When you grow tired of the day to day – when you grow tired of the petty arguments of our country and our politicians – what is it we turn to for a smile, a laugh, and escape? Here’s what they did Saturday night…in Versailles.
The thought struck me Saturday night during the eighth annual Versailles Diamond Club fund-raiser…an event to support the community’s baseball facilities and scholarship opportunities for their own student athletes.
That thought was: There isn’t a person here who at this very moment gives a damn about whether the Russians messed with the election…what John Lewis thinks of Donald Trump…or if we’re actually going to build a wall between the Arizona border and Mexico.
Of course, in a room of 300 people there was bound to be differences on all these issues, and yet, for that moment in time from 6 to 11 pm…no one seemed to care.
To be sure that’s a simplification of human nature and the passions that make each of us different. But to be just as sure, it was evident to me that given our differences, the one great unifier in such a cross section of people on a given night in January…is sports.
And baseball in particular, as all eyes were focused both on featured guest, former Reds great George Foster, and the constant stream of weather warnings on a wall-mounted TV. Even the threat of ice and snow could not divide.
It was, by a show of hands, the largest gathering yet in the eight-year history of this event, buoyed in no small part by the appearance of Foster, National League MVP, winner of two World Series titles. and a Reds hall of famer!
But it was obvious, too, that many showed up to hear the testimonies of local sons Jared Hoying and Craig Stammen.
Hoying shared the behind the scenes story of his call-up to the major leagues this past summer, and his emotional response to hundreds of Ft. Loramie natives who showed up in a display of pride and support to see him in Cleveland a few nights later.
Stammen recently signed a contract with the San Diego Padres, the next chapter in his comeback from arm injury to continue his own major league odyssey – to pursue his own boyish dream.
Foster’s 30-minute monologue was hilarious, enlightening, and charming by offering a peek into the personality of what was once one of the Big Red Machine’s most fearsome hitters. His 1977 statistics of 52 home runs, 149 runs batted in, and subsequent Most Valuable Player selection is mentioned in the conversation of the greatest offensive years in the history of baseball. Foster, in his high-pitched, playful voice, did not disagree.
“I’ve seen so many replays on television now of what I did back then I think I should be getting royalties from it,” he joked. “And I thought I was just playing baseball.”
Sitting in the audience as an interested observer after 47 years of covering the Reds and Foster’s glory years was our own Hal McCoy. In his appreciation for another hall of famer Foster shared with sincerity: “Hal was the best baseball writer I ever met. He always got the story right.”
Hoying’s 30 minutes on stage centered on the dream of every baseball player who signs a professional contract – that of finally getting the call to the majors after years of hard work, struggle, injury, and discouragement.
“I pretty much decided in spring training last year that I was going to play for myself,” he said. “I said, screw it, I had learned enough in five years of minor league baseball to figure out how to be a good baseball player. No more changing my swing, or trying to be like someone else. I was just going out to put up the best numbers I could.”
And when he finally got the call in May, after an extended Triple A road trip to the west coast, he didn’t even have time to pack clean clothes for his long-awaited debut in the big leagues.
“I had been on the road for ten days, I was working on two hours sleep, and I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase yet. It was full of dirty laundry. I got the news at 3 pm and they told me I was in the starting lineup that night at 7 pm. I took a suit, and threw my gear and dirty laundry in the car and got there an hour before the game,” he laughed.
His dream finally realized, it didn’t seem to matter that the logistics were a nightmare.
“I tried not to look up at the upper deck and all those people,” he offered, seriously. “But I finally did, and thought to myself, ‘Wow’.”
Jared Hoying, from Ft. Loramie, Ohio, had really made it!
For his part, Stammen’s status is just this. After signing with the Padres two weeks ago, he assured that his arm is sound, and that he’s optimistic. There’s opportunity in San Diego, and if he’s effective in spring training…”I’m looking forward to pitching again and having a fun summer,” he said.
To the more serious work of the evening, he reminded that support of kids and baseball in the community were important, its significance manifest through his own example and that of Jared Hoying. They raise a lot of money at these events, and chairman John Kindell gave an accounting of the improvements made since last January.
But conversation of business doesn’t last long, barely five minutes out of an evening dedicated to focus on the boys of spring, and the hope that comes with longer days, green grass, and the sounds of bat against ball…baseball!
They ate, they drank, and they made merry, toasting their unity over something about which no one could argue. It was, as a man said so poignantly at Portsmouth, Ohio’s annual Murals Banquet earlier this week: ”Baseball of the people, and for the people.”
It was a night when Trump, Clinton, Putin, and fake news was upstaged…by George Foster, Jared Hoying, Craig Stammen, and Hal McCoy.