Sunday, May 16, 1999

We have seen Reds' future, and he is Casey

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sean Casey triples in the fifth inning Saturday.
(Ernest Coleman photo)

| ZOOM |
        The talk-show caller said Sean Casey refused to sign an autograph, then cursed the kid who asked. This made Casey mad, for perhaps the first time in his life.

        “People get on there and say stuff,” Casey said, “and other people believe it.”

        Not me. The day Sean Casey swears at a kid, I will hit .400 and sneak a fastball past Junior Griffey. “Tell me that didn't happen,” I say to Casey.

        He was leaving the park to take his fiancee to the airport. They had 30 minutes. He declined, politely. “The only day all year I haven't signed,” Casey says.

        Look around. See anything good happening with the Reds? After Friday's loss, they were seven games out of first place, only 32 games into the year.

        Sometimes, you get what you pay for. Sometimes, you wish you'd kicked the tires. Greg Vaughn is straddling the Mendoza Line. Denny Neagle is 0-3. What the Reds bought for their $33 million payroll was the faintest scent of hope. If everything goes right. ...

        Everything hasn't. But one thing has. One thing has gone very right.

        Sean Casey is leading the National League in hitting. Also in smiles, personality and charm. “I like interacting with fans and stuff,” he says.

Too good to last?
        The Reds are rolling toward Wait 'Til Next Year. It's too early to hit the eject button on '99. But it does have that feel. The garage sale should be on by July. Contenders, get your bids in early.

        Smart minds should be plotting what the 2003 Reds will look like. They ought to look like Casey.

        Last year, Casey held Mark McGwire on first base when strategy dictated he play off the bag. He did this because he wanted to talk to McGwire. Once against Pittsburgh, Casey, a Pittsburgh native, chatted up the Pirates' Al Martin.

        “Nice to meet you, Mr. Martin,” Casey said, or some such.

        “Thank you,” Martin said. “Can I steal this base now?”

        “If anybody can, it would be you,” said Casey.

        This is pure innocence; 100 proof. Casey is a Wheaties box in waiting. Got milk?

        “Do you think you'll change?”

        “I really don't,” Casey says.

        It's an impossible request. Experience the flattery, the derision, the platitudes and the half-truths. Get killed on the talk shows. Watch people you trust take off when things go south. Smile for the cameras, talk to the writers, sign for the fans.

        As a rookie, Chris Sabo was like Casey. “Thank you, sir, for the story,” Sabo said to me that May. A year later, after a game in San Francisco, I approached Sabo's locker. “Get out of my face, you (expletive) green fly,” he said.

Mr. Red
        Is Casey different? Man, you hope so. Because this is the guy the Reds want to be. It's Casey's face they want to put on the season-ticket brochures. It's Casey's demeanor they need to leaven the feel-bad heaviness of recent years. It's Casey they have to have, front-row center, when they roll into the new stadium.

        Whom do you picture in the new park? Tomko? Pokey Reese? Dmitri Young? Maybe, possibly and perhaps. At the moment, Casey is the only Red you can feel safe rooting for.

        “Describe yourself,” I ask.

        “I'm a normal guy blessed with the ability to hit a baseball,” Casey says.

        In this town, we are good to players who shut up and play, who appear grateful for their good fortune. Deion Sanders wasn't embraced here. Until he got to a Super Bowl, neither was Boomer Esiason.

        But Sean Casey, he could own this place. “The most sincere person I've ever met in baseball” is how Barry Larkin describes him.

        “You have to know yourself and remember who you are,” Casey says. “Come back in a few years if things go well, and hopefully we'll have this same conversation.”

        The kid who wanted an autograph should come back to the stadium. Casey will be waiting.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.