One day you’re a kid living and dying with every one of Luis Tiant’s 163 head snaps, glove gyrations, soft serves, and mustachioed missiles in Game Four on The River as he willed the Red Sox back into the ’75 World Series against the big, bad Red Machine.
Then the next thing you know, your kid is pulling a triple double.
A 10-hour drive to watch the Buckeyes on Saturday in Columbus. Then a 1 p.m. Sunday kickoff to grind through the latest Bengals soap opera. A 5 p.m. stopover amid the red-and-orange sherbet swirl of Fountain Square to eat chili with his sister and take it all in before the speed walk to fantasyland and Great American Ball Park’s first playoff game.
The kid who once looked like Don Zimmer as a baby when he wore a tiny Red Sox hat now has his first job in the city were Zimmer fled the Bostonians who called him “gerbil.” And as you drive him to the airport in the pitch black of an October morning so he can get back to The Apple in time for work, it finally hits you after 20 years.
You may be from New England, but your kids are Cincinnati. And that means Three-Ways and crackers stream through their veins and a box of Chad Ochocincos is on top of her refrigerator in her college apartment and even the non-sports kid looks up from her theater notes to study Joey Votto’s MVP stage presence in the box.
And the kid who once looked like Don Zimmer but now worships at the altar of Mike Zimmer folds the front page of The Cincinnati Enquirer and sticks it in his bag.
“Got to hang it on the wall,” he says.
One day you’ve got posters of Yaz and Havlicek, and Orr on your wall and the next day you walk into a room hanging with Jeff Blake, Barry Larkin, Deion Sanders. This is a kid who played games of 1994 Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball before every college exam.
This is the kid you took to a Larkin autograph signing around that MVP 30-30 season. After a half-hour wait the kid and the dad were up front and Larkin and the dad started to talk since he was only a few years removed from covering the Reds.
“You should have just come up sooner. You didn’t have to wait,” he said.
“If I waited for Yaz for an hour after ‘67,” you said, “he can wait for you.”
“Old school,” the kid always says now. “1995. I love the old AFC Central with the Oilers and Jacksonville. Now that was a division.”
He gets home at 12:30 a.m. the voice ripped raw by the arms of Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman and Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels. The plane is in five hours but sleep is as elusive as Mike Williams. He pulls out a box of Sizzling Wok from the fridge, attacks it with a fork, and still can’t get a handle on the day. He is wearing a Mr. Reds T-shirt after changing from his Bengals ’08 training camp “Play Fast” T-shirt.
“I yelled on every third down on defense and every 0-2 count,” he says. “The only time I yelled when we had the ball was when Carson had us at the 1 going in. Nobody cared then. We were all standing.”
He shakes his head. The boos Palmer got when he hit his 20,000th career passing yard. This is where you know he grew up in Cincinnati. Polite. Mannerly. In Boston, he would have joined in proudly, like the guy sitting behind me 40 years ago at Fenway who yelled sing-song, “Hey Yaz, your pants are dirty,” after he slid into third.
“How can they boo him?” he asks. “Don’t they realize what he’s meant to this franchise? Don’t they remember Klingler? I mean, I know he hasn’t played great this year, but look at the drops. Look at the pressure. I hope it wasn’t a majority. I mean, I clapped. There were a lot of people clapping.”
His only team that won were the beloved Bucks in one of those nolo contenderes.
“I love college football,” he says. “It’s still so unfair. It’s nice to go to a game and know your team is going to win. You just don’t know by how much.”
But there was that 21-14 lead gone in a blink and the mounting frustration of two-out base runners.
“And we didn’t run Ced,” he says.
Fountain Square, he says, was unbelievable.
“Reds fans, Bengals fans. Everybody in orange and red,” he says. “We had some chili and they had the Dallas game up on the screen. Awesome.”
He is smiling, thinking about Benson nearly walking in for the two-point conversion that gave the Bengals the 21-14 lead with 12:12 until the Reds game.
“You know what I was thinking?” he asks. “I’m thinking, ‘This must be what it is like for Steelers fans every week. We’re just going to run the clock out. It’s fun not having to be desperately throwing down the field to tie it or win it.’ I was actually thinking that. We can just run it out.”
The Steelers are always a looming presence for him. When he went to his first game as a little man back in the days this was Pittsburgh’s ninth home game, he was dressed head to toe Bengals on a cold day. Right down to his gloves. An adult, yes, a grown man, you are told, a Steelers fan, mocked him throughout the first half until he went to the Pro Shop at halftime, came back with Bengals gloves, and set a match to them while the kid watched.
“I love the way Ced runs,” he says, staring into the Sizzling Wok carton.
The plane is getting close. Great day. Tough day. Save the ticket stubs and the paper. Take a bye and hope someone can beat the Phils. Make plans to watch the Falcons game at the bar in The Apple where the Bengals are on every screen and Cincinnati chili is on the menu.
“I still think,” he says, “we can go 5-1 in the division. And get a couple of more somewhere.”
Then you are alone, driving through the pitch blackness of an October morning on The River, much like the one El Tiante tamed the Reds with his soul as much as his stuff.
You wonder where all the time went.
And you hope you don’t end up with a grandkid that looks like Don Zimmer but wears Yankees and Jets hats.
You are where you grew up.
Tags: Tough day for Cincy kids
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