The Cincinnati Reds were my birthright. Born deep in Reds Country in Springfield, Ohio, my first memories of baseball were from my grandmother’s house. I would spend the night as a small child, and we would play poker while we watched the Reds on TV. Perry Mason and pizza always followed. Grandma would diss Davey Concepcion, saying he couldn’t hit his weight—which made an inquisitive young fellow like me ask “How much does he weigh?” I wanted to cheer him on towards meeting that measure of acceptance.
And so, I had been a Reds fan for years already by 1970. Of course, we were going to win, I thought. In an eleven year old’s mind, especially back in that more innocent time, your team always was going to win the big game—because they were The Good Guys. The Good Guys Always Won.
Brooks Robinson taught me different. In what is still called the most amazing defensive display in World Series history, Brooks took Cincinnati’s Murder’s Row and introduced them to the ball and chain of his gold glove. He single-handedly shackled Johnny Bench (.293, 45 homers), Tony Perez (.317, 40 homers) and Lee May (.253, 34 homers). And he introduced me to ‘the agony of defeat’ that I had heard about on Wide World of Sports.
But as the years go by, I respect Brooks Robinson, more and more. He was a worthy enemy, who triumphed through superior performance.
1970 was important in another way to an eleven year old Reds fan. It was the year that Don Gullet was a rookie.
What a find Don Gullet was! Young and wholesome, strong like a country boy should be, he hurled bullets from the south side, and confounded batters everywhere. He followed his 77 inning cup of tea in 1970 with a 217 inning season in 1971, with a 2.65 ERA and a 16-6 record. He was our stud lefty.
Through 1976, that is. In 1977, the unthinkable happened. Don Gullett became a Yankee.
It’s not like I hated the Yankees at the time—certainly after Gullet left, but not before. I didn’t see true Yankee hating until I moved to Cleveland, as an adult. No—the true pain was to be blamed on that devil child of Curt Flood—Free Agency.
I am not sure if Gullett was the first free agent the Reds ever lost. He’s just the first I remember. But no cheating woman ever broke a country singer’s heart like Don Gullet broke mine when he donned those pinstripes.
I still hate to see him on the television screen. I hated to see him wear a Reds uniform again—the traitor! Of course, Pete Rose did the same thing years later when he joined the Phillies… but no heartbreak hurts like your first one.
I don’t know if today’s MTV generation can relate to the former permanency of a baseball fan’s affections. Your team did not relocate, your players played on that team forever—unless they were traded. Then you could hate the general manager forever, because otherwise your player would have been there.
Now, I am not saying that pro ballplayers should not have free agent rights. It’s become a fun part of the ambience of the game—who will sign where, who will be traded because they can’t be re-signed.
I am just saying that I can’t forgive Don Gullett. Someone had to be the first, I know. But not you, Don. Denis Menke, maybe…. but not you.