Batting practice is baseball's daily version of a Shriners' convention, and Sean Casey knows how to work the room. Unlike most other players, who navigate gingerly through the swamp of coaches, reporters and hangers-on around the cage, Casey, the Reds' glad-handing first baseman, wades right in. A pat on the back for an out-of-town writer. A handshake for a member of the Cinergy Field grounds crew. A wave to an opposing coach. The 6'4", 220-pound Casey looks them all in the eye, smiles and calls them all by name. "Everyone he ever meets, he remembers the guy's name," says Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin. "He's one of the most sincere guys I've ever met." Says Reds general manager Jim Bowden, "If Sean ran for mayor, he'd win."
The only people Casey hasn't killed with kindness are opposing pitchers. Through Sunday Casey, 24, was leading the National League with a .429 average, was fourth in slugging percentage (.683) and third in hits (27). He also led the league in affability. "I know I like it when someone says, 'Hey, Case, how you doing?' " he says. "So when I walk by someone, I try to say hello."
A second-round draft pick of the Indians in 1995, Casey was Cleveland's top-rated prospect when he was bundled off to Cincinnati for righthander Dave Burba less than 24 hours before Opening Day 1998. At the press conference announcing the trade, Bowden compared Casey (who had had all of 10 major league at bats) to Tony Gwynn and Robin Ventura. Bowden also proclaimed that the lefthanded Casey, who led the NCAA in batting as a junior at Richmond in '95, would win more than one hitting title.
At the time Bowden's spiel sounded like oversell by a general manager who had just traded his Opening Day starter. It sounded even more preposterous three days later after Casey was hit in the face by a throw during BR He suffered a fracture of the right orbital bone, an injury that left him with 20 stitches, impaired vision and five stabilizing screws in his face. "For two days I couldn't see anything out of that eye," he says. "Baseball was the last thing on my mind."
The stabilizing surgery improved Casey's eyesight, and after only three rehab games with Triple A Indianapolis he was handed the Reds' first base job last May. He promptly went 5 for 37 and was back in the minors after 16 games. "I came back too fast," he says. "That wasn't me as a hitter." When he returned to Cincinnati last June, Casey showed what he could do. He hit .300 with seven homers after the All-Star break, a performance impressive enough that Bowden dealt first base prospect Paul Konerko to the White Sox last November. "He's a great hitter who hits anything," Reds manager Jack McKeon says of Casey. "Not too many guys can make adjustments from pitch to pitch the way he can."
Nor can many light up a clubhouse the way Casey does. When he's not pressing the flesh, he keeps the Reds in stitches with tales from his childhood. There's the one about his eighth-grade campaign for class president: "I ran against the most popular girl in school, and I was the fat kid," he says. "I passed out Tootsie Rolls to everyone. Actually they were Tootsie Roll wrappers, since I ate them all on the way to school. But I did win."
Sounds like pretty good training for a mayoral race.