Kevin Mitchell stood in the box against the San Francisco Giants in a close game. Mitchell was a modern-day Paul Bunyan, a blue collar hero with superhuman strength. Earlier in the game, he hit a ball so far that the hometown Reds fans were too shocked to respond for several seconds.
The crowd tensed as the pitcher came to stretch. Mitchell gently wiggled the bat in anticipation, trying to get his timing just right. My heart pounded as I inched forward in my seat every few seconds. If he checked the runner any longer, I might fall off the front. And the pitch… “oooooh.” the crowd collectively gasped at how hard Mitchell had swung…and missed.
“Wow…I could feel the wind of that swing up here,” my father said, turning to me with wide eyes. I nodded in agreement and smiled, wondering if there was an ounce of veracity to that statement. In hindsight, that’s a silly thought, but as a seven-year-old, I was convinced that my father’s senses were extraordinary.
I don’t remember much about that game, but that moment is etched in my brain. I’ve still never heard a crowd react to a swing and miss like that, but even more memorable was the feeling of excitement to be at a game with my dad. The Reds were his team and, as if genetically conferred, they were mine as well. The seeds of my fandom were planted in my earliest days and going to a game with him thrilled me beyond description.
Sports in general have a way of connecting us to people, especially family. But baseball has a special place in American history and, therefore, the history of American families. It links the generations because the stories of our favorite baseball teams become part of the story of our families.
In her excellent work “America at the Bat,” Diana Schaub first discusses how “baseball is a legacy from fathers to sons (and sometimes daughters).” Some of Schaub’s favorite pictures (and memories no doubt) of her childhood surround her father and baseball. Her dad taught her to keep score, and she did so while listening to radio broadcasts of her (and her father’s) beloved Twins. For her, baseball was more than a hobby: it was a significant part of her relationship to her father.
Many of us have similar stories.
My grandparents owned a lake house in Southwest Ohio. My family would go there once or twice a year as a little getaway. We fished and tubed on the water during the day, and at night, we would build a fire and enjoy the cooler evenings. Marty and Joe would transport us from fireside to Riverfront. Even with their vivid and spirited descriptions of the action, they didn’t provide the soundtrack for these evenings. My father did.
He came of age during the Big Red Machine years. “There wasn’t an easy out in the lineup” he would say, and he seemed to have an abundance of stories for each regular. From Pete Rose’s intense hustle to Tony Perez’s clutch hitting to Joe Morgan’s comprehensive excellence, my father painted a picture of both those elite teams and his childhood. His joyful nostalgia filled the air and warmed me in a way the fire never could. The seeds were planted earlier, but these nights nurtured and developed my love of the Redlegs. They also further entrenched my association of them with my dad.
In the movie Silver Linings Playbook, Robert De Niro’s character is an obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan with a somewhat strained relationship with his son, a fellow Eagles fan. The Eagles aren’t enough to solve all of their problems, but they do connect the two characters in a real, meaningful way.
“I just want to watch the game with my son,” De Niro says. Part of his request is superstition, and yet, he genuinely seems to value those moments around the television with his boy. They are an Eagles family, and that bonds them in spite of their differences and misunderstandings.
I’ve always enjoyed watching games with my dad. Talking baseball with him feels as natural as breathing. Not only do I enjoy his perspective, he has proven incredibly intuitive.
“I have a feeling,” Dad said. “Taubensee’s going to go deep here.” “No way,” I thought. Eddie Taubensee? The Reds catcher hit more than 12 home runs only once in his career, and he played during the steroid era when baseballs flew out of the ballpark with regularity.
Sure enough, Taubensee launched a home run to right center a couple pitches later. My father sat back in his chair unfazed. I thought he was a baseball prophet. I begged him to call home runs in subsequent games, convinced he could will more runs into the Reds column. But he wouldn’t unless he really felt it. He successfully predicted home runs a few times during my childhood. I’m sure dad falsely predicted some dingers, but I remember only the occasions when it worked.
During my teenage years, the Reds started playing more games on T.V. Dad and I took advantage. Sometimes, we discussed the action in detail. Other times, we sat contently in silence. We didn’t need to talk. The Reds were our thing, and not much needed said.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to long and ask for more of the stories: tales of Joe Morgan’s speed, Johnny Bench’s arm, and Pete Rose’s tenacity from one era. Eric Davis’ incredible athleticism and Barry Larkin’s youthful energy and hit tool from another. I love those stories. They are part of my father and have become part of me.
Last season, my parents got tickets for several family members, including my 1 ½ year old son, to go to a Reds game against the Dodgers. It was my son’s first Reds game, and he loved every bit of it. His early vocabulary included “Joey Votto” and “Jay Bruce” so he yelled their names at both appropriate and inappropriate times. He emphatically yells “go Reds” even when not prompted. Yes, I’m very proud.
Dad held him at various times throughout the night, pointing out the fireworks and action on the field and feeding him all kinds of ballpark goodies. My son’s eyes grew wider with each revelation. He hung on every word that “Pop Pop” said. For a moment, I felt the tears forming in my eyes.
“Thanks for this, Dad. Tonight was really special.”
For me, Reds baseball has always been about my dad and brother (more about him another time). Whether the Reds are good or bad this year is secondary to the joy I will get from asking my dad what he thinks of Joey Votto’s hot month or Cody Reed’s development as a starter. And those old stories. I hope to hear more of those too.
And one day very soon, with the radio on and a fire crackling into a cool spring night, I’ll be telling my kids stories of Cueto, Votto, Bruce, and Phillips. The Reds story will continue to be part of the Carrington story, at least for one more generation.