Last week I wrote about awkward encounters with sports figures. But I met one of my all-time favorite players once, and it didn’t end in an avoiding-eye-contact contest.
Sean Casey is retired from baseball now, but he was a very good first baseman for several seasons with the Reds, making three All-Star teams. His career ended with brief stints at Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Boston. During his playing days he was known as “The Mayor” because he was so friendly and talkative when opponents reached first base.
He was also very accommodating to the media. And not just to TV reporters, like some. Some players and managers are terse and uncooperative with print reporters, but as soon as the TV lights come on they’re elbowing guys out of the way to try to win Mr. Congeniality. I’ve seen managers angry, defensive and cursing print reporters, only to walk out of their office with a jaw-spraining smile, embracing a TV reporter gearing up for insipid, softball questions.
As Casey came up through the minor league system, he spent parts of a few seasons with the Indianapolis Indians. I never interviewed him because I covered the opposing teams, but the Indians beat reporters loved him. He was always available and willing to talk, even after losses.
At one point, Casey had been optioned down to Indy from the Reds, and Indians beat writer Kim Rogers saw him walking through the parking lot to the club house. Kim told me that he approached him, acknowledging that it was a tough time, and asked if he could talk for a minute.
Casey said it was OK, and he wasn’t upset about the demotion. Then, before Kim could get a question in, Casey said he’d heard Kim’s Dad was sick and asked how he was doing.
It’s hard to overstate how surprising this is. First, how would a major league player even know about a reporter’s family in a minor league town? And, second, most players would be completely – and understandably – absorbed in their own problems.
In the spring of 2012, I was working in Pittsburgh during a Pirates home stand, so I naturally bought tickets to several games that week. My hotel was right across the street from the Consol Center (now the PPG Paints Arena), and one night Bruce Springsteen played a show there. The hotel was pretty full due to the location, and as I walked out the front door wearing my Clemente jersey and Pirates cap, I saw a familiar face sitting at the outdoor bar.
Casey was sitting there with another guy, guffawing at a joke and sipping a glass of wine. (Which threw me off. I figured him for a beer guy.) I stopped and looked, debating whether to go over and introduce myself. I know famous people often don’t want to engage with strangers, but considering Casey’s reputation and the fact that he was out in the open, I decided to take a chance.
“Hey, it’s the Mayor!”, I said. Casey jumped up, stuck out his hand and practically shouted “Hey man, how ya doin’?”
As we shook hands, I said “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed watching you play.”
“Aw, thanks a lot, man. I really appreciate it. Hey – are you going to the Springsteen show?”
I said “Oh, no, I’m uh, headed to the Pirates game.”
His face fell. “Oh, that’s too bad, man. But hey, have a good time at the game, all right?” He was back to smiling and pumping my hand enthusiastically. As I walked away, I felt like he was disappointed we weren’t going to be hanging out backstage.
Casey is now an analyst on MLB Central, a baseball highlights show. Recently the host was sitting next to Casey on a couch and said “There’s something that’s been bothering me all week” as he pointed at the floor.
Casey said “Oh, I got it” and reached down. He came up with something in his fingers and said “It’s a toenail.”
Now, I’m sure that was set up, but it rings true for Sean Casey. And it’s really refreshing for a professional athlete to be approachable, funny, and human.