On Sundays in the Cincinnati area, where I grew up, Dad played Softball for Gumz Caf� with all the other "real men." Among them were two of the greatest guys I ever met—Dud Zimmer and Eddie Brinkman Sr. Our families all had father and son ballplayers, all from the same neighborhood. Mr. Brinkman played shortstop just like his son Eddie Jr., who went on to play in the majors for 15 years. When I was starting grade school, Mr. Zimmer's son Don played American Legion ball and was tearing up the league with monster home runs. Don later signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and has since become a household name in baseball. When Dad, Mr. Zimmer and Mr. Brinkman weren't playing sports, they'd sneak over to River Downs racetrack or Old Latonia Raceway to play the ponies. And they always took me along. Mr. Zimmer had a passion for horse racing, but Dad only went to the track two or three times a month and bet between two and four dollars per race.
Other than Crosley Field, I'd never seen anything quite like the racetrack. The energy and atmosphere fascinated me. The men in the stands wore suits and ties, which really added to the experience. It conjured up images of Bing Crosby, Red Grange and Jack Dempsey. Anybody who was anybody in that era was at the track.
Sometimes Dad would take me to the stable area, where the owners would come and talk with the jockeys, the trainers and the college students who galloped horses in the morning to help pay for their schooling. It didn't matter that we were from the wrong side of town. Everyone was equal at the track, and everyone had something interesting to say—even the kids who mucked out the stalls. There was a special camaraderie at the track, like no other place I've ever found save for the baseball field.
I continued to go to the track with my dad and Mr. Zimmer throughout my teenage years and even more frequently after I broke in with the Reds in 1963. The track became my sanctuary, a place I could go to escape the day-to-day pressures of life. Sure, gambling was a big part of the attraction. But while I enjoyed the races, I enjoyed the camaraderie even more. The track was filled with wonderful characters who reminded me of the folks I grew up with—folks who lived hard and played hard.
Throughout my adult life I still thought of myself as an average Joe. When I went to the track, I felt the same excitement I had as a kid. Even though I became famous, I could walk into the clubhouse at any track in the country and be equal to anyone else. Whether a guy is a $2 or $2,000 bettor, we'll share the same information. We may not stand in the same line to place our bets at the window, but we'll talk about track bias and speed figures, and Derby and Breeders' Cup prospects. We'll be talking the same language. And when it comes to gambling on horses, everyone has his own system—whether it's Thoro-Graph sheets or just plain ol' superstition. None are foolproof. That's why they call it gambling. If it were a sure thing, it wouldn't be any fun!
It was so cold in Boston the other night that Ted Williams threw out the first pitch. That is why I want to be frozen when I die. Because if that sumbitch gets thawed out and comes back to play baseball, I'm coming back to get one more hit than Ted.
I understand Ted Williams and his attitude on that whole deep-freezer thing. He was thinking there just might be a way to come back and beat the odds. You see, a true competitor hates to quit doing what he loves to do. Quitting is unnatural. I never quit anything in my life. Hell, I never even officially retired from the active roster. I just couldn't accept that my playing days were over. As player-manager of the Reds, I stepped into the box for the last time on Aug. 17, 1986. I struck out against Goose Gossage, which left a sour taste in my gut. Just a few days before, I went 5 for 5, one of 10 times in my career that I went 5 for 5, a National League record. After that, I was tempted on several occasions to put myself into the lineup because I had a hunch that I might get a hit. But I never did. Although I honestly thought my black Mizuno had a few more hits left in it.
From that point on I was in a major transition period of my life. Transition my ass! I was pissed off. I was 45 years old, and for the first time in my life I was not playing baseball, the game I worshipped for over 30 years. I use that word worship because my daughter, Fawn, used to refer to baseball as my religion. I was never around the house too much when she was growing up—at least not like normal fathers. Joe Morgan used to say that he felt sorry for me because when baseball was all over, I would have nothing else in my life to occupy my time. I never understood Joe's way of thinking. I always thought he was somehow less committed than me, that he didn't love the game as much as I did. Who in his right mind could ever put anything in life ahead of baseball?
I never thought my career would end. I always thought I'd be like that guy from Damn Yankees who plays baseball forever. Getting old was just another one of God's little practical jokes that I had no use for. It's not that managing the Reds wasn't exciting for me—it was. But it was a different type of excitement. There was just something about staring down a 95 mph fastball drat I missed. I missed the feel of that lumber in my hands, the thrill of playing nine innings every day. I missed the headfirst slides and the competition. Hell, I missed the winning. I preferred to trust the outcome of the game to my bat and glove rather than giving the signal for a hit and run. It's not that I wasn't contributing to our wins. Hell, I loved building raw talent into great players, and I had a great group of young players on the Reds, guys who were getting better every day. In fact, 34 different Cincinnati players got their first major league hit while I was managing. Yes, sir, managing the Reds had its share of thrills—just not the same thrills I got from playing.
I first met Tommy Gioiosa, or Gio as I called him, during spring training in 1978, when I was entering my 16th season with the Reds. Tommy was a clean-cut kid from Massachusetts who was down in Florida playing in a junior college baseball tournament. We all stayed at the same hotel, King Arthur's Inn in Tampa. Gio befriended my son Pete Jr., who was nine years old at the time. For a college kid Gio was pretty level-headed. He didn't chase girls or go out drinking after ball games like the rest of his teammates. Gio was also really short, only 5'5", which kind of reminded me of myself at a young age. I reckon I had a soft spot for the hard-luck cases, aggressive kids who came from the wrong side of the tracks—kids who needed a break.