Growing up an hour north of Cincinnati in the era of the Big Red Machine, baseball was king and it was impossible as a kid not to love the game.
But I was small, underweight, weak — and unlike Pete Rose, who dropped by my small hometown to sign autographs — I could not hit.
Dad step in to solve the problem. For countless hours after work he would pitch to me while my brother Billy, a catcher, honed his skills. Despite painful bursitis in his pitching arm, Dad threw without complaint, encouraging me to swing hard and to ‘keep my eye on the ball.’
He even set up a visual marker for me. If a hit landed in the garden on one hop or less, it was a base hit.
Eventually, the practice paid off.
It was 1974, I was 10, pitching for the Giants and batting a respectable .375. But unfortunately, just like Cincinnati it was not our year. While the Reds finished their season in second place, four games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, my team the Giants, landed near the bottom with a 3-7 record.
But it was a good year for another Reds player. My cousin Roger, who lived in the same duplex as me, played for the Little League Reds and they were unstoppable.
Roger was four months older than me, and he was skinny — but strong. He and I played baseball every chance we had. We played 1-on-1 with Pitcher’s Hand, Home Run Derby and a concocted 500-point game based on fielding.
And 1974 was his year to shine. While I was batting .375, Roger was hitting .516 (6th in league) and League Leader with 21 RBIs. He was also tied for first with five doubles. His team had a .778 winning percentage (while the real Reds could only muster a .605 winning percentage).
Fortunately, 1975 was a better year for the Giants and the real Reds.
Midway through the season, on Tuesday, June 11 my team, the Giants, ‘clobbered’ the Tigers, 18-4, and I ‘whirled the win,’ according to the newspaper. We were now 6-0 and unstoppable — or so we thought. But, a week later, the Mets handed us our first defeat — a 10-inning affair, 11-10. My teammate Andy took the loss — taking his record to 3-1 while mine was 3-0.
With Andy’s loss I was the League’s top pitcher, but Andy — like Roger before him — was dominating the league in batting. He was outperfoming me at the plate — batting .574. He was leading the league in RBIs with 31 (I was a very distant second with six). I was tearing up the bases, though, landing on the Stolen Base leaders list in third place with 24.
But, July 1 was the game of the season for the Giants.
Andy, coming off his first loss, threw a 2 hitter. We had 21 hits in our 25-11 win over the Braves (the score makes you wonder how many errors and fielder choices were called in the game.) In the game Andy, Scott and I were all 4-for-4 at the plate. A little more than a week later, on July 9, I connected for three more hits in our 26-8 win over the Cubs.
We ended the season with one loss and, just like Pete Rose and the Reds, we captured first place.