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Sean Casey: All hits, all the time

While he was growing up, Sean Casey figured anywhere, anytime was a good place for batting practice. Now the Reds' first baseman is showing the practice makes perfect

Sunday, July 18, 1999

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Tink ... tink. The rhythmic sound of aluminum bat striking baseball resonated through the garage and into the parents' bedroom above. It snapped Jim Casey awake and sent him marching downstairs. Tink. ... Tink. It was midnight, too late for a 16-year-old boy to rattle around their Upper St. Clair home, far too late for him to hone his swing inside the batting cage that had been the family garage. Tink ...

  Sean Casey, a graduate of Upper St. Clair High, is bidding to become the first Pittsburgh-reared NL batting champion since Dick Groat in 1960. (David Zalubowski, Associated Press)

"Seanie, what are you doing?" the father demanded.

"Oh," replied the son, "I just remembered something Frank showed me."


The Casey kid was always in that garage, always striking the tethered ball into the net of the device called a Tony Gwynn Solo Hitter, always practicing what hitting guru Frank Porco preached at the Bethel Park Grand Slam batting cages. By the father's count, the kid took 100,000 swings and broke too many panes of glass when the constant pounding caused the net to slide precariously close to the garage door (Tink ... crash). That took care of most of that paper-route money.

The Casey genes were to blame for such an ethic: When Jim was 14, he quit baseball to help support his Long Island family by mopping floors at his high school, carrying two bags at a time as an Island Hills Country Club caddie, mowing lawns. A generation later, the Upper St. Clair father smiled and said of his baseball-minded boy, "He's done more damage to this house."

The kid had a dream. He had a plan. And he would hit his way from the garage to the major leagues if he had to.

Tink ... tink.

"He was always in here," said Mike Junko, the kid's buddy since elementary school, the father's assistant in the Casey Chemicals office located in the family room across from the garage. Junko looks around the cinderblock garage a decade later and still marvels at the will, the determination, the eye-to-hand coordination of his pudgy, migraine-riddled buddy who told everyone who'd listen that he was going to be a major-leaguer someday. The teenager invited friends into the garage to share his dream and his Solo Hitter. "I'd do it a minute," Junko continued, "and get bored to death with the thing. The baseball wasn't going anywhere."

But Sean Thomas Casey always was going somewhere.

The Reds' hot swinger

He stood, beaming, inside the Cincinnati Reds' clubhouse in Cleveland's Jacobs Field one week ago, a convergence of past and present at a once-unconscionable intersection: Near the top of the National League batting averages; ranked sixth or higher in a half-dozen of the league's 10 offensive categories; even leading the league in fielding at his position. Defense was supposed to be a link -- along with a lack of power and speed -- in the ball and chain that scouts once believed would preclude him from ever reaching the majors, despite the lofty, second-round 1995 draft choice that Cleveland expended to get him.

Sean Casey, Reds first baseman, suddenly has found himself not merely a major-leaguer, but a baseball phenomenon. An All-Star. In his first full season in the majors.

"What's funny looking back, is I didn't do too much in high school that people would look at and know this could happen to me," Casey said. "I don't think people in my town knew I played baseball. But I absolutely believed in myself.

"It's a good lesson: If you believe in yourself, don't listen to other people. Listen to your heart."

Thump ... thump.

He is second to Colorado's Larry Walker in the National League with a .373 batting average, to go with 17 home runs and a team-leading 58 RBIs. He is second in hits (120), third in doubles (26), fourth in slugging percentage (.624), fifth in total bases (201), fourth in on-base percentage (.427), and tied for first among first basemen defensively (.997 fielding percentage with two errors in 653 chances).

The surprising Reds were in first place in the National League Central, and their surprising first baseman and No. 3 batter was delivering on his general manager's prediction of the April before. That's when Jim Bowden compared the six-game major-leaguer to Tony Gwynn, and the Dave Burba to Cleveland for Casey deal as the second-best in Reds history -- after the 1972 trade for Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.

Casey, one week after his 25th birthday, became the youngest Reds All-Star since Barry Larkin at 24 back in 1988. Casey is the first Reds hitter to make a run at the National League batting title last won in Cincinnati back in 1973, at .338, by Pete Rose. Cincinnati Manager Jack McKeon predicts that the second-year player will become the second-most popular player in Reds history, behind Charlie Hustle.

It's a storybook season already, and he has yet to complete his first full season.

"Never in my wildest dreams," Casey tried to explain.

The dreams of that pudgy kid were always rather wild, too.



His first hack came on the Jersey Shore, at age 3, with a whiffle-ball bat and a left-handed stance. True, the father had to untangle the boy's crossed hands. But batting is still the only thing in life the Casey kid doesn't perform right-handed.

His first hitting memory came that same year, back home in Plainfield, N.J. He remembers clouting a whiffle-ball over Watchung Avenue, into the Millers' yard, much to his father's astonishment. Who claimed the kid didn't have power?

A job with Mobay brought the Caseys to Upper St. Clair in 1980 when Seanie -- as family members call him -- was in kindergarten. He kept playing baseball despite painful migraine headaches. While enduring one, he lined a home run out of Upper St. Clair's Baker Field and onto the windshield of a passing car. (The ball, inscribed "Hit White Camaro," remains a prized Casey possession.)

After a freshman season in which he hardly played, Casey had two summertime revelations. In one, he traveled with buddy Grant Jackson Jr. to Pittsfield, Mass., to spend an eye-opening fortnight with minor-league coach Grant Jackson Sr. and the Cubs' Class AA club. The other was the day he watched his friend Tony Raspanti hit like Tony Perez. "He could not hit a lick," Casey recalled, "and a couple weeks later he was raking the ball." It was because of Raspanti that the kid first came to Grand Slam's cages and Porco.

"He said to me, 'I want to be a major-league ballplayer.' I thought to myself, 'Who doesn't?'" Porco recalled of their first meeting. "But I instantly liked the kid. Even at 15, very personable."

Tuesday nights at 9, Cage 3, then as now. The kid came sweaty, after practicing at home, and left late, after squeezing out unpaid overtime from Porco. Then Jim Casey would pick up his son, who would go home and practice with the Solo Hitter his father had given him at Christmas of his sophomore year. When Seanie was driving age, he would hop in the car and return to the Bethel Park cages if he didn't like his earlier batting session.

The plan: Become a good high-school player, earn a college scholarship, reach the College World Series, get drafted, get to the major leagues. A simple plan, right?

Friends such as Junko told him: "What, are you crazy? Don't be a dreamer."

In Casey style, he wound up going a quiet 4 for 5.

Tink ... tink.

Posters of Dan Mattingly and the Bash Brothers, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco of Oakland, lined his bedroom walls. Porco gave him a picture book to study Will Clark's swing. But the boy's role model was his father, who read his Bible, told his son to be friendly to everyone and supplied the work ethic along with an enduring motto: "Luck is preparation meeting opportunity."

They spent Sunday afternoons together in Three Rivers Stadium, sitting along the third-base line to better view the left-handed swings of Andy Van Slyke and the like, and the teenage son supplied the mantra: "Dad, I'm going to be here someday."

"I knew he had the willpower to be something special," Porco said. "Unfortunately, no one else knew."

Porco told his 6-foot, 170-pound protege that his inside-out swing would please the scouts, but nobody came, nobody wanted the doubles-hitting, slow-footed first baseman from the team that won the 1992 WPIAL Class AAA title. Nobody except Division III John Carroll in suburban Cleveland, where the player asked the coach if any Blue Streaks ever got drafted. Uh, no.

Jim Casey urged his son to scout out schools instead, and handwritten notes to Penn State, Notre Dame, Clemson and nearly 30 others netted just one response, from the University of Richmond. But it first wanted to see his entrance-examination scores increase, and the father arranged for a tutor. The spring of that senior season, Richmond assistant Mark McQueen sneaked into a Montour-Upper St. Clair game when the young Casey went 4 for 4 with three doubles and eight RBIs. "Geesh, if I knew he was coming, I would have been nervous," the player said.

Richmond offered him a $1,000-a-year scholarship to a $22,000-a-year school, and Casey leaped.

Spiders and breaks

"When I went to Richmond," Casey said, " it just started again. 'Where's the batting cage?' "

Knock ... knock.

Late at night, he rapped on the dormitory door of graduate-assistant coach Wayne Smith, who had a key to the cage: "Hey Wayne, go hit?"

Porco noticed how at Richmond his protege "all of the sudden shrank in the waist and got tall." He stood 6 foot 4, 210 pounds. He stood out.

"He's worked real hard at this," said Mark Budzinski, a Spiders teammate and current Class AA Akron player. "Don't let Sean fool you."

The start of his sophomore season, after hitting .300-plus as a freshman, a Marlins scout invited him to summertime, wooden-bat Cape Cod League, where he proceeded to collect 40 RBIs and finish just behind Darrin Erstad in hitting (.340) and just ahead of first baseman Todd Helton on the regular-season all-star team.

Kasey McKeon scouted the Richmond first baseman and became the driving force in Cleveland's selection of the 1995 NCAA batting champion (.461).

Small world, indeed.

Casey wound up getting traded to Cincinnati to play for Kasey McKeon's dad. Kasey McKeon wound up leaving Cleveland to work for the Reds last year.

What an interesting 15 months it has been for Casey.

First, he was traded the day before 1998 opener for Burba, nothing but six Cleveland games and three seasons of a .346 minor-league average and raw promise. Jack McKeon plopped him down at first base and pronounced it Casey's place.

Three days later, he was in Cincinnati's Good Samaritan Hospital, having been blindsided in the right eye by a Damian Jackson throw during fielding practice. Four bones were badly broken.


When Jim and Joan Casey drove to Cincinnati to see their injured son, he responded, "If I never play baseball again, I know I'll have a productive life." He didn't know if he could play baseball or see correctly again.

Two surgeons operated for four hours, inserting five screws and a titanium plate around the eye, working from underneath his lip. Three weeks later, he embarked on a Class AAA rehabilitation assignment. One week after that, he returned to the major leagues, only to struggle in Three Rivers before 60 family members and friends, his average plummeting to .133. It took another month-long stint in the minors before Casey could return to Cincinnati in mid-June.

Still, he struggled. Finally, at the All-Star break, Casey came home so he could propose at Nemacolin Woodlands to Mandi Kanka of Cleveland, who had been introduced to Casey by Junko, and prosper in the Bethel Park cages with Porco. (Kanka said yes and they will marry in November.)

Casey batted .300 and hit all seven of his rookie home runs after the All-Star break to finish the season at .272.

The protege and guru spent last winter back in the cages, back at work. Four days a week, up to six hours a day, when Casey wasn't finishing up the final 15 Richmond credit hours for his degree in speech communications. While Porco was teaching a kid in one cage, the Reds first baseman searching for more power was whispering through the fence, "Frank, Frank, take a look and see if I'm doing this right."

"Then a miracle took place, a miracle that could only happen to Sean," Porco said. The vision in that once-injured right eye improved to 20/10. Casey threw away his right contact lens. Now he wears a left only. Porco continued, "I talked to a doctor from West Virginia. You've got a better chance to win the lottery than to have your eyesight improve in that kind of surgery. One in a hundred million."

Can nice guys finish first?

"He's too good not to be true," was how Reds shortstop Barry Larkin put it earlier this season.

"There's no better person you can hope for as an All-Star," Kasey McKeon added.

While at Richmond, Casey once got an earful from his soccer-playing sister, Beth ("she was a stud, man," he said). She worked a Spina Bifida camp in Wexford and often brought patients home, and she convinced him to get off his butt and do something in the community. He immediately dialed directory information. He soon was at a Richmond cerebral palsy clinic.

There, he befriended an autistic boy named Eric, who apparently spoke to no one before Casey arrived. The player kept on going, to clinics and hospitals, mostly unsolicited. One clinic worker was so captivated by him, the man wrote Jim and Joan Casey a glowing letter about their son shortly before the man died.

In Akron's Children's Hospital, he came across Caroline Sutherland, a girl from Ashland, Ohio, who had a blood disorder so painful that the sheets on the bed pained her. Now recovered, Caroline and her family come to games as Casey's guests, as they did three weekends ago in Cincinnati. They sit in the Cinergy Field stands with Kanka, and Caroline's brother Cort battles the All-Star first baseman in home-run derby on his apartment PlayStation.

Caroline Sutherland was one of the first people Casey called from his hospital bed after the April 1998 eye injury: "Now I know how you felt."

"It wasn't so much that I admired his baseball talent from the beginning," said Judy Sutherland, Caroline's mother, "as much as I admired his heart."

His first full major-league season could conceivably end at .370 or above, especially considering he hasn't dropped below that figure since early April. It could end with 30 homers and 100 RBIs. It could end with a Reds postseason berth.

After this one-year, $220,000 contract elapses, something is going to meet opportunity and assuredly come up six figures. Several times over. It isn't luck.

Yet that doesn't matter to the player whom Reds reliever Danny Graves described this way to The (Cleveland) Plain-Dealer: "He's still a boy. He's like 'Leave it to Beaver' "

"Fun-loving, outgoing, happy kid," said Jim Casey, the father. "He came out of the womb smiling.

"And he has a unique ability to live in the present."

After all that tink ... tink ... tinkering in the garage to get here.

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