My Best Night Ever At The Ball Park: Sitting With Roger Kahn
When the legendary baseball writer Roger Kahn died last week at the age of 92, I was sad, of course, to learn that the world had lost one of its finest practitioners of baseball literature.
But I was glad as well, thankful that once, on a warm summer night in 1988 at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, I was lucky enough to sit by Roger and listen to him spin baseball tales and comment on the action as the Reds took on the Houston Astros.
Wouldn't trade that night at the ball yard for anything.
It was dumb luck, but I've been living off of dumb luck for decades now.
I've been a baseball fan a lot longer than I have been a politics writer, and I've written about politics for 46 years now.
One thing I never do – never have done – is get ga-ga over the big name politicians I meet and become acquainted with.
Big name baseball people – well, that's another story.
The big name politicians included seven presidents of the United States (Jerry Ford through Barack Obama). It was fine meeting such historic figures, and I am glad I did, but I wouldn’t have traded my brief meeting at a spring training ballpark in St. Petersburg, Florida, with the incomparable Hall of Famer, the late Yogi Berra, for meeting all men who have served as president.
Except Abe Lincoln. Sorry, Yogi.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am obsessed with the most beautiful game ever invented, and that I will go to a game at any time of day or night; in bright sun or pouring rain.
And, if I can't find someone to come with me, I'll go alone, which is not as bad as it sounds. It's good for honing in on the rhythms of the game and keeping a clean, legible scorecard as my personal record of what I saw that day or night.
There has been a trend – a good trend – of going to ball games on my own and ending up sitting next to well-known personalities from the world of baseball.
It happened in the spring of 2008 – I ended up in Clearwater, Florida, at a spring training game between the Phillies and the Reds at what was then known as Brighthouse Network Field, where I ended up sitting behind home plate with Dallas Green, the first manager to lead the Phillies to a World Series win (1980).
He was working as a consultant to the Phillies in those days. He was particularly impressed by a young Dominican phenom named Johnny Cueto, who was the Reds starting pitcher that day.
"That kid has great stuff,'' Dallas told me. "Good mix of pitches. Reds got a winner there."
I've had the same thing happen when I bought a single ticket in 1986 at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, for a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros.
I ended up sitting next to the wife of legendary Cardinals' manager Whitey Herzog.
Mary Lou was a one-woman Cardinals cheering section, up on her feet hollering at the players, the umpires and even her husband in the dugout. She was buying beers for everybody in the section – even me, sitting there in my Reds hat and T-shirt.
"You need a beer, honey,'' Mrs. Herzog said. "Even though you are Reds fan. You can't help yourself."
Then she started shrieking, laughing at her own joke. And gave me a hug. I smelled like a mix of cheap perfume, stale beer and sunscreen the rest of the afternoon.
All of this paled in comparison to my night with Roger Kahn.
The author's most famous book, The Boys of Summer, published in 1972, is a classic of baseball literature, an ode to his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.
If you truly love baseball – if you truly love the idea of baseball – you will have to read this book.
I was working at the Enquirer at the time. The editor's secretary, Betty Barnett, controlled the distribution of the Enquirer's season tickets to employees, who could get them on days when they weren't being used to schmooze advertisers. Betty always looked out for me; and, on this day, she gave me a lower deck blue seat on the aisle, about 10 rows up from the Reds' dugout.
I looked across the aisle and recognized Roger sitting in the seat directly across from me. I introduced myself and started up a conversation. Roger was very friendly and seemed to want to talk. It was 1988, Barry Larkin's first season as the Reds' every day shortstop.
Kahn was fascinated; he had read the hype on the young middle infielder from the Cincinnati suburb of Silverton and Moeller High School but he had never see him play in person.
He was very much impressed by Larkin, at the plate, but especially in the field.
"We're going to hear a lot from this kid,'' Kahn said. "He is special."
We talked for a while about his project of writing a book on Pete Rose for Pete Rose that was to be called My Story. He was in the early stages of the book at the point. A year later, Rose would be under investigation for gambling on baseball and the IRS was after him for not paying taxes on baseball show incomes.
When I wrote about this recently on Facebook, I got an almost immediate response from my friend Hal McCoy, the long-time Dayton Daily News baseball writer who is in the writer's wing of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
"I spent a lot of time with Roger that year he followed the Reds to do the book on Pete," McCoy wrote. "I kept telling him to be careful and not to believe everything he was told. But he didn't believe me and, as you said, he regretted the book."
For the rest of his life, Kahn said believing Rose was the worst mistake of his journalism career.
Probably so. But the body of Roger Kahn's life's work was so good that the one mistake can be easily overlooked.
He wasn't the first and he won't be the last fooled by Pete Rose.
The Reds won that game 5-3 before a Riverfront Stadium crowd of 23,461.
I wish now I could tell him how much it meant to me to sit through that game with one of the greatest baseball writers of all time.
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