Go West, Young Fan

Go West, Young Fan
To put a spin on an old joke: One night I went to a ball game and a church festival broke out. The game was played at Western Hills University High School on a hot summer evening and involved the Cincinnati Steam, a team in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League. Haven’t heard of them? Me either. But it was one of the most entertaining games I’ve ever seen.

The Steam, which plays its 14 home games at West High, is the league’s reigning champion and ended last season ranked sixth in the nation among all collegiate summer league teams by baseball Web site PG Crosschecker. In a city where our sports teams post a whole lot more Ls than Ws, you’d think they’d get more attention.

Maybe it’s another one of those east side, west side things. Though the players are drawn primarily from throughout the Tri-State area, next to league night at Western Bowl, a football Friday night at The Pit, or any night at Price Hill Chili, a Steam game provides the quintessential west side experience. The crowd spans a broad mix of ages, the accoutrements are basic and low-priced, and the energy is feverish. The ballplayers run and hit like they’re playing in the World Series. Hamburgers, hot dogs, and ears of corn sizzle on an open grill. A gabby MC entertains the crowd between innings. A young woman walks around selling split-the-pot tickets. (An unbreakable law of the universe: Put 10 west-siders in a room and before long they’re splitting a pot.)

The atmosphere is small-town Americana, the type of homey nostalgia that pro teams are trying to evoke these days to salve the game’s image, which has been wounded by player strikes, outrageous contracts, and reports of rampant steroid use even among its biggest stars. No end of Disneyfied effects are employed by the big leagues to create the innocence of yesteryear, but after sitting for less than an inning on a wooden plank in the grandstand during a Steam game, you realize that, for better or worse, this is the real deal.

Eager to learn more about the team, I called the Steam’s office and found myself talking to the general manager, the inimitable Max McLeary. McLeary is a character—literally. He’s the main focus of Mike Shannon’s book Everything Happens in Chillicothe, which follows the 2000 season in the Frontier League and chronicles the exploits of a certain one-eyed umpire. When the book was released in 2003, McLeary grabbed his 15 minutes of fame, taking a seat on The Tonight Show and carrying on the joke of being a half-blind umpire. Self-conscious the man is not.

When I called, he was busy at his Cheviot office, scheduling umpires for high school games through an organization he founded in 1992 called Baseball and the Blues. When I called back a few days later, he was still busy but said he had a few minutes to chat. Then he chatted for the next hour and a half. I managed to wedge a question into the conversation now and again, propelling the garrulous McLeary into a new direction with hardly a break in stride. At one point he said, unnecessarily, “You don’t get the CliffsNotes version from me.”

McLEARY GREW UP in Western Pennsylvania and after playing ball at Penn State he became a minor league umpire with hopes of making it to the majors. He moved to Cheviot in 1976 and now lives in Indiana. One day during the blizzard of 1977, he was out walking with his girlfriend when she suddenly slipped on some ice. When he reached down to help her up, the toe of her boot kicked his right eye. After seven hours of surgery, it was lost, along with his dream of being a big league umpire.  

McLeary explained that the Steam is beginning its fourth season in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League, an organization of 10 teams located mostly in Ohio but made up of college players drawn from throughout the country. Major League Baseball supports the summer league by supplying the baseballs. In exchange, pro scouts see college prospects playing against tough competition while hitting with wood bats, rather than the aluminum ones used by high school and college teams.

The Steam was created—and is still run—by a group of west-siders. Steve Brown, a state tax auditor, approached his friend Bill O’Conner, a dentist, with the idea in 2005. Both are involved with the Cincinnati Weststars, which fields select baseball teams of kids ranging in age from 9 to 18. The pair contacted McLeary and soon made him the general manager. The Steam’s director of baseball operations, high school teacher Tony Brumfield, came aboard to run the press box and the internship program. The team operates out of the lower level of O’Conner’s dental office; Joy Bachman, O’Conner’s long-time office manager, is the Steam’s secretary and, according to McLeary, “actually runs everything.”

Set up as a nonprofit, the Steam relies on support from the Reds Community Fund and corporate sponsorships, primarily Beacon Orthopedic, with help from others, such as TriHealth. Kroner Dry Cleaners, a west side business for 70 years, cleans the uniforms for free. “We don’t make any money,” O’Conner says. “Nobody’s making any money. That’s not the point.” The point, he says, is to give players in the Cincinnati area a chance at a pro career while also developing them into good citizens and community leaders. “It’s baseball and it’s more,” he says.

The Steam primarily invites local guys to play, though occasionally the invitation is extended to non-locals. Other teams recruit players from throughout the country. “We were told we couldn’t win,” O’Conner says, but the Steam has quickly developed into the premiere team in the league, hosting the last two all-star games and averaging 700 to 1,000 fans per game while the rest of the teams draw approximately 200. “We never dreamed in this short time we’d be so successful,” O’Conner says.

McLeary feels that the team’s focus on area players is the reason. “With the other teams, they spend a week learning each other’s names,” he says. “When we have our first practice it’s like a family reunion. These kids have played against each other. They know each other. We have team chemistry from the get-go.” He also credits the level of competition in the high schools and among select teams throughout Cincinnati. “These kids are used to battling,” he says. “Our success shows the level of talent in this area.”

FOLLOWING OUR PHONE call, I met with O’Conner and McLeary at Champions Bar & Grille in Western Hills on a busy Saturday night. The two men are a study in contrasts. O’Conner is tall and slim, neatly dressed and succinct, a guy you’d trust with an aching molar. McLeary is earthy and loquacious, his face deeply lined and darkly tanned, his voice a sustained crunch of gravel. He’s also frenetic. During our conversation, his cell phone rings at least a half-dozen times—to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Both credit the Reds Community Fund for a good bit of the team’s success. In exchange for the Fund’s support, all Steam players are required to work with MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. Steam players run the practices and games and coach the kids. McLeary crows that the players have a perfect attendance record. “I’m so proud of them,” he says. “A lot of our guys have had the advantage of being born into the right environment that allows them to play select ball, whose parents can afford it, and now they have to give back to the game that’s treated them so well.” (McLeary holds the title of Director of Operations for the Reds Community Fund but describes his role as “they tell me what to do, and I do it.”)

McLeary frequently mentions the need to give back to the game, which he  obviously loves, and it’s good to hear that the Steam walks that walk. But community outreach aside, fans come to see great baseball, and the Steam does its best to deliver. Last year’s team won both the regular season and league tournament championships, and 19 players from that team have returned. Last year’s coach was former Cincinnati Red Todd Benzinger, who has since moved on to manage the Dayton Dragons, the Reds’ Class A minor league affiliate. Another former Red, Ron Oester, coached the ’07 squad and this year the tradition continues with Dave Collins at the helm. During his 16-year major league career, Collins played for the Reds from 1978 to 1981 and then returned from 1987 to 1989. A hustling, rah-rah guy as a player, he seems like a perfect fit for the Steam.  

The talk of former Reds players and of kids eyeing a pro career made me realize that, even today, some kids nurture the age-old dream of playing in the majors. Back in the day, it seemed like all the guys I knew dreamed of playing for the Reds. And through the years, the Reds have often seen fit to make that dream come true. According to my brother Joe, in the 140 years since the Cincinnati Red Stockings formed the first professional baseball team, at least one local has made the roster in all but 10 seasons. Odd fact: the Reds won the pennant in three of those 10 seasons—1919, 1939, and 1940. This fact, dug up by Joe, whose knowledge of the Reds verges on the scary, bodes well for the fortunes of this year’s Reds: For the first time since 1941, not a single lad from the area is on the team.

THINKING ABOUT SUCH boyhood dreams, I decided to contact my boyhood hero—Westwood’s own Jim Brosnan. Brosnan played for the Reds from 1959 to 1963, but I learned of him through a series of kids’ baseball books he wrote later, some of the first books I ever read. When I was older, I read his classic books for adult fans—Pennant Race and The Long Season. Growing up, I thought, Here is a guy worth emulating: a native west-sider who plays big league ball and writes books as well as magazine articles. Brosnan espoused a love of reading and writing, jazz and classical music, not to mention a well-made martini. He was a jock-sophisticate with a droll sense of humor and a wry view of the world. From what I’ve read, he was seen by other players and coaches as a bit of an odd duck, and something about his odd duckiness struck a chord with me.

Brosnan has lived in Chicago for more than 30 years, but I called him to find out what it was like to achieve the dream of playing for the hometown team. Was it, I asked, something you always wanted to do?

“Not really,” he said. “I didn’t think it was very likely. By the time I was playing with the American Legion, I hoped to play in the majors, but it didn’t matter which team.” Thrilled just to be talking with him, I said, “But you must have been excited when you were traded from the Cardinals to the Reds in ’59. Coming home and all that.”

“No, I didn’t like it to start with because I was happy in St. Louis,” he said. “But it was a big break for me in the end because I got to play in a World Series.”

OK, so my theory was a little off-base. Still, once he got here, surely it was fun to play in front of family and friends who filled the stands at old Crosley Field to watch the hometown boy, right?

“Not really,” he said. “I don’t remember them coming. I didn’t get many starts so they wouldn’t know when I was pitching.” Well, that’s true. He pitched mostly as a reliever—a pressure-packed role. So maybe it was a wee bit more pressurized playing in front of the hometown fans?

“I never thought of it that way,” he said. “I’d been six years in the big leagues by then. I knew I could do it.” Aw, come on! In your first full season with the club, in 1960, you started Opening Day, I said. Quite an honor, I said. The ballpark was full, I said. It’s your hometown, for God’s sake—that had to have been at least a little like a dream come true?!

“Let’s just say it was not successful,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t really remember much about it. I only remember that I was lousy.”

Thinking that his assessment was just a bit of Brosnanian self-effacement, I later thumbed through Opening Day: Celebrating Cincinnati’s Baseball Holiday, by Greg Rhodes and John Erardi, only to find out Broz was right. He’d been lousy. He lasted just an inning and two-thirds, giving up four runs on four hits and walking three before heading to the showers.

Forgetting about my stupid theory, we moved on. He talked about growing up in Westwood in St. Catherine of Siena Parish and going to Elder, playing American Legion Baseball. His sense of humor—and sense of irony—remain very much intact. When he published his books in the early 1960s, they shattered many myths about ballplayers as All-American Heroes, and they stirred controversy. Though he clearly enjoyed the baseball life, he held no illusions about it. When he arrived here as a player, he’d already been traded twice and seen the business side of things, which can disillusion even the most wide-eyed dreamer. Donning the local colors, he says, didn’t mean much. “By that time I had been in baseball for 10 years,” he said. “The uniforms all fit about the same way.”

We had a delightful conversation and he remains very much on a pedestal for me, but if I was looking for sentimental accounts of boyhood dreams coming true, I was clearly barking up the wrong tree.

SO I FOUND a different tree—Chris Welsh, the long-time Reds TV analyst. Though not a west-sider, he grew up in Kenwood and also pitched for the Reds. Despite the raging Brennamania among many Reds fans, Welsh has long been my favorite local broadcaster. My first question was, well, did he have that dream?

“Of course,” he said. “It definitely was a dream. But I never thought it would turn into reality. As a kid I dreamed of playing with Pete Rose, and I ended up playing for Pete Rose.” When he came home to play for the Reds in 1986, he was 31 and had pitched for the San Diego Padres, Montreal Expos, and Texas Rangers. Still, he says, playing for the local team was special.

“I had already had a few years in the majors, so the novelty was gone, but something happened when I put a Reds uniform on. It was in spring training, and walking out on the field, it was surreal. It was an indescribable feeling of nervousness, elation, satisfaction.” He recalls vividly his first start, against the St. Louis Cardinals, and his first win, against the San Francisco Giants. I wondered if playing in front of local fans, family, and friends, upped the wattage when he walked out on the mound.

“Well, sure,” he said. “They had seen me in the big leagues when I came through playing for other teams, but when you’re with the hometown team, it seemed like you were carrying a bigger weight. It was a little more pressure.”

Players on the Steam hope to feel that pressure some day. McLeary says he sees at least a few pro scouts in the grandstand at every game. No doubt they’re surrounded by a cheering, raucous crowd. And the Steam hopes those crowds at West High grow larger this year. They play 14 home games, through August 1 (find their schedule online at www.cincinnatisteam.com) and no doubt a hardy crowd of fans will fill the grandstand for each of them. Which makes Max McLeary very happy.

“On the west side of town, it’s like Field of Dreams,” he says. “You turn on those lights and people show up.”

Illustration by Ryan Snook

Originally published in the July 2009 issue.

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