Return of the Natives

The Reds have a long tradition of playing local guys. For the past few years, though, the local pipeline has sputtered. Two young pitching prospects might change all that.

Andrew Brackman’s gray T-shirt is soaked with sweat. He’s been pitching for half an hour off a green plastic mound at the Gallenstein Athletic Center at Moeller High School, and though outside it’s cold, clouds sagging low in a dreary mid-February sky, in here it’s hot. When Brackman throws, the ball whistles toward the student wearing catcher’s gear and hammers into his mitt with a crack that echoes off the concrete walls.

A couple of students getting ready to practice hitting watch Brackman. One points out the obvious: “He’s fast.”

“And big,” the other says.

At six-foot-eleven, Brackman would be one of the tallest major leaguers to every play. But that’s if he can make the team. He worked out hard all winter at North Carolina State and drove home to Cincinnati last night. He leaves in two days for spring training in Goodyear, Arizona, his first one with the Reds. Today he’s sneaking in a little more practice. “I want to be ready,” he says, sweat pouring down his face. At just 26 years old, this isn’t his last chance at the majors, but after several disappointing seasons, even ballyhooed prospects can be consigned to the “bust” heap. Joining the Reds means a new beginning, a way to put past struggles behind him. It also means playing for his hometown team.

For the Reds, having a local guy on the roster would continue a tradition begun in 1869 with the Red Stockings, the first all-professional baseball team ever assembled. Since then more than 100 guys from the Greater Cincinnati area have played for the Reds. Seasons without a local player have been rare—13 among 137. The longest stretch without one was 1939 to ’41. Before the recent dry spell, 1941 was the last time the Reds didn’t field at least one local guy with a C on his hat.

However, since Ken Griffey Jr. was traded in 2008, the Reds have had none. In most markets, that wouldn’t matter. It might not even be noticed. But Cincinnati prides itself on raising great ballplayers. A few months ago, one of those players, Barry Larkin, was elected to the Hall of Fame. In a few years, another one—Junior—will be.

The dry spell, however, might be ending. A couple of young pitchers in the Reds organization hope to be wearing Reds uniforms in the near future: Brackman and Delhi’s Joel Bender. (Brackman’s fellow West Chester resident Matt Klinker, who pitched at AA Carolina and AAA Louisville for the past few years, took a job with Wolseley Industries and is now out of baseball.)  Since Bender is only in his second year of pro ball, his sights this season are set on the Dayton Dragons, the Reds’ low-A team, but his long-term goal is a place on the major league roster.

Brackman is less concerned with ending the dry spell than with revitalizing his career. After five frustrating years in the Yankees organization, he’s eager to start over, he says. Here at Moeller, he’s back where success came easily. He led the school to the state basketball championship in 2003 and the baseball championship the following year. He went to North Carolina State on a basketball scholarship and played both sports for his first two years before settling on baseball. In 2007, the Yankees picked him in the first round of the amateur draft, giving him a four-year, $4.55 million contract.

Then the story changed. He underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow before he pitched a professional inning. He didn’t make his debut until 2009. The surgery usually causes control problems for a while, and for Brackman it’s been too long a while. In his first year, at a minor league level where a player of his age and reputation should dominate, he posted a 2–12 record and a 5.91 earned run average. Lots of walks; not enough strikeouts. He improved the next season, but last year, playing for the Yankees AAA team in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, his problems getting the ball over the plate returned.

“I was more of a power pitcher in college, but surgery can change things,” he says. “My velocity would come and go. I had trouble finding the zone. I lost some feel. And my mechanics were changed. Things just kept piling up on each other.” He reached a low point last July when he walked nine batters before being pulled from the game with one out in the fourth inning.

“It was frustrating,” he admits.

He returned to his old windup and things improved enough that he was called up to the bigs in September. He made his first major league appearance, in relief, at Yankee Stadium. “That was great,” he recalls. As he took the mound for the first time, he says,  “I was thinking, ‘Just have fun.’ I had taken a rough road to get there, and I wasn’t going to let any of that get in the way of having fun.”

He pitched three times in relief, two and a third innings, giving up one hit and three walks. But the fun was cut short at the end of the season when the Yankees turned him loose. The Reds swooped in, signing him for the league-minimum salary. A far cry from his previous contract, but Brackman says he’s excited by the opportunity to join the team he grew up loving. He’s been working out all winter at North Carolina State—conditioning, lifting weights, pitching, and getting help from his college coaches.

The Reds are betting he can find his control again. A pitcher who is nearly seven feet tall and can throw a mid-90s fastball doesn’t come along that often. Especially at such a low price. And especially one who grew up in Cincinnati, where we have a special fondness for the local kids.

The Reds’ hometowner tradition began with a lanky first baseman named Charlie Gould, known as “Bushel Basket” for his defensive abilities. Gould played the 1869 and ’70 seasons for the Red Stockings in Cincinnati and moved with the team to Boston in 1871. When Cincinnati landed a franchise in the newly formed National League in 1876, Gould came back as player-manager. He’s buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in a grave that remained unmarked for years until the Reds bought a headstone in 1951.

After Gould, the roster featured at least one local player in nearly every season, a pretty remarkable legacy. “I don’t know if, per capita, there have been more in other markets, but I’d say there’s more pride in those players here,” says Greg Rhodes, the Reds’ team historian. “In bigger markets you don’t get that same sense of ownership. The pride the city takes in local players speaks to that small-town sense Cincinnati has of itself. It’s really not small, but it sees itself that way.”

In the early decades of organized baseball, teams signed more locals because they knew them. With transportation and communication limitations, as well as small budgets for scouting and no amateur draft, they grabbed guys who played in the area. That pattern eventually changed, but the city and its surroundings continued producing more than its share of standout players.

Longtime Cincinnati Post sportswriter Lonnie Wheeler, author of numerous baseball books, including The Cincinnati Game, believes having a major league team in the city created a baseball culture here. In the 1940s, he says, the “West Side pipeline” began spilling star players at an unprecedented rate, many of them from the Robert E. Bentley Post American Legion team that won five national American Legion championships in less than 20 years and reached the finals frequently. Its alums include a stunning number of major leaguers, including Pete Rose, Don Zimmer, Jim Brosnan, Art Mahaffey, Russ Nixon, and Ed Brinkman.

That pipeline’s first star was Clyde Vollmer, who homered on the first pitch thrown to him as a major leaguer on May 31, 1942, at Crosley Field. Only 20 years old, Vollmer managed just three more hits before being sent to the minors. After a few years in the service during World War II, he returned to the Reds, playing centerfield on Opening Day in 1947, but enjoyed his best years in Boston, where they called him “Dutch the Clutch.”

Not that all the local boys made good. Given the unique challenges of the game, most didn’t. A few, in fact, would give Moonlight Graham in Field of Dreams a run for his money. Eddie Hunter played only one inning in 1933, never got to bat, never fielded a ball. Ralph Kraus, an 18-year-old Bentley Post star, wore a Reds uniform briefly in 1945, when teams struggled to fill rosters during the war. Kraus never even got into a game, but he had one day as a hometown hero—June 19, when a rat ran through the box seats near the dugout at Crosley Field, scattering fans. Springing off the bench, Kraus chased down the rodent and stomped it with his spikes. Weeks later, he was sent to the minors and never made it back.

Clearly, though, there’s something in the water around here when it comes to baseball. Catcher Buck Ewing is considered one of the best 19th century players and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939. He spent most of his career in New York, coming home as a player-manager in 1895. Some other local stars shined elsewhere: Jim Bunning in Detroit and Philadelphia, Jim Wynn in Houston and L.A., Kevin Youkilis in Boston. None went farther than Tuffy Rhodes, who played 11 seasons in Japan in the late 1990s and  2000s, where he hit 474 home runs, more than any other foreign-born player in Nippon Professional Baseball history.

The 1980s saw the heyday of the local Reds, courtesy of owner Marge Schott. In 1986 six Cincinnatians wore the home colors: Ron Oester, Dave Parker, Chris Welsh, Barry Larkin, Buddy Bell, and Pete Rose. “Marge loved her Cincinnati players,” Rhodes says. “She made it more of a priority.”

The tradition didn’t end with Marge. Her successor, Carl Lindner, matched her enthusiasm for native sons. “In some ways, that was his undoing as an owner,” says Wheeler. He made the 2000 deal that brought home Junior, who had already fashioned a Hall of Fame career. He was only 30 and surely had many years left to thrill fans, who would, in turn, adore him. That was the plan, at least, but it didn’t turn out that way. Junior’s frequent injuries tried the patience of the faithful, who professed their lack of faith every time he came to the plate.

Lindner also appeased Barry Larkin, who at 36, with his skills eroding, signed a three-year, $27 million contract the team could not afford. To pay Griffey and Larkin, Lindner cut costs elsewhere, and the Reds suffered. “I think those decisions were based on sentimentality,” Wheeler says. “I could be wrong, but they were local guys, and [Lindner] was a Cincinnatian through and through.”

Joel Bender grew up in Delhi a diehard Reds fan, attending many games with his mom, dad, and brother. The Benders have a Reds logo sticker on their garage door. And on their front door. Even on a little decorative rock on the front porch. Though he loved the team, his favorite players as a boy were not Reds. He liked Randy Johnson and John Rocker, big lefthanded pitchers, like him, who could really bring the heat.

Bender’s voice hitches, fighting back a sob, as he tries to describe what he imagines will happen when he takes the mound for the first time at Great American Ball Park. “My dad will be there,” he says. “He’ll be looking down, watching me. I know he will. That’s my biggest inspiration. That’s why I’m doing this, for him.”

In December 2010, Bender’s father, Jeff, died of cancer. Bender planned to play at the University of Louisville on a baseball scholarship, but when the 18-year-old was drafted by the Reds in the 27th round out of Oak Hills, he grabbed the opportunity. His dad was still alive to witness his son sign the contract. “It was a dream come true,” Bender says, “for him and for me. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s real.”

Highly regarded high school prospects who aren’t selected in the early rounds usually pass up the opportunity to start their pro career, playing a year or two of college ball instead, hoping for a higher draft selection, which brings a bigger bonus. But given his father’s terminal health condition and the chance to play for the Reds, Bender says he couldn’t turn it down.

Though he’s completed only one pro season, the six-foot-four Bender, who throws in the 90s, finished his first year well after a rocky start. As the youngest member of the Arizona League Reds starting rotation, he posted a 4–3 record with a 3.40 ERA in eight starts and 53 innings. More than wins and losses, scouts and serious fans focus their attention on a pitcher’s ratio of strikeouts to walks to predict future success. In his final six starts, Bender walked 9 and struck out 30, surrendering just one home run the entire season.

He credits the turnaround to a new father figure, former Reds lefty and now minor league pitching coach, Tom Browning. “He taught me how to make adjustments,” Bender says. “In baseball, that’s what it’s all about. I was used to throwing hard and striking people out, being the number one guy, but at this level everybody was the number one guy on their team. I had to adjust. I had to learn how to be a professional pitcher.”

He knows that the road to the majors is a long one for every player, and that the odds against making it are very long, especially for pitchers, who are always one throw away from arm trouble. But he’s ready for the challenge. And he’s in no hurry. “It might take three years or five years or seven years,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. I’m a ballplayer. This is what I do. And even if I never make it, that’s what I am.”

It’s hard for him to recall a time when he wasn’t one. He can recall his parents taking him to Reds games as a kid, and also taking him to his own games, where they sometimes had to produce a copy of his birth certificate for rival coaches, who didn’t believe a boy his age could be that big and throw that hard.

The next step up the Reds ladder is Billings, Montana, but top players sometimes skip that step, which Bender is hoping to do. He wants to go to the next level—to Dayton, where Browning will be the pitching coach and where friends and family can see him pitch. And his dad will be there too, in a way. Bender has a tattoo on his side—a cross emblazoned with “Dad” and his father’s birth and death dates. Mixed into the ink are some of his father’s ashes.

He’s confident that the lessons of his first pro season will serve him well, and if year two includes some hard knocks, at least he’ll be pitching in front of a local crowd, who might give him a break.

Not that Reds fans have a history of giving breaks to the locals. In some cases, says Rhodes, they’re even tougher on them. Consider the case of Herm Wehmeier. After graduating from Western Hills High School, Wehmeier came up with the Reds in September 1945, just 18 years old. A strapping right-handed pitcher, he looked like a sure thing. He debuted against the Philadelphia Phillies, the worst team in the majors. He lasted an inning, giving up six runs.

He was sent to the minors, and when he came back in 1948 he was better. But not a lot better. He pitched for the Reds until June 1954. During those years he led the league in walks three times, in wild pitches twice, and once in hitting batters. As Andrew Brackman knows, a pitcher struggling with control can make the innings long and a fan’s patience short.

“They booed Wehmeier out of town,” says Rhodes. It was so bad that a few years later another local pitching phenom, Dick Drott, signed with the Cubs rather than suffer the same fate. The fans also razzed Wehmeier’s teammate Joe Nuxhall. Later, after decades in the announcer’s booth, Nuxhall became the most beloved figure in Reds Country, but during his playing days his temper and inconsistency made him very unpopular. “He couldn’t stick his head out of the dugout without getting booed,” says Rhodes. “That’s one of the reasons they traded him.”

Wheeler agrees that local players can’t expect forgiveness, but he believes that Cincinnatians will embrace a certain kind of player—one who embodies their view of themselves. “The kind of player the city gets behind is the overachiever,” Wheeler says. “Pete Rose is the classic example.” We like a player with a dirty uniform, a guy who hustles and will do anything to win, who plays better than he is. “If a local produces that,” says Wheeler, “he’s got it made.”

Wheeler feels that even players who do excel won’t always win the local hearts. Case in point: Larkin. “He was highly regarded, but not passionately,” Wheeler says. “You didn’t get the sense that he was overachieving because he was so good. Cincinnati likes foibles in a player, some blemishes. There were no weaknesses in his game. He was Cincinnati’s version of [Joe] DiMaggio. Not real warm but extremely professional. New York likes that—the refinement, the professionalism. Cincinnati wants to see grit.”

The stereotype goes as far back as Kid Elberfeld, who played at the start of the last century. Called “The Tabasco Kid” for his fiery style, Norwood’s Elberfeld played far beyond his abilities. Always ready to “take one for the team,” he consistently led the American League—he played just one season with the Reds—in being hit by pitches. Even during the Big Red Machine era, Cincinnati fans preferred the Davids over the Goliaths. They admired Johnny Bench, but they loved Joe Morgan.

Though Brackman is the size of Goliath, fans might be patient with him. At least at first. The bigger question: Can he be patient with himself? While Bender has plenty of time, for Brackman the clock is ticking. He stood a better chance of making the team before Sean Marshall and Ryan Madson were added during the off-season, and he’ll likely start out in Louisville—which he makes clear is OK with him. He’ll be a reliever rather than a starter, and that’s fine too. He just hopes to find consistent velocity again, and to put the ball where he wants it.

When he finishes his pitching session at the Gallenstein Athletic Center, he thanks the student who volunteered to catch. “No problem” the kids says, while shaking the sting out of his glove hand. “I’m excited and a little bit nervous,” Brackman says, sweat still pouring down his face. “I just have to get comfortable and gain confidence. Those are the two major things.”

For the Reds, the success of Brackman and Bender would mean a return of local flavor to the team—and possibly a return of a certain brand of fan who roots stronger and turns up at the ball park a little more frequently when the hometown is represented. In the meantime, new leftfielder Ryan Ludwick has roots in Brown County, where his father grew up. In Louisville, new manager David Bell, another Moeller grad and the son and grandson of two former Reds (Buddy and Gus, respectively), might be heir apparent to manager Dusty Baker. For now, Reds fans are more worried about holding on to Joey Votto, as rumors fly that Toronto, where he grew up, wants him back. In the baseball world, it seems that, despite the absurd salaries, steroid scandals, and 24-hour media hype, there’s still a special feeling about coming home.

Illustration by Peter Ryan
Originally published in the April 2012 issue.

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