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Pirates Reese finds peace in the field with Pirates

Poverty, crime have made life complicated for the Pirates' second baseman, but on the field things are sweet

Friday, June 14, 2002

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

If only his world were as simple as snagging a ball in his bare hands, catching the carom in his palms -- the ball fitting so neatly, so cleanly inside his spindly fingers -- then letting it fly.

In 38 games with the Pirates, second baseman Pokey Reese has a .995 fielding percentage with 204 chances and only one error. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)


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6/14/02


Nothing has ever come as effortlessly for Pokey Reese.

He was raised off a dirt road in a two-bedroom shack with one outhouse. Nine people were under one small South Carolina roof -- five boys, two girls and two adults. He was moved from there to the projects, then to another school district. His father, who sometimes was the 10th resident of the house, was often absent, lost in a fog of drugs and alcohol.

When Reese was 20, his fiancee left him with their baby daughter, borrowed his car to run an errand and died in a crash. When he was 23, the mother of another of his children died, and 21 months to the day later, that little boy apparently witnessed the murder of his maternal grandmother and great-grandmother. Just a week and a half ago, Reese was in Columbia, S.C., dealing with child custody matters.

So what if The Player Cincinnati Refused To Trade For Ken Griffey Jr. was dealt away not once but twice in 48 hours last winter? So what if the Pirates plucked him from the free-agent ether, signing him to a 2002 salary for barely half of what he earned last season? So what if he endured a batting slump that kept his batting average around his scrawny weight and a finger injury scratched him from the lineup for a week?

"I've been through so much, things like that, I don't let them get to me," said Reese, who turned 29 Monday. "I've been through worse. Much worse."

Shrug.

"It's just baseball."

For so long, it was just him and a ball. When Calvin Reese Jr. whittled everything down to such an elemental form, that was when he could grasp a complex life in his bare hand, squeeze it and toss it somewhere else. Pokey's world was chasing a batted baseball or chucking a tennis ball against a wall and grabbing the sharp rebounds.

In many ways, he figured out how the ball bounces.

And he did it without benefit of a glove.

Never used one until Little League at age 9, when he borrowed one from the coach. Never had one to call his own until high school. Never had one he liked in the major leagues until Barry Larkin loaned him a Barry Larkin autograph model in early 1999. He won a Gold Glove award with it.

Funny that his double-play partner with the Pirates, Jack Wilson, marvels nowadays, "The things he can do with his glove ..." And Reese couldn't afford such a luxury for years.

Bounce. Snag. Throw. Repeat.

"Just used my hands."

So neat. So clean.

So different from other parts of Pokey's world.

From dirt roads

Let's start with the nickname.

"I was a little chubby guy. Really chubby. Plus, I had a hernia. So my navel stuck out. Everybody poked me in my navel." Hence, Calvin Jr., son of the semipro baseball shortstop known as Slick, came to be called Pokey.

He was the youngest boy in a house in the south end of Columbia, within earshot of University of South Carolina football games at Williams-Brice Stadium. There were four boys in all, two of them cousins, and two sisters. The bottom of the family order was Pokey and a sister, Peaches.

They lived in an enclave once a home to freed slaves, Arthurtown -- named for the resident plantation owner a century earlier. Brothers Tony and Pokey shared the top of the bunk bed, cousins Randy and Gerald were in the bottom, two feet beside each head. Baths required a half-mile walk down dirt Sugar Hill Lane to gather water from the well at his great-grandfather's house. The outhouse got moved around the yard, to avoid lingering aromas. The television set had a hanger for rabbit ears, the better to tune in Atlanta Braves-Pirates games. Biscuits, government cheese and peanut-butter sandwiches were staples.

"It was crazy, but we got by," Reese said.

"He didn't live in normal suburbia, I'll tell you that right now," added Sean Casey, the Upper St. Clair lad who played first base alongside Reese in Cincinnati. "I think that's why Pokey appreciates what he has now, what he's doing. I think he appreciates it more than anybody growing up in middle-class America. His life could have gone a different path. But that's a tribute to Pokey."

At least that four-room shack had quite a yard. The kids played baseball there, using a doghouse as the center-field wall and paper plates for bases. Played football and kickball, too. The youngest boy held his own against the older children. It was the adults who proved nettlesome, mother, Clara Reese, and grandmother, Isabell Barnes.

"Got my grandmother's flour once and marked off a baseball field in the yard. Foul lines, batter's box and everything," he remembered. "She was hot. 'That was food.' She whipped me. 'Don't you ever do that again.'

"But that field was beautiful."

When he was 9, he joined the local Little League. He played for a team sponsored by Goodwin's 4-in-1 convenience store, which wore familiar black and gold. Thus began his penchant for all things Pirates. And borrowed baseball gloves.

When he was 10, part of the family moved to a low-income apartment complex in Columbia. "I used to run on the concrete with no shoes on, scraping my toes up, chasing balls."

He became the batboy for the semipro Columbia Bulls, for whom his father, Calvin Reese Sr played shortstop. Slick Reese, so the story goes, signed to play for the Pirates' Class A team in Gastonia in 1969, though official minor-league records of that era show no listing of a Reese in the Western Carolinas League.

"He could play," the son said. One tale had the little batboy snaring a foul-tip screamer into the dugout with a bare hand, causing the Bulls to remark about how the boy will rise higher than the father. Slick was a truck driver and supervisor, Clara a nurse. Though, as Pokey recalled, grownups often cited the bleak side, the alcohol and drugs and absences, when reminding the youngest son: Don't be like your dad.

Pokey's scholastic career started at A.C. Flora High School. The team had two freshman stars in him and a buddy named Freckles, even though he had none. Reese transferred to Lower Richland High School; which had better athletes. Freckles Gilmore, Reese said, wound up in prison.

Major-league scouts stumbled across Reese his sophomore year. They were watching a Lancaster High outfielder named Earl Cunningham, a fellow who ended up the eighth overall draft choice of 1989, taken by the Cubs. But they saw a shortstop field a ball deep in the hole and unleash a throw that, from so far away, still sailed high above the first baseman's head. They liked his range, his arm, his anger at muffing the play.

A two-sport star, he also excelled in football, accounting for 1,540 yards as an option quarterback and 54 tackles as a defensive back as a senior.

But he dazzled with the spring team called the Diamonds. Among the nationally ranked high school team's 25-5 record was a victory over visiting Upper St. Clair and Casey, who said, "I remember he crushed the ball into the lights out there, so we knew he was legit."

Cincinnati grabbed Reese with the 20th choice in the 1991 draft, soon after such players as Manny Ramirez, Shawn Green and Cliff Floyd, yet three picks before Aaron Sele and Pirates selection John Farrell.

From tragedy

Reese was mapping out not only a career, but also a family and a marriage, too.

Tieronay Duckett graduated from Lower Richland a year later and gave him a daughter, LaBresha, in November 1992. Days before leaving for 1993 spring training, awaiting the chance at Class AA ball in his second full professional season, Reese and Tieronay took the baby to her grandmother's home. His fiancee borrowed his car to take some of his clothes to a dry cleaner. She was killed in a crash. He said most folks had never seen the perpetually cheerful Pokey cry until her funeral.

During a brief falling out with his fiancee, he had a son by another woman, Rhonda Richardson. Naquwan Richardson was born in September 1992. Three and a half years later, Rhonda and another baby -- not Reese's -- died during childbirth. His son was raised by her grandmother and great-grandmother until they were murdered by the grandmother's live-in boyfriend in December 1997. Naquwan, then 5, reportedly was found next to his great-grandmother's body.

That same year, 1997, Reese became a father again, to McKayla Barnes, in Indianapolis while shuttling from the Class AAA team there to parent-club Cincinnati.

So what if he started 0 for 30 at Class AA Chattanooga in 1993? So what if elbow and knee surgeries hampered his ascent through the Reds' system? So what if he became only the second shortstop in major-league history to commit four errors on opening day, in 1998, then missed most of the season with a torn ligament in his thumb? So what if his first agents, the same fellows from Columbia who represented Oakland Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson, caused him to lose thousands of dollars and were indicted for fraud last year?

So what?

"He's had some tough times," said Pirates pitcher Ron Villone, a Reds teammate in 1999 and 2000. "That makes a person stronger. When you're hitting slumps, there are worse things in the world. He's gone through it in his life."

A week ago, Reese appeared drained after three days of child-custody hearings back in Columbia, details of which he and court officials declined to divulge.

There were good days the past few years, to be sure. To start the 1999 season, Reese, who was replacing Gold Glove-winner Bret Boone at second base, approached Barry Larkin in the clubhouse and asked his same old question: "You got a glove I can borrow?" By season's end, Reese batted .285, had 52 RBIs, stole 38 bases and committed just seven errors -- including a 67-game streak without one -- in winning a Gold Glove. Then Cincinnati General Manager Jim Bowden's insisted that he wouldn't trade Reese to Seattle for Ken Griffey Jr., a sentiment also held by Cincinnati coach Ken Griffey Sr.. What followed was another Gold Glove for Reese in 2000 and a contract offer of four years, $20 million -- which he declined.

There were bad days in 2001. He was sent back to shortstop, subbing for an ailing Larkin. He committed a career-high tying 15 errors and batted just .224. "I didn't feel confident at all," he says now. There was a published report that Reese sought $10 million a year, which the player deemed ludicrous. There was talk of him becoming a clubhouse malcontent.

"All that stuff I heard about Pokey being this or that in the clubhouse was a joke," Villone said. "They might be making up stories there. He's nothing but a good influence on everybody in the clubhouse and on the field."

Bowden, the Reds' general manager who shortly before had professed to "love Pokey like a son," who wouldn't trade him for Junior, suddenly soured on the player he once called "the best defensive second baseman I've ever seen." He acquired second baseman-shortstop Todd Walker last season. Then, Dec. 18, he shipped Reese and reliever Dennys Reyes to Colorado for a couple of pitchers only a fantasy-leaguer could love, Luke Hudson and Gabe White.

Two days later, Colorado shipped Reese to Boston for catcher Scott Hatteberg.

A month after that -- after Boston had refused to tender an arbitration offer, and Reese told his agent that he had read an Internet report that the Pirates needed a second baseman -- he was getting a physical and a PNC Park tour on the North Shore. This Pirates fan from South Carolina, who once greeted Jim Leyland by offering his condolences over the Francisco Cabrera playoff disaster, was wearing the black and gold.

"It's a business," Reese said of his sudden departure from the Reds, and then the Red Sox and Rockies. "I knew that anything could happen in this business. It never once bothered me. I hoped that I would end up some place I could play every day."

Reese's peace

For a guy whose salary went from $1.95 million to $3.2 million (with the Reds) to $1.75 million this season, for a guy who went from an infield spot between All-Stars Larkin and Casey to the 100-loss Pirates, Reese still gushes about the move to his new team.From his great-grandfather's well sprang a fountain of positives.

The crowded shack is a thing of the past. He has built a home in Charlotte, N.C., for his mother. Three bedrooms. Two and a half baths. A three-minute walk across the paved subdivision roads from his house. He has regained contact with his father, after years of estrangement, and sees him on team visits to Shea Stadium.

And tonight, Reese returns to Cincinnati, to Cinergy Field. A dust-up over some remarks he made about Junior in spring training have been smoothed over. His remarks about the Reds were civil prior to the start of this weekend's series.

Reese's batting average has perked up to .241 of late, but his Pittsburgh reputation has been staked already.Dee-"When Pokey's out there, the position might be second base, but he's playing short right center, short right field, first base and second base," Villone said. And it's infectious, in part because of Reese's upbeat attitude, in part because of his willingness to leave offensive struggles far from his defense. "Nobody's immune to Pokey's greatness out there. You know what he does? He picks up the people around him."

"Playing next to him is great," Pirates first baseman Kevin Young said. "I only have to worry about basically five feet to my left. His first step is sick. It's like he's already taking a half-step before the ball comes through the hitting zone, before the ball gets hit. That's why he makes a lot of plays that most people don't."

Casey added: "I mean, it seemed like he would run to the wall to make plays. He'll win 10 games alone for the Pirates this year. I look over at Pittsburgh, and I wish we still had Pokey."

His history, his story, all comes back to his hands. To withstanding whatever ways a ball bounces.

"I also want people to know I'm a great hitter. There's a lot of season left," Reese said. "But my job, I'm supposed to catch it and make plays."

Simple.

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