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A life of ups and downs for Carbo

A life of ups and downs for Carbo

CINCINNATI -- Bernie Carbo found out he was the first-ever first-round draft pick of the storied Cincinnati Reds franchise at the same time as every other student at Franklin High School in Livonia, Mich.

Major League Baseball's inaugural draft was held in 1965, an age long before cell phones, e-mail or 24-hour sports news on cable.

Therefore, Carbo learned his fate via his school's morning announcements.

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"Bernie Carbo, one of our senior students, just got drafted No. 1 by the Cincinnati Reds," the outfielder heard over the classroom loudspeaker.

In some noteworthy trivia, Carbo was taken ahead of the Reds' second round pick -- a certain catcher named Johnny Bench. The Hall of Famer never forgot the slight and even referenced it in his 1979 autobiography Catch You Later.

Carbo was just 17 when the Reds drafted him. After a short negotiation, he signed his first contract for $30,000.

An admittedly precocious teenager, Carbo grew up quickly over his five years in the Minor Leagues. He recalled his first Spring Training in Tampa, Fla., when the Reds had to send him a second bonus check because his first one disappeared from underneath a lampshade where he put it.

Carbo struggled in his first three years in the Minors, bouncing from Tampa to Hampton, Va., to a Knoxville, Tenn., team that Harper magazine called, "the worst team in Minor League history."

Fortunes changed once he met manager Sparky Anderson in the Instructional League.

"He [Sparky] took a special interest in me," Carbo said. "He saw some raw talent that wasn't being developed, and I wasn't living my life the right way [and] Sparky just wanted me to do things right."

Carbo went to Double-A Asheville with Anderson and had a tremendous year. By Sept. 22, 1969, Carbo was racing around the outfield of Crosley Field. He got his first Major League hit the next season during the final Opening Day held at Crosley Field, hitting a homer in the fourth inning to help give Anderson his first Major League win.

"I hit the longest home run at Crosley Field that's ever been hit," recalled Carbo, laughing. "I hit it off of Joe Sparma onto I-75. It landed in a truck, and traveled 1,300 miles down to Tampa!"

Carbo batted .310 with 21 home runs, 63 RBIs and a .551 slugging percentage, in 1970. It still wasn't enough to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award, which went to Montreal starting pitcher Carl Morton.

After his stellar rookie season, Carbo thought the Reds weren't paying him enough, and staged hold outs from Spring Trainings in 1971 and '72. The long lay-offs hurt him offensively, when he batted .234 over the next two seasons.

On May 19, 1972, the Reds traded Carbo to the Cardinals for Joe Haque.

Though Cincinnati gave him his start in the Majors, his best years came in Boston. Carbo became especially close to Boston owner Tom Yawkey, whom he regarded as a grandfather.

"When Mr. Yawkey died [in 1975], my career died," noted Carbo.

Diehard Red Sox fans will forever remember the 1975 World Series, when Carbo hit a pinch-hit, three-run homer that tied the game in the eighth inning of Game 6 against the Reds.

His heroics paved the way for Carlton Fisk's dramatic, game-winning home run in the 12th inning. Carbo's blast was his second-pinch hit home run of the Series, making him only the second man in history to hit two or more pinch-hit homers in a World Series.

Carbo spent parts of five seasons with Boston (1974-'78), but even his World Series play could not prevent him from being traded to the Indians early in 1978. The journeyman outfielder finished his career playing for four teams in three years.

Like many players during the wild '70s, Carbo played hard and lived even harder. Ultimately, money and fame didn't make him happy, and by September 1980, he was out of the game at age 32.

For the next decade, Carbo floundered and spiraled downward as his life took one bad turn after another. In 1989, his mother committed suicide. His father died two months later, and he went through a difficult divorce shortly thereafter. Then came the thoughts about taking his own life.

But things changed when former Red Sox teammates Ferguson Jenkins and Bill "Spaceman" Lee talked him out of suicide and into rehab. With the help of the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), he discovered Christianity and kicked the destructive lifestyle he lived for 28 years.

"The choices that you make at 22 just don't affect you," said Carbo. "They affect everything and everyone for generations."

Today, Carbo lives in Theodore, Ala., a small town of just under 7,000 in the southwestern corner of the state, about 15 miles west of Mobile. Now 59, he is re-married and is raising his three grandchildren.

Since 1993, Carbo has traveled the country and the world with the Diamond Club Ministry, teaching, as he calls it, "the greatest game ever played -- baseball -- and the greatest story ever told -- Jesus Christ." His ministry is part of Sports Celebrity Marketing and has taken him from Cuba to Kuwait and everywhere in between. He has worked with Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes-In-Action, and has given his testimony to thousands at Christian churches nationwide.

When Carbo speaks candidly about his troubled past, his purpose is to educate young players of the fragility of the Major Leagues, and on the temporal nature of a baseball career. Had he learned those lessons long ago, he felt his career might have turned out differently.

"If you love the game and have talent, just be obedient to the game," Carbo said. "Work eight, 10, 12 hours for the love of sport to become great at it."

"[A baseball career] is just for a moment, then it's gone," said Carbo. "We [athletes] think that when we get into the game, it's going to last for a long time -- and it doesn't. It's like a vapor -- it's there, and then it's gone."

William S. Hupp is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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