Like baseball itself, Spring Training has changed and evolved over the years.
Logistically, it sure has for Cincinnati. The Reds left Florida for Arizona in 2010, a move that probably still irks some in the Nation. Apparently, it came down to Sarasota and Goodyear and Reds Owner Bob Castellini didn’t want to pull the trigger. But Goodyear came up with the money; Sarasota did later, but it wasn’t soon enough. The Reds left Florida and went westward.
And with the evolution of guaranteed contracts, job security and the expansion of pitching staffs from 10 to 12 to sometimes 13 pitchers on a 25-man roster, the competition for the everyday players has somewhat thinned out. There isn’t the suspense of cuts anymore and player spots are limited.
Over the years, there have been some great stories about Reds prospects having a scorching spring training and making the team. Or a young hot-shot phenom doing so well, the Reds manager hesitates to cut him.
Spring training stats don’t necessarily translate into regular season success. We all know this. In the spring training of 2008, Joey Votto batted just .206 while Corey Patterson hit .293. We all know these statistics can be misleading.
But there always seems to be a story about a young kid or a player making a comeback that gets the fans excited. That’s only natural. Here are five that stand out for me:
Pete Rose, 1963
In 1962, Rose played “A” ball in the minor leagues, but he caught Fred Hutchinson’s eye during spring training of 1963. It wasn’t just Hutch. After drawing a walk against the Yankees in a game and running to first base, Mickey Mantle dubbed him “Charlie Hustle” and the nickname stuck around for the next five decades. Pete Rose became the 1963 Rookie of the Year, batting a modest .273, but he justified Hutch’s decision to make him the Reds starting second baseman
It wasn’t popular with the other Reds players because Rose replaced Don Blasingame, a popular player on the team. Rose’s teammates shunned him, with the exception of Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson. Peter Edward Rose began the long road to making history in 1963, thanks to Hutch and his gut.
Don Gullett, Wayne Simpson, Dave Concepcion, and Bernie Carbo, 1970
The Reds had a new skipper in Sparky Anderson. He needed pitchers — the 1969 staff wasn’t good — he needed an outfielder, and he needed a shortstop. Bernardo Carbo had connections with Sparky in the Reds farm system. And the Reds desperately needed a shortstop after trading Leo Cardenas after the 1968 season for left-hander Jim Merritt. Despite those who told him Concepcion would never hit, Anderson took him north to Cincinnati. All those ingredients led to these four players making the Reds for Opening Day in 1970.
During spring training in 1970, Gullett was decent, but not outstanding– 19 innings pitched, a 2.84 ERA, 9 strikeouts and 8 walks. Simpson was nearly lights out– 1.87 ERA, 24 innings pitched, 13 hits allowed but his strikeout-walk ratio was modest (17-11). Simpson, Gullett, and Jim Merritt had the best earned run averages coming out of Tampa. Merritt ended up winning 20 games before he got hurt as well.
Carbo batted .313 with a home run and 10 RBI’s. Concepcion had a rough spring, with 51 at bats and a .235 batting average.
Sparky’s bold move in taking these players north to Cincy was pure genius. Simpson was the best pitcher in baseball for the first three months of that season, when he helped the Reds explode to a huge lead in the NL West. The 6’3” righthander had a 13-1 record and the only loss came due to two unearned runs. He had a one-hitter, a two-hitter and a three-hitter and Simpson was the only rookie pitcher on the National League All Star team.
Gullett was sensational out of the bullpen and he was all of 19 years old. Carbo platooned with another rookie, Hal McRae, in left field and they combined to give the Reds great offensive numbers that season as Cincinnati won 102 games and the National League pennant. And a batting coach named Ted Kluszewski taught Concepcion how to hit. He’s now in the Reds Hall of Fame and should be in the Cooperstown as well. (His numbers match up with Pee Wee Reese, but that’s for another article down the road.)
Post-1970 was not kind to all of this group. While Gullett was a mainstay of the pitching staff for six years, Simpson blew out his arm on a fastball to Billy Williams at Wrigley Field and was never the same. Carbo had substance abuse problems and a nasty contract negotiation with General Manager Bob Howsam that led to a trade to St. Louis. McRae was traded to Kansas City for pitcher Roger (Spider) Nelson after the 1972 season and the trade was a steal for the Royals.
Frank Pastore, 1979
Pastore made the Reds because of a great spring training. But after he made his major league debut by shutting out the Giants for three innings in relief, things went south. Pastore was hit pretty hard and was sent back to Triple-A Indianapolis. But the right-hander responded with a positive attitude, compiling a 7-2 record for the Indians in 68 innings pitched, allowing just 51 hits, striking out 69 and walking just 17 with an ERA of 2.78. Cincinnati called him back up and Pastore responded magnificently, pitching so well that Manager John McNamara started him in Game 2 of the 1979 playoffs against Pittsburgh. Pastore pitched a great game (7 innings of work and just two runs) but the Reds lost.
Pastore had a decent but not great career with the Reds. 1980 was his high water mark. After Opening Day hurler Tom Seaver was sidelined by the flu, Pastore threw the first Reds Opening Day shutout in 37 years. He finished with a 13-7 record during that season but he leveled off and couldn’t sustain that success.
Chris Sabo, 1988
In Tampa during Spring Training in 1988, Chris Sabo took a part time job flipping burgers at McDonald’s to make more money. The Reds found out and made him quit to concentrate more on baseball. Five months later, Sabo was on the National League All-Star team and his goggles and play on the field inspired a generation of Reds fans. Sabo was Rookie of the Year in 1988. He went on to have a sensational 1990 World Series for Cincinnati and make the Reds Hall of Fame.
Josh Hamilton, 2007
In spring training of 2007, Josh Hamilton had a lot to prove. And he certainly did just that. Within two weeks of Cactus League games, Marty Brennaman called Hamilton “the best defensive outfielder on this Reds team.” Because of his past as a failed #1 pick by Tampa Bay, Hamilton was an easy guy to cheer for and most Reds fans did. Cincinnati picked him up from the Chicago Cubs in December 2006 for cash. Hamilton’s history of substance abuse had nearly derailed his career. He had a nice year for the Reds in 2007 (.292, 14 HR, 77 RBI) but was limited to playing just 90 games because of injuries. The pitching-starved Reds traded him to Texas for Edinson Volquez after the 2007 season.
John lives in Galesburg, Illinois and has been a Reds fan all of his life. He is a retired firefighter and a Veteran who served for 32 years but stays active at the local Humane Society. His favorite Reds players include Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Tony Perez, Eric Davis, and Bronson Arroyo. While writing, he frequently listens to the music of Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan. He is flanked in the photo by ever-loyal “Reptar.”