Saturday, June 11, 2005

A moment for nostalgia

Tonight, Eric Davis and Jose Rijo will be inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame. It's a bittersweet moment for Reds fans. The sweetness comes from the success. From 1986 through 1990, Davis was the most exciting player in baseball, combining for 148 home runs, 451 RBI, and 207 stolen bases, while batting .277 and winning 3 Gold Gloves. Davis was--and still is--my favorite player. His combination of power, speed, and astonishing grace in center field made him a singular talent. People mentioned him in the same breath as Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, because so rarely have center fielders been able to hit and field so well. In the first inning of the first game of the 1990 World Series, he provided me with my most joyful moment on this earth, destroying Dave Stewart's fastball for a 2-run homer that set the tone for the series. It is said that Riverfront Stadium was never louder. For me, it never got any better--an 8 year old watching his hero hit a home run in the World Series against a team everyone thought would win.

Rijo became a dominant pitcher at age 23, when he came to Cincinnati. Between 1988 and 1994, Rijo had an ERA of over 3.00 only once (3.08 in '94). Over that span, he went 87-53 with 1139 strikeouts, 402 walks, and an ERA of 2.63. And then of course, there was the 1990 World Series, when he held the mighty Oakland lineup to 1 run in over 15 innings pitched. Though he didn't allow a run in Game 1, Game 4 was his finest hour. After allowing 2 hits and a run in the first inning, Rijo retired 20 consecutive batters. What made this feat more impressive was that his counterpart Dave Stewart matched him pitch for pitch. Stewart was known as the most intimidating pitcher in baseball at that time, and Rijo stared him down. When the Reds scraped across 2 runs in the 8th inning, Rijo retired one last batter in the 9th before giving way to Randy Myers. Had this been a Game 7, Rijo's performance surely would have been comparable to what Josh Beckett did in 2003. For my money, Rijo did just as well, because Oakland's lineup that year was just as good, if not better, than the 2003 Yankees.

Sadly, winning that World Series also marked the moment when Davis's career changed forever. Already suffering from injury, Davis was moved to left field, and injured his kidney while attempting to make one of his trademark diving catches. He never really recovered from that injury in 1991, leading the Reds to trade him to Los Angeles for pitcher Tim Belcher. I cried long and hard that day. Davis's career went into a tailspin, as he bounced out of LA and to Detroit, where, at age 32, he discovered that he developed colon cancer. Davis only missed one year, and made a miraculous return to the Reds in 1996, batting .286 with 26 homers and 23 steals at age 34. That wasn't good enough for the Reds, as they let him go to Baltimore, where he flourished for another couple years, before entering his inevitable decline phase.

Rijo continued to dominate after '90, but endured a similarly freakish injury in 1995, when his elbow simply gave out on him during a game. Rijo was out of baseball for 6 years, then made an even more miraculous return to Cincinnati in 2001 at age 36. While the move bordered on publicity stunt and Rijo was obviously a shadow of his former self, Reds fans welcomed Rijo back for one last shot at playing out what could have been a lengthy career.

Both players were so similar--their bodies allowed them to achieve astounding success early on, yet gave out before they could fulfill their potential. Reds fans like myself are stung thinking of what might have been, not just for ourselves, but for the two players. Both received accolades, but for those who followed the team, we all knew Davis and Rijo deserved far more. Had Davis's career not been derailed at age 28, there's no doubt in my mind that he would have hit 400 homers and stolen 400 bases, which, combined with his defense, would have made him a strong candidate for Cooperstown. It's tougher to say with Rijo, because his body failed him right at the beginning of the offensive explosion. who knows if he could have continued his string of sub 3.00 ERA seasons. Cooperstown would have been a stretch for him, but I think he would easily have gotten to 200 wins, well over 2000 strikeouts, and a 3.50 career ERA. Wishful thinking? Probably. But I'm allowed the indulgence.

So while we Reds fans are left dreaming about could have happened, we neverthless celebrate what did happen. We were blessed to have these two players on our team. Their induction only formalizes the way we felt about them already. They were the most thrilling talents to play for the Reds since Joe Morgan, and while they can't share the Hall in Cooperstown, it's fitting that they share one on the banks of the Ohio.

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