Sunday, June 04, 2000

Fans' affection hasn't lessened over time

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fans drop a bedsheet banner in Pete Rose's honor between the left field tributes to Ted Kluszewski and Tony Perez.
(AP photo)
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        Before the Cincinnati Reds finally began retiring uniform numbers of the team's legendary players in 1996, it was Reds fans who clamored for it.

        Before the Reds got around to hanging championship banners in Cinergy Field, fans could detail from memory the exploits of the greatest Reds teams.

        For many years, the only visible recognition of baseball's oldest franchise near the riverfront stadium had been provided by the historical society.

        So it was appropriate that Reds followers basked in the glow and glory of the franchise's greatest nine — the 1975 Big Red Machine — when the team was honored Saturday night at Cinergy Field.

        This night truly belonged to the fans. The 45-minute pregame ceremony did more than honor great players. It celebrated a bond between a team and a city that's stronger than time.

        Clearly, Cincinnati fans' affection for the '75 Reds had not diminished with a quarter-century.

        The large crowd was liberal with standing ovations as members of the 1975 team were introduced.

        The crowd chanted “Pete, Pete, Pete,” in protest of Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's refusal to let Pete Rose participate because of his lifetime ban.

        And they blinked back more than a few tears when Manager Sparky Anderson, coaches and players from 1975 lined up along the first-base line. A collective sigh went up from the stands when Mr. Larkin ran out to his shortstop position and placed a red rose on third base in honor of Mr. Rose. Other roses were tossed onto the outfield warning track.

        “We miss Pete, but we're glad to see all the guys. They look great,” said Carol Handorf, 53, of Westwood, who sat in the green seats behind home plate with her husband, Nick. “The best was seeing Sparky and (Johnny) Bench together again.”

        While present-day shirts of Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin were most fans' clothing of choice, jerseys of '75 Reds — Mr. Rose's No.14, Mr. Bench's 5, the recently retired No.24 of Tony Perez, Joe Morgan's 8 — were everywhere.

        “I'm sure it was fun for them to play, but it was great for us to watch. I'm a lucky guy,” said Kevin Kieley, 30, a Colerain Township native who lives in Columbus. He drove down for the game with his wife, Emily, a South Carolina native.

        “I remember my first game at the stadium was with my grandfather in '75,” Mr. Kieley said. “Those were my first recollections of baseball. Every kid was Pete Rose or Johnny Bench.”

        He wore a 1975 buttoned Reds jersey, a gift from a man in Columbus to whom Mr. Kieley delivered a pizza years ago.

        “I told him I liked the shirt, and he took it off and handed it to me,” he said.

        Cherie Lunsford, a 50-something fan from Cheviot, brought her daughter, Kim Ray, and grandson, Randy Ray, 14, to see the 1975 team. Ms. Lunsford, a former season-ticket holder, was taking in her first game in person this season.

        “The Machine was the best team of its time,” she said. “The players played their hearts out to win. It's a great night.”

        With one exception. She pointed to her Pete Rose “Hit King” cap and matching shirt.

        “He should be here,” she said.

        Kim Ray had her photograph taken with Mr. Rose when she was 7 years old.

        “It stinks,” said Mrs. Ray, 35, of Cleves. “It's a case of excessive punishment.”

        But, her mother said, they had to be at Cinergy on Saturday night “to say thank you for what they did for us, to show how much they meant to us.”

        Saturday was a time when the generations met gracefully through baseball.

        Lyndsay Sharp, 12, of Greenville, Ohio, wore a Johnny Bench T-shirt that read “Catch Ya Later.”

        It was her mother's shirt. Sue Sharp, 40, bought it in honor of her favorite Reds great on Johnny Bench night in September 1983. The Hall-of-Fame catcher hit a home run in his final game.

        “It's been put away since then,” Mrs. Sharp said of the shirt. “We got it out only for tonight.”

        It was the family's first game of the season. They came specifically to see the old Reds.

        Stephan Sharp, 9, said his parents always talked about the 1975-'76 Reds. So he was happy to have the chance to see them — even 25 years after the height of the greatness — in person.

        Bryan Sharp, Sue's husband and Lyndsay's and Stephan's dad, also wore his heart on his shirt. He donned a No.24 Reds jersey in honor of his favorite Reds great, Tony Perez. That number became the Reds' sixth retired jersey a week ago.

        Mr. Sharp picked the shirt six years ago when he participated in the Reds fantasy camp — Baseball Heaven — in Plant City, Fla. His wife gave him the trip as a Christmas present.

        “I started following them in '69,” Mr. Sharp said. “It seemed like the Big Red Machine was unbeatable. They always came back. No lead was safe. You never left in the ninth inning.

        “I knew they were a great team — something special — even back then. They still are.”

        After the introduction, the 1975 Reds posed for a team picture on the field. Hundreds of fans took their own snapshots from a distance.

        “I had to have it,” said Rick DiPasquale, 35, of Rochester, N.Y., who was in Cincinnati on business and wore a Reds cap and T-shirt. “The '75 Reds were the first team I liked on my own.

        “I had been a Yankees fan because my dad was. I'm still a big Reds fan.”

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