He's probably the most superior human being I've ever met...you can't help but become better yourself just being around him.
- Former teammate Aaron Boone
Sean Casey arrived on the Cincinnati baseball scene through one of the most surprising trades in Reds history. On the eve of Opening Day 1998, Casey, a 23-year-old with a grand total of 23 Major League plate appearances under his belt , was acquired from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for starting pitcher Dave Burba. While it is not necessarily unusual for teams to make last-minute deals to shore up holes in their rosters as a new season is about to begin, this trade stood out since the pitcher the Reds traded had been assigned to start on Opening Day, a spot traditionally given to the Reds 'de facto ace.
While Reds players and fans were equally stunned by the sudden loss of the club's #1 pitcher, the trade was a sensible one for both clubs. Reds management had made clear its intention to rebuild the club to be ready to contend when the team opened its new ballpark in 2003. The opportunity to acquire a young player who had hit nearly .350 in three minor league seasons was too irresistible to ignore. While Burba had been a serviceable pitcher for the Reds, he did not factor into the club's long-term plans. While the Reds were rebuilding, the Indians were perennial contenders in need of a starting pitcher to maintain their place among the American League's elite teams. With 27-year-old All-Star Jim Thome firmly ensconced at first base, the Indians had no place to put Casey and, reluctant though they were to deal such a burgeoning talent, they moved forward with the trade. Indians GM John Hart later lamented, "What made the trade so tough were the intangibles. He's a special kid. There was just no spot for him."
The discontent many Reds fans expressed over the trade was soon diffused as they learned more about how special their new first baseman truly was. Born in Willingboro, New Jersey in 1974, Casey grew up in the Pittsburgh area. As a child, he approached everything and everyone with an uncommon degree of enthusiasm and earnestness. These traits combined with a fierce competitive drive turned Casey into an exceptional baseball player at Upper St. Clair High School. By the age of 14 he was telling anyone who would listen that he was going to be a Major League baseball player. He wasn't being boastful; he simply believed that it was going to happen.
Casey accepted a scholarship to the University of Richmond in Virginia and after starring at the school where he won the NCAA batting title with a hit in the final at-bat of his last collegiate season and making a significant impression in the prestigious Cape Cod League, Casey was drafted by the Indians in the second round of the June 1995 amateur draft.
While working his way through the Indians' system, Casey quickly established that he was both very adept at hitting professional pitching and that he was very gifted at making friends. Casey had first been coined "The Mayor" by some of his Cape Cod League teammates who watched in wonder as Casey became a magnet for crowds everywhere he went. He would work these crowds like a politician in the heat of an intense campaign. The difference was that Casey wasn't running for anything, he genuinely liked people and enjoyed being around them. And he believed heartily in the "Golden Rule" his father had impressed upon him throughout his life: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Casey's compelling combination of sincerity and gregariousness quickly ingratiated him to his new teammates in Cincinnati. Speaking shortly after he had acquired Casey, Reds GM Jim Bowden who had made numerous hyperbolic declarations as to Casey's baseball talents, also saw in Casey a unique gift to impact the club through the sheer force of his personality. "He's a very unselfish person, which makes for an unselfish type of player, "said Bowden. "He loves the game and he's the type of player you love to have as a GM because you know, with success, he will own your city. He's got that type of personality. The city of Cincinnati will love him."
Before Cincinnati had a chance to love him, it almost lost him. Only four days after he was acquired, Casey was hit in the eye by a thrown ball during a pre-game practice. His right cheekbone was shattered by the impact and bleeding in his eye socket caused his eye to swell shut. When he arrived at the hospital, a doctor asked him to tell him how many fingers he was holding up. Casey wasn't even able to see the doctor's hand. "At that point," Casey said. "I was as scared as I've ever been." Casey's vision returned and after a surgical procedure, vision in the damaged eye actually improved from its pre-injury state but the outcome could have been vastly different had the ball had made an even slightly more direct impact on his eye. Had that happened, Casey's Major League story likely would have ended. And if it had, the magical and unforgettable Reds season of 1999 likely would never have unfolded the way it did.
Expectations were not low for the Reds as they entered the 1999 season. The club had finished with a 77-85 record in 1998, its second consecutive losing season. With the club stating it was in rebuilding mode, there was little thought given to contending in 1999. But the hard-to-fathom alchemy of team chemistry produced a most-unexpected result. Added to 1998 carryovers shortstop Barry Larkin, catcher Eddie Taubensee, left fielder Dmiitri Young and Casey, who by the end of the '98 season had recovered fully from his eye injury to establish himself as the club's starter at the position, were outfielders Greg Vaughn and Mike Cameron, third baseman Aaron Boone and second baseman Pokey Reese. Boone and Reese were products of the Reds' farm system while Vaughn and Cameron had arrived via trade. On the pitching staff, starters Denny Neagle, Steve Parris and Ron Villone were added to a rotation headed by Pete Harnisch who had emerged as the ace of the staff in the wake of Dave Burba's departure. Rookie Scott Williamson, another Reds farm-hand was joined a bullpen mix that also included Danny Graves and Scott Sullivan.
On paper, the key acquisitions were Vaughn, who in 1998 had belted 50 home runs and driven in 119 for the Padres and Neagle, a 16 game-winner with the Braves in '98. The rest of the new additions were an unpredictable mix of unproven young players and veterans with less than stellar credentials. Adding to the unsettled feel that surrounded the club was the looming departure of owner Marge Schott. The sale of her majority ownership to Cincinnati financier Carl Lindner was announced on April 20 officially went into effect on October 1. Taken as a whole, the pre-season outlook was not overly optimistic. The experts predicted that a third straight losing season was in the offing for the Reds.
The club's performance in the first five weeks of the season seemed to confirm the consensus opinion as the Reds found themselves in last place in the middle of May with a 14-18 record. While the club may have been struggling, Sean Casey was not. Casey knocked out three hits including a home run on Opening Day, setting the tone for a torrid first half that placed him among the league leaders in multiple offensive categories and that earned Casey his first All-Star selection. The team eventually caught up to its star first baseman. After its mid-May nadir, the club caught fire, sparked in part by a 24-12 thrashing of the Rockies at Coors Field during which Casey tied a Major League record for reaching base in a nine inning game when he hit two home runs, two singles and walked three times. The win was emblematic of a club that was lethal on the road, posting a 51-30 record away from home. A ten game winning streak at the end of June solidified the Reds status as legitimate contenders.
Over the last three months of the season, the Reds and Astros jockeyed for position at the top of the NL Central with the NL's Wild Card position also in reach. Virtually every one of the Reds question marks heading into the season became overwhelming positives as the season progressed. The pitching staff, which had been one of the league's worst in 1998, became one of the league's most effective, shaving nearly half a run off its cumulative ERA. Scott Williamson was a revelation out of the bullpen. The 23-year-old won 12 games and saved 19 more en route to winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award. In his first season as a starting player, second baseman Pokey Reese won a Gold Glove and hit a surprising .285. Aaron Boone contributed solid defense and a steady bat at third and Greg Vaughn came close to duplicating his impressive 1998 stat line with 45 home runs and 118 RBI.
And then there was Casey. In his first full season as a Major Leaguer, Casey finished fourth in the league in batting average (.332) and hits (197), leading the Reds in both categories .He also led the club in on-base-percentage (.399) and slugging percentage (.539). In the process, he established himself not only as one of the game's finest hitters but also as one of its most popular players. His boundless enthusiasm became one of the Reds' trademarks and his humble response to his new-found stardom made him a favorite of fans, teammates and opposing players. "I don't think you will ever hear anything bad about him," Reds manager Jack McKeon said. "He's one of a kind." Teammate Barry Larkin commented, "He's one of the most sincere ballplayers I've ever known... It's a breath of fresh air to see him doing well and being the type of person he is."
Casey's talent and character helped to make his a star and was a major factor in the Reds' postseason push. As the year had unfolded, Reds fans, still reeling from the work stoppage of 2004 and the consecutive disappointments of 1997 and 1998 were slow to embrace the team but as the club continued to win, fan support steadily grew. There was something special about this team. It wasn't simply that they were winning, it was how they were winning. Every player on the roster seemed to tke turns as the hero from one game to the next. Dramatic comebacks became almost expected. More than a few observers began drawing comparisons to the 1990 Reds who had surprised nearly everyone with a World Championship season. The '99 club had the same feel, the same magic.
But it was not to be. A loss to the Brewers on October 2 eliminated the Reds from the Division race but a win in the season's final scheduled game ( a victory hard-earned following a nearly six-hour rain delay) left the Reds tied for the wild card with the Mets forcing a playoff game the following night in Cincinnati. Over 54,000 fans packed Riverfront Stadium (by then renamed Cinergy Field) on the cloudy, chilly October night. The team that all season long had managed to find a way, ran headlong into an opponent that refused to give them a chance. The Mets scored five runs, four more than they needed as Mets starting pitcher Al Leiter dominated the Reds, shutting them out on two hits. New York ultimately made it to the World Series. The Reds had to come to terms with the harsh reality that sometimes 96 wins just isn't' enough. But for the raucous crowd that filled the ballpark that night and the countless other Reds fans who rediscovered the joys of the game through this unforgettable team's exploits, the 1999 season was about much more than a postseason berth that almost was.
For Sean Casey, it was a career-defining season. It was in 1999 that the world got to know Sean Casey and when it did, discovered that it liked him as much as he liked it. The smile that was always present, the gesticulations in the batter's box before every pitch, the boisterous laugh, the endless conversations with opposing players at first base, the steadfast refusal to say "no" to an autograph request, Sean Casey was all of these things. And he could hit. Over the next six seasons, Sean Casey was a Reds constant; a fixture at first base that came to embody everything that was good about baseball. While the Reds' fortunes ebbed considerably during this time, Casey's unabashed joy for the game and his unwavering good nature helped to soften the sting of the disappointing seasons that followed the remarkable 1999 campaign. In retrospect, the 1999 season was an anomaly, a brief flirtation with greatness that was not to be. But the memory of it continues to be treasured, in no small part because of Sean Casey, who excelled as a person off the field as much if not more than he did on it.