MY WEEKEND WITH FRIENDS: #REDSCARAVAN 2012
Over the course of four days in January, I have more fun at my job than I do during any four-day stint the entire year. I’m of course talking about the Reds Caravan. Yesterday, I concluded my sixth tour of duty with a group of guys that included Marty Brennaman, Brandon Phillips, Lee May, Chris Welsh, Tucker Barnhart and my dear friend Ryan “LeRoy” Rizzo.
Here’s how the Caravan works: Three groups of Reds personnel get on three different buses and travel a combined 2,600 miles across Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia. These three separate groups visit our fans and radio affiliates to sign autographs, take pictures and spread the Reds gospel. It’s the club’s goodwill tour. The traveling groups not only consist of the guys on the bus (players, front office folks, manager, broadcasters), they comprise of advance teams and additional staff that follow in trail vehicles, including folks from our sponsor – Cincinnati Regional Tourism Network. It’s quite an undertaking that Reds Director of Caravan Configurement Zach Bonkowski spends a lot of time concocting.
This year, in addition to the “Marty and Lee Show”, I got a lot of enjoyment from spending time with Reds minor leaguer Tucker Barnhart. Tucker just turned 21 and he’s got a good head on his shoulders. I like the way he handles himself and I think he’s going to be a pretty good big leaguer one day. A switch-hitting catcher who’s capable of winning a Gold Glove is potentially dangerous.
Tucker was the rookie of this tour, so we had to do something to initiate him as a “rock star.” Following our final stop of the night on Friday, I got an extra copy of Tucker’s room key in Lexington. Ryan Rizzo helped stall Tucker while I ran off the bus and hid in the “Rook’s” room with my flip cam. Tucker had no idea what I was up to and didn’t suspect a thing. He finally made it to his room, swiped his key and entered. At just the right moment, I jumped out and scared Tucker Barnhart to within inches of his life. It made for great television. Take a look….
Lee May took Tucker under his wing during our tour. They sat next to each other at most of the public stops so Lee could see if Tucker was neatly signing his autograph. Lee says when guys get to the big leagues their signature mysteriously becomes sloppy and illegible. Tucker made a promise to Lee that his signature will always look respectable.
On our long drive back to the hotel on Saturday night, the new-found friends arranged a breakfast date for the next morning. Lee, like Marty, takes pride in punctuality and never being late for anything. That did not go unnoticed by Tucker, who despite being up most of the night with insomnia, still managed to beat Lee to the hotel restaurant early Sunday morning. Lee was surely impressed.
Similar to what most new friends do on the last day of school or the final weekend of summer camp, Lee and Tucker sat down in Lexington at our final tour stop to exchange phone numbers. With his cell phone in hand, Tucker typed Lee’s number into his contacts and then called the number so Lee could have Tucker’s digits without having to type them in. As Tucker and Lee sat waiting for Lee’s phone to light up, signaling that the call had gone through….nothing. Crickets. Ring, ring, ring, ring, ring….finally Tucker told Lee that it must be the wrong number because some strange lady answered (not to mention Lee’s cell phone never rang). Come to find out, Lee gave Tucker his HOME phone number, not his cell number and that the strange lady who answered Tucker’s call was actually Lee’s wife. “You hung up on my wife?! Oh you shouldn’t have done that!”
Yet another funny instance involving Lee and the “Rook” took place while the two were signing autographs at the Greenwood Center in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Since Tucker can “read backwards,” Lee said he must be “anorexic.”
You can have Laurel & Hardy, I’ll take Lee May and Marty Brennaman. I’m convinced they are the two funniest human beings on the face of the earth – and when paired together, nothing can come close to their innate ability to generate laughs. Their comedic styles do more than just complement each other, they produce a nuclear reaction.
No matter what Lee says on the bus, Marty, without fail, will rebuff it. Lee’s every story, every memory, every comment gets chewed up and spit out by Mercury Marty. “Lee May” becomes “Lee Dismayed” and the results produce epic sparring matches between the two legends which, in turn, inflict pain-inducing belly laughs from us bystanders.
There are two men named “Al” who don’t physically travel with us, but are still very much present on the motor coach during our tour. One is Al McBean, the other is Al Michaels. We make it a point at every stop to have someone ask Lee about Al McBean. You might remember the story from last year when Lee cited McBean as one of the toughest pitchers he ever faced. “If I were going to battle and had to be in a foxhole with anyone, I’d want it to be ‘Alvin MACK-Bean!’” Of course, Marty reminds Lee that good ol’ Al “stunk.” This follows with Lee asking Marty, “How would you know?! You never faced him! You were broadcasting in Memphis when Alvin pitched! And besides, how many home runs did you hit?! Joe Nuxhall made you who you are!!” Lee gets so worked up that he finally tells everyone on the bus that he wishes Marty never replaced Al Michaels as the Reds primary play-by-play man in 1974.
Ironically, another baseball “Al” weighed in on the “McBean” issue during this year’s caravan tour. When our group was in Portsmouth, the immortal Al Oliver, who happens to be a Portsmouth native, stopped by the WNXT radio studios to see his old pal Lee May. Believe it or not, Oliver actually roomed with Al McBean for a spell during his playing days. When pressed on whether McBean was any good or not, Al Oliver said, “sometimes.” Needless to say, this was not the reaction Lee May was looking for.
Let me tell you a little bit about Brandon Phillips. Players of Brandon’s caliber, on any team, usually do not participate on their club’s caravans. It’s just the way it is. With that being said, we just wrapped up our sixth year with Brandon on the bus. For as much as we have fun and cut it up, it requires a lot of work and commitment from everyone involved– including the players. After six years, Brandon doesn’t have to do this work anymore. He’s under no obligation, yet he keeps jumping on the bus with us year after year. It’s amazing and verifies what kind of guy he is. Sure, he’s flashy and might rub some folks the wrong way, but he cares about the people who come out to see him and the team. He understands the importance of the fan. I’m not surprised anymore when Brandon takes it upon himself to go through the line at our big stops to sign for every person in attendance – including the folks in the very back who were told they’re not guaranteed an autograph due to time constraints.
I liked having Chris Welsh back with us this year. On last year’s caravan, Chris had to fill in for a very ill Jeff Brantley on one of the other tours. Chris came back to us this year and I enjoyed his presence. He provided “quiet leadership” to our otherwise boisterous dog-and-pony show. During one of the longer bus rides, Chris showed me some photos he snapped a few weeks ago when he visited Johnny Cueto in the Dominican Republic. His pictures and stories from the trip were quite eye-opening and made me appreciate the things that I usually take for granted here in the good ol’ US of A.
One of my favorite things on the bus is when I transcribe Mercury Marty’s recaps of the bigger Caravan stops. They are produced with frolicking jocoseness, if not brilliant eloquence. Either way our tongues are firmly in cheek when Marty’s recaps are posted on the blog. But Marty isn’t doing these completely by himself; Reds Assistant General Manager Bob Miller helps out by contributing a few gems.
Marty created the only smidge of controversy on our leg of the tour when, on Friday, he went on Bill Cunningham’s radio show and stated that we would have a big announcement at Saturday’s Select-A-Seat event at Great American Ball Park. This of course made folks, including media types, speculate as to whether the team was signing Brandon Phillips to a long-term contract (which wasn’t the case). No, our announcement was much more juvenile and meant to be taken in jest – not with validity. Our “big” announcement was that we were presenting ourselves with the first-ever Courage and Camaraderie Award – a counterfeit honor that we helped Marty contrive on the bus. I’m now aware that a few folks were not thrilled with this stunt.
This was our smoothest Caravan tour in the six years I’ve been a part of it. No major complaints, no big mistakes, no paralyzing issues, etc. We got it done and a blast doing it. It was fun seeing all of the Reds fans come out to see the traveling party. I also couldn’t believe how many more Better Off Red fans I met this year compared to last. Our radio affiliates and mall personnel were very accommodating and incredibly kind. We simply couldn’t do this without their help and we especially couldn’t do it without the support from all of you.
And if I can take a second to “show you the man behind the curtain,” we are fully aware of the ridiculousness we create in presenting ourselves as the “Rock Star Group.” As much as we’d like to believe we are more important than the other groups, the truth is, we are not. We are like a cluster of professional wrestlers staging our endless self-promotion. Why, you ask? Because, we simply have a whole lot of fun doing it. On Saturday, Lee said, “While the other buses are sleepin’, we’re plottin’.” While that may be true, the other buses are just as valuable in this organization’s efforts to continue the long and successful tradition of the Reds Caravan. There’s no “I” in team…but then again, there’s no “I” in “Rock Star.”
“Until next time,”
PS – Big thanks to all of you who came out to visit any of the three Reds Caravan tours. And a big thanks to all of you who followed along on Better Off Red. Go Reds!!
My favorite photos from the trip…