Having grown up during the heyday of the Big Red Machine, I feel a little spoiled. The Reds ruled their division and league for most of the ’70s and because of that, they were a constant presence in the life of the city. Or at least my life. In 1975, I had pennants hanging in my room and spent most of the summer tracking the Machine as it steamrolled its way to glory. I’d cut Jerry Dowling’s cartoons out of the Enquirer’s sports pages—goofy depictions of a jug-eared Sparky Anderson driving a mammoth bulldozer firing baseballs. I penned earnest letters to Don Gullett, my favorite pitcher, addressing him simply as “Dear Gullett.” Not a day seemed to go by without one of the key players popping up outside of the context of their day jobs at Riverfront Stadium. You’d see Johnny Bench hawking spray paint on TV or maybe catch Dave Concepción signing headshots in the mall. Autographs were like holy relics. I remember getting Sparky’s signature on a disused bars and bells card at the All Saints Festival one year. My dad got Pedro Borbón to scribble his name on a piece of notepaper as he was passing through the offices at P&G one day. My holiest of holies was a signed photograph of Pete Rose. I waited in line for that one at the old Pogue’s department store in Kenwood; they had Pete sitting at a card table under the escalator, as I recall. I was so nervous that when I got to the front of the line I couldn’t say a word. He handed me the photo and as I walked away, starstruck, Pete muttered something like, “Sheesh, kid can’t even say thank you.”
It was a simpler time for sure, and much has changed about Cincinnati, baseball, and our relationship with pro athletes over the last 38 years. The way baseball is run these days, players are generally cocooned in a protective sphere. Sure, they interact with the press and make appearances at team-sanctioned events, but nearly every interaction with the public is prescribed and robotic, and generally they keep to themselves. Which is why Brandon Phillips is so refreshing. He lives his life in the open, on the field and off. He speaks his mind and stands by the things he says. He’s got miles of style and wants everyone to know it. He’s funny as hell and fun to watch. And he loves engaging with fans—firing off messages via Twitter, posing with them for pictures, signing anything that moves, and even showing up at the occasional Little League game. The fans, clearly, love him back. For all the talk of baseball being a sport in decline—the game is slow, the players are pampered, the team owners are greedy, etc.—maybe the lesson here is just that we like it when our sports heroes are human. And if they’re willing to wear a squirting lapel flower on the cover of a magazine to drive the point home, so much the better.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue.
Glasses photograph by Ryan Kurtz