right-left-center field, according to Joe Nuxhall, and just like that Tommy Helms brought in John Franco to finish the job. Which he did. The Reds won 3-2, and we all went home happy. Tom Browning would throw an actual perfect game later that season, cementing himself in Reds history for all eternity.
That was nice, but I remember Ron Robinson’s near-perfect game the best. Probably because I was there, but also because I have an affinity for people who come close and fall short. I don’t know why.
I don’t know if any of my friends remember that night as well as I do. I haven’t spoken to anyone from my little league team in probably twenty years. I go back to it every now and again. I thought of it a lot in the early 2000’s when the Reds were mired in season after season of less than mediocrity. I went back to it again in 2010 when Jay Bruce hit the homerun that put the Reds into the playoffs for the first time in what felt like forever. I imagine GABP was electric in much the same way Riverfront was for me all those years ago.
I go back to it now, as the Reds struggle through the beginnings of what may be an extended period of rebuilding. Our team has been through this before. Many times. We’ve had good times and bad, and we always come back around again after a while if you give us enough time. There are enough memories to sustain us while we wait for what’s to come.
And sometimes, when you least expect it, a miracle happens. If you keep your eyes open and if you’re lucky, you might get to experience all the joy that comes with it.