Diehards Two last place teams. The last week in August. A hot, muggy night in Cincinnati. Let's play two!

September 06, 1998

It is the final Thursday in August. The early-evening air in
downtown Cincinnati is warm and still. Little groups of people
are making their way to the ballpark to watch the Reds, last in
the National League Central, play the Florida Marlins, last in
the National League East. There is no surge of humanity, no human
funnel, the way there is in the Bronx or Atlanta or Cleveland.
Just little groups of people--two men in suits, a couple pushing a
stroller, some college kids--moseying along, heading for a game
that is, to be very generous, inconsequential. Except to the
people who are here tonight.

Cinergy Field--Riverfront Stadium in the days of the Big Red
Machine--comes into view. Scalpers and peanut hawkers work its
periphery and the nearby street corners. Season-ticket holders
sell their seats to scalpers for around $5 each, figuring
something is better than nothing. The scalpers try to get face
value, $14, for the best seats, the blue ones. They'll settle for
$10, and even less by the second inning. The peanut hawkers are
discounting, too. "Cheaper on the outside--salted and unsalted," a
boy says, almost singing. He's like a character out of a novel
set in the '50s, a rail-thin city kid with skin as dark as a
moonless night and a smile that glistens. Nearby, a homeless man
rattles a nearly empty cup. I ask how the season is going for
him.

"Eleven games under .500," he says, shaking his head. When the
Reds are playing well and drawing well, he can pick up $35 a
night. When they're not, he's lucky to get $20.

"What's the problem?" I ask.

"Too much youth, not enough veteran players," he says. His name
is Jimmy Stewart, he is 51, did two tours of duty in Vietnam, has
a bad liver, a bad kidney, a bad heart. He grew up in Huntsville,
Ala., and when he was young, Powel Crosley Jr. owned the Reds,
and Crosley's radio superstation, WLW, broadcast their games.
"I'm spoiled," says Stewart. "I came up on Vada Pinson, Don
Newcombe, Eddie Kasco. Frank Robinson--I remember him as a
rookie."

Still, he goes to the home games, buys a $3 seat in the top six
rows of the stadium. "You know, some people just love
competition--they'd pay money to watch two guys pitch pennies."

I put away my press pass and buy a $3 ticket, too. I'm in section
304, row 23, seat 105. It's a good seat if you're not afraid of
heights. From 304 you can draw a straight line through home
plate, over the pitcher's mound and second base, right through to
the 404-foot sign in dead center. There are 676 seats in this
section, and when the game starts at 7:05 p.m., 18 of them are
occupied. By 7:30 the section is starting to fill up. O.K.,
that's an exaggeration--four girls have come in. In the minus
column, a couple has left. It's kind of lonely. There are no
vendors. There's nobody in my row, nobody in the row in front of
me, just one guy in the row behind me. He's a middle-aged man
with white hair and pinkish skin, wearing black pants, black
socks, black shoes, and he's holding a newspaper in his left hand
and a radio in his right. In the bottom of the first, when the
Reds' lone marquee player, Barry Larkin, reaches first on a
muffed fielder's choice--Florida shortstop Alex Gonzalez makes a
bad throw to second baseman Luis Castillo, and Reggie Sanders is
safe at second--the man winces. We talk.

"It's the Marlins," he says, cheerfully explaining his disgust.
"I like to see good baseball, and they're a bad baseball team. I
was expecting that play to happen, hoping that it wouldn't, and
then it does."

His name is Tom Tifft, he's 55 years old, and he's a Catholic
priest. He has lived in Cleveland all his life but comes to
Cincinnati on his vacations to see the Reds, staying at the Super
8 motel off I-75, on the Kentucky side of the river. He goes to
movies during the day--that afternoon he saw Snake Eyes, with
Nicolas Cage--and baseball at night. "I prefer National League
baseball," says Father Tifft. "It's faster than American League
baseball. When baseball is played well, it's played fast. But
don't tell anybody in Cleveland I like the National League
better. I'd be crucified."

We return our attention to the game. The field is a mess. The
dirt in the batter's box is dry and dusty. There are footprints
and stains all over the outfield, and you can see the faded chalk
lines of the Bengals' football field on the outfield turf. Derrek
Lee, Florida's rookie cleanup hitter, leads off the second and
smacks a 2-and-0 pitch. The ball rises, over the second baseman,
over an end zone, over the rightfield wall. Every player and
coach on the Marlins' bench stands to greet Lee, to celebrate his
16th homer of the season and their team's 1-0 lead. At that
moment, the scoreboard shows the standings in the National League
East. The Marlins are 41 games out of first.

There might be 8,000 people in the stadium, and the ushers will
let you sit, basically, in any empty seat. I go for a walk--down
the outside ramps, past couples more interested in the barges on
the Ohio and a lazy dusk than they are in the game--heading for
the pricey blue seats. For a while I sit next to a guy wearing
the caps of both the Marlins and the Reds, one on top of the
other. He's in the green seats, one level above the blue, next to
his wife of five days. They are Jim and Linda Andrews of
Miamisburg, Ohio, which is 36 miles from Cincinnati. He's 48,
she's 50; third nups for him, second for her. She teaches nursing
at a community college; he's a part-time security guard. They had
planned to honeymoon in Memphis, to see Graceland, but somehow
ended up in Cinergy's $11 seats instead. They like baseball,
that's why they're here.

By the bottom of the sixth the Reds are leading 6-3. The Marlins
miss cutoffs, make loopy throws, run the bases backward, that
sort of thing. It is not a beautiful game. The new Mrs. Andrews
puts her right hand on her husband's left thigh. "Jim," she says,
"time to flip your hats." The team that's batting goes on top.

"Oh, yeah," he says. "That's better."

You want to find slaves to ritual, go to a ball game. Near the
newlyweds, five white-haired ladies sit together, four of them
widows. They're from Kettering and Centerville, little towns near
Dayton, and their ballpark pilgrimage is an annual event. With
the Reds in the cellar, they had thought about calling off this
year's trip, but then they came to a realization: They had to go
because they always go. "We come for the dogs and the beer," says
the group's spokeswoman, Jane Wilker. On this night, with
Cincinnati facing a dreadful team, they see what looks like an
impressive home club. The Reds win 12-3.

Back up in section 304, 10 people are still in their seats for
the final out. Father Tifft has departed, but I'm guessing I'll
see him tomorrow.

Outside the players' parking lot, kids lean into an
eight-foot-high chain-link fence, chanting for autographs. A
rookie, Aaron Boone--Bret's kid brother, Bob's son, Ray's
grandson--comes over to sign. A cheer goes up, and a grown man
raises an open hand over the top of the fence. "How 'bout a
five?" the man says.

Boone, 143 at bats into his big league career but beautifully
casual, gives the man a high five.

"Yeah!" the man yells.

Friday night. The walk from the Westin to the ballpark is about
the same as it was on Thursday. Same scalpers. Same kid selling
peanuts, half singing, "Cheaper on the outside!" Jimmy Stewart,
the homeless man, is in his regular spot. But up in 304, there's
no sign of Tifft. It's a new night.

Before the game the Reds induct Tony Perez, a vital gear in the
Big Red Machine, into their Hall of Fame. There are many more
people in the stands tonight, maybe 15,000 total, and they give
the place just a spark of juice. They of course remember Perez,
who now works for the Marlins. His son Eduardo plays for
Cincinnati. I'm back in the green seats, sitting next to Harold
(Red) Loomis, 83, a retired railroad engineer. Red tells me he
has macular degeneration in his left eye and a hole in his right.
I don't know what that means--it doesn't sound good, but I can see
that he's enjoying the game.

In the bottom of the fourth, with the score tied 6-6, Florida
centerfielder Todd Dunwoody makes a superb diving catch on a
hooking line drive that had double written all over it. With the
ball in his glove, the rookie prepares to crash, tucking his chin
to his chest, bringing his arms close to his body. When he lands,
a little cloud of lime chalk rises from the faded football yard
lines. Loomis and several thousand other traditionalists in the
house applaud. Loomis has been a baseball fan for most of this
century--a decade or so of bad management by his home team is not
going to dampen his enthusiasm for the game. When the Reds are in
town, he's in his seat. The game lets him use his eyes, and his
memory.

Dunwoody's catch reminds me of an old Joe DiMaggio story. Late
in his career, late in the season, with the Yankees sitting on a
comfortable lead in the pennant race, DiMaggio runs hard into
the gap to make a catch. After the game sportswriter Jimmy
Cannon asks him why he would risk injury on such an unimportant
occasion. "Because," DiMaggio says, "there might be somebody in
the stands who has never seen me play before."

This game is played sloppily, with no pace. Both teams are on a
scoring spree. The pitchers are throwing strikes, but they're up
in the zone, and it seems as though every third batter is hitting
a double. I go into a mental drift, and with the DiMaggio story
in mind, start making up lineup cards.

Players Typists

1) Richie Ashburn, CF 1) George Plimpton, LF
2) Jackie Robinson, 2B 2) Doris Kearns Goodwin, SS
3) Ted Williams, LF 3) Donald Hall, 2B
4) Babe Ruth, RF 4) Ring Lardner, CF
5) Pete Rose, 1B 5) Bart Giamatti, C
6) Brooks Robinson, 3B 6) Roger Angell, 1B
7) Ozzie Smith, SS 7) Bernard Malamud, 3B
8) Roy Campanella, C 8) Bill Conlin, RF
9) Tom Seaver, P 9) Red Smith, P

Red Loomis suggests I find a spot for Roberto Clemente in the
left column and for Hal McCoy, from his paper, The Dayton Daily
News, in the right.

By the eighth inning a drizzle has turned into a hard rain, and
play is temporarily halted. Eduardo Perez started at first for
Cincinnati, as his father did hundreds of times before him, and
went 2 for 4, driving in two runs. But he left the game in the
seventh inning after straining a hip flexor while running the
bases. During the rain delay the scoreboard shows highlights from
the 1967 All-Star Game, the best one ever played. A dozen or so
Reds stay in their dugout to watch. Dunwoody and a few other
Marlins do the same on the visitors' side. The rest of us, paying
customers, huddle under the overhangs and take in the videotape
with awe. The names from that game are luscious: Don Drysdale,
Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver; Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Carl
Yastrzemski. The game was won by the National League 2-1, in 15
innings, on a solo homer by Tony Perez. When they show Perez's
25-year-old face on the scoreboard, we cheer.

Moments later the game at hand--number 135 for both the Marlins
and the Reds in their dreary, parallel seasons--is resumed. The
final four outs go by in a blur. I can't help thinking the
players want to get back to their hotel before room service shuts
down.

By the top of the ninth the best of the blue seats are filled
with kids, refugees from the upper deck. I recognize a boy in the
first row, as close to home plate as you can be and still be in
the stands. It's the peanut-hawking kid--Cheaper on the outside!
He's inside now, screaming his head off, trying to extend the at
bat of Derrek Lee. "You're saying that was a strike?" he yells at
the home-plate umpire. It's futile. Lee strikes out, Florida
loses. Preparations for game number 136 begin.

The stadium empties, the lights go off, and the peanut kid--Shalom
Davis, 13--shows me his newest prized possession, a bat Lee had
given him before the game. When nobody's watching, Shalom and I
slip onto the field cleansed by the rain. He stands in the dirt
behind home plate, takes a few swings.

He has never been on the field before, and as we scamper off, I
ask him how it feels. "You kidding me?" he says, half singing.
"This feels good. This feels great!"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES NONE BUT THE BRAVE The Reds-Marlins game last week meant nothing in the standings but a great deal to the people in the stands. [People watching baseball game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES WORKING FOR PEANUTS After hawking his wares outside Cinergy before the game, Davis sneaked into the expensive seats behind home plate to catch the late innings. [Shalom Davis selling peanuts] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES CRAZY IN LOVE Newlyweds Jim and Linda Andrews scrapped their honeymoon at Graceland for a Reds-Marlins game. [Jim Andrews and Linda Andrews]

"Some people just love competition--they'd pay to watch two guys
pitch pennies."

By the top of the ninth the best seats are filled with kids,
refugees from the upper deck.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)