Cincinnati prepares to host All-Star festivities for first time since title win
By Allison Duffy
Twenty-five years ago, there was magic in Cincinnati. A group of mid-20-something starters came together under the tutelage of new skipper Lou Piniella, led the National League West, defeated the Pirates in the NLCS and trounced the heavily favored A's to claim the fifth, and most recent, title in Reds history.
"A lot of us had come up through the Minor Leagues together," said 1990 Reds third baseman Chris Sabo. "We were all about the same age range, entering our prime. The core of that team knew each other very well."
The group was quirky off the field, but once the players stepped between the lines, they were ruthless.
"We didn't worry about what happened yesterday," said former outfielder Billy Hatcher, "or what was going to happen tomorrow."
As the All-Star Game returns to the Queen City for the first time since that team earned its trophy (Riverfront Stadium hosted the Midsummer Classic just two years prior), Major League Baseball tracked down some of its stars, many of whom haven't strayed far from the ballfield.
Barry Larkin is an international superstar -- literally. Cincinnati born and bred, the Hall of Famer and 12-time Reds All-Star has traveled around the globe, all in the name of baseball. Two years ago, it was India. Before that, Ecuador and Brazil. By the All-Star Game, he'll have logged more than 10,000 miles round trip to Lithuania.
"I've stayed around the game of baseball in my retirement," Larkin said. "It's what I know. It's what I love. It's what allowed me to provide for my family."
To say he simply "stayed around the game" is also a colossal understatement.
Following an esteemed 19-year career spent entirely with his hometown team, Larkin took a front office job with the Nationals, working for his former GM, Jim Bowden. Then, the MLB Network called to offer him an analyst gig in its inaugural year, 2009, and he parlayed that experience into a similar role with ESPN. Since leaving that post in December 2014, Larkin has returned to the club that delivered him a championship ring in his fourth full season. He now serves as a Minor League roving instructor.
While that role brings plenty of travel, nothing can compare to the frequent flier miles he's amassed as an ambassador for SportsUnited, the U.S. Department of State's sports diplomacy division.
"We work with different government agencies to host clinics and teach baseball to kids all over the world," said Larkin, who also gained international experience as Team Brazil's manager in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. "I like to get my fingers dirty."
Orlando, Fla., is now his home base -- "easy in, easy out," Larkin explained -- but Cincinnati will always be home. After all, his favorite team drafted him in 1985, he made his Big League debut the next season and had hardware on his mantel by 1990.
"To win it at such an early time in my career was special," the 51-year-old recalled. "I was not too far removed from high school, and being able to celebrate a world championship with all of my friends and family in Cincinnati was a really unique experience. We had a fairly young team. We were young enough not to know any better, or be intimidated by the situation."
He was even younger, just 24, when he played in his first All-Star Game in 1988, which, fittingly, was in his own backyard at Riverfront Stadium. But Larkin didn't let the gravity of the situation overshadow his moment in the spotlight then, either.
"I remember the energy at the ballpark when I was playing there in '88. I remember the energy I felt when they introduced me and when I got into the game," Larkin said. "Going back for the All-Star Game this year will bring back great memories."
Eric the Red, Forever It's noon on a mid-April afternoon, less than two weeks after the season has begun. Former Reds outfielder Eric Davis is at home in Los Angeles reflecting on his tenure and future with Cincinnati -- the ballclub he's been a part of since he was drafted as an 18-year-old in 1980.
Now one of several special assistants to Reds GM Walt Jocketty, Davis was a veteran on the 1990 championship team. He went deep off Oakland's Dave Stewart in his first career World Series at-bat that year after finishing the regular season with 24 home runs, second most on the team.
"You never really know how things are going to shape up when you're in the present," Davis said of that season.
After a fifth-place division finish in 1989, things shaped up well in the form of a 91-71 regular-season record, a triumph over the Pirates in the NLCS and a sweep of the A's in the World Series. But the two-time Reds All-Star didn't get to experience the penultimate moment. During the clinching Game 4, he lacerated his kidney while diving for a ball and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery.
"I didn't know we won for about five or six days," Davis said. "I was so proud of the championship, but I missed the parades and all of the things that come with winning. I wasn't able to be in the locker room for the champagne celebration.
"There's always been a void there. I get the ring and the acknowledgment, but there's only one time you get to celebrate with your teammates."
Davis played the next season with the club before splitting time between five others -- and returning to Cincinnati for a one-year stint in '96 -- until he hung up his spikes following his 2001 campaign with the Giants.
He took five years off from the game, spending time with his two daughters and dabbling in entrepreneurship, real estate and music, before revisiting his passion.
"I think baseball found its way back to me, and I found my way back to it," Davis said. "When you've done something for a long period of time, it's in your blood."
A gig as a roving instructor in 2009 paved the way to his current role.
"I didn't want to be a one-position guy," said the 53-year-old grandfather. "All five tools made me the player that I was, so I was looking for a position that was multi-tasking in all aspects of the game.
"Right now, in the job that I have, nothing fuels me more than seeing kids prosper." All-Pro Chris "Spuds" Sabo has become something of a snowbird. But the former Reds third baseman is far from your typical retiree. The Detroit native moved to Bradenton, Fla., with his family in tow, when he took a job as the varsity head baseball coach at IMG Academy in August 2014.
"This is the first time I've coached high school," said Sabo, who relishes his new surroundings. "It was challenging at first, and a lot different than coaching pro players. I try to approach it more on a professional level than holding [the players'] hands every step of the way."
His technique paid dividends in the form of a 20-5 record in 2015. But the results aren't necessarily surprising, given that he spent several seasons as a hitting coach, infield instructor and talent evaluator in the Reds' farm system after he left the playing field.
"Life's great," Sabo said. "I'm still involved in baseball. We have a nationally ranked high school team. I'm in good health. What more could you want?"
Maybe some links out back. An avid golfer since high school who has qualified for several major USGA tournaments, he spends plenty of time there, too. Most recently, he's set his sights on the Florida Senior Open Championship in Belleair this August.
"I've always liked competing," said Sabo, who cites Michigan's Oakland Hills Country Club as his favorite course. "I can't play baseball anymore. I was a big hockey player, and I can't play hockey anymore. But I can still play golf at a high level. I'm 53 years old, and I can still give college kids a run for their money."
The University of Michigan grad had that same mentality when he returned to the classroom at Northern Kentucky University's Salmon Chase College of Law.
"I was by far the oldest dude in the class," he said, laughing. "[But] I'm more of a physical guy. I like being outside, hitting, throwing."
In 1988, his first of seven seasons with the Reds, Sabo won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and earned the first of his three career All-Star nods. Then came the glory of 1990.
As for his next pursuit, Sabo is hesitant to commit; the laid-back Florida lifestyle has sunken in. Nonetheless, he still thinks big.
"I've always had a dream of being a manager in the Big Leagues," he said. "I think I'd be a good one. We'll see what happens down the road." Life Coach
"Cincinnati is a great baseball town," said Billy Hatcher -- although the Reds' first-base coach is admittedly a bit biased. "And the people, they don't forget. The fans always want to talk about 1990."
Hatcher joined the club that year on April 3, a mere six days before Opening Day, and went on to tie the MLB record for doubles in a game with four two-baggers on Aug. 21. He parlayed that performance into a postseason for the ages (.750 average in the World Series, seven consecutive hits and four doubles in four games), a pursuit that began against the Pirates in the NLCS.
"[Manager Lou] Piniella said if we beat Pittsburgh, we could beat the A's," Hatcher recalled. "From the first game in Cincinnati, it was like we were on a mission. We were just trying to get four [wins] before they got four."
In 2006, more than a decade after that championship, the outfielder returned to his former club as a member of its coaching staff, a role he's been in for the past nine seasons. He previously coached the Rays from the franchise's 1998 inception through 2005.
"I love coaching even more [than playing], because I can help people," he said.
In his current position, that means watching video and getting to know each player so that he can address their strengths and weaknesses accordingly.
"As a player, you get mentally and physically ready to play 162 games," Hatcher said. "Now, the joy I get out of coaching isn't from winning, but from working with the players, watching them go through some of the things I went through, and seeing them have success."
Hatcher has a particularly close bond with two successful athletes in his life: his son, Derek, and his daughter, Chelsea, standouts for the University of Richmond's football team and the University of Tennessee's women's soccer team, respectively.
"My kids knew I was playing, but they didn't exactly understand [at the time]," said the 54-year-old. "Now they say, 'Dang, Dad, you were pretty good. You know what you're talking about.'"
His children have since moved away, but Hatcher still calls Cincinnati home. He's often on the road, though, and is eager to explore each city he visits.
"Atlanta is a good meeting place for us," Hatcher said of his family. When takes time to unwind, you can find him on the golf course.
"I'm trying to become the next Tiger Woods," Hatcher said. Perfect Memories
"It's incredible that so much time has passed," said Dayton Dragons pitching coach Tom Browning, reflectively from Bowling Green, Ky., where he had just wrapped up a six-game road trip with the Reds' Class A affiliate.
Since joining its staff in December, he's realized that a lot has changed in the 20 years since he last took the mound. In fact, the Dragons' youngest player, outfielder Narciso Crook, wasn't born when Browning started his last Major League game in May 1995.
But at 55, Browning still has plenty of baseball left in him.
"I got asked to be a coach, and when I put a uniform on, it felt like home," he said. "Now I'm giving back. I certainly like seeing kids climb the ladder."
For the past eight years, Browning has been able to do just that within the Reds organization, the franchise he cherishes and played for all but two games of his 12-year career. Browning came of age at the height of the Big Red Machine. When he joined the club as a September callup in 1984, storied shortstop Dave Concepcion was in the starting lineup.
"Playing Major League Baseball was the coolest thing in the world, in my opinion," the southpaw said. "I think every player would love to have the opportunity to play with his favorite team, and I was no different."
It was in Cincinnati that Browning cemented his legacy in 1988, when he threw the 12th perfect game in Major League history against the Dodgers. Two seasons after that, he and the Reds experienced glory a la the Machine.
"The teammates that I had in 1990, when I get to see them, our friendship and our camaraderie pick up right where we left off," said Browning of the players who convened at the Great American Ball Park for a reunion in late April. "It's awesome being around them because we experienced one of the greatest things -- a world championship."
And that's why, as the All-Star festivities roll into town this July, Browning, a grandfather of four who now lives in Northern Kentucky, will not be in Dayton with the Dragons. He's taking a five-day hiatus to soak in the atmosphere just across the river from his home.
"I'm so pumped," he said. "The Castellini family likes to make an impression, and I expect that they'll do just that."
Allison Duffy is the associate editor for Major League Baseball Properties. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.