Sunday, April 13, 1997
Key hit helps
Reese feel at home

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Pokey Reese
Pokey Reese is leery of leases. The Cincinnati Reds' rookie shortstop returned to the major leagues a conquering hero Saturday afternoon, but he remained a realist.

''There's no reason to get an apartment,'' he said. ''I don't know how long I'll be here.''

Backing up Barry Larkin may mean more work than usual this season, but it is not to be confused with a steady job. Reese's 10th-inning single gave the Reds a 2-1 victory over the Florida Marlins Saturday afternoon, stopped a five-game losing streak, and assured the patient prospect of nothing but a sound night's sleep in another hotel.

That, and a marvelous memory.

2,000-hit wait

Reese's bloop hit off Rick Helling was his first of any kind in the major leagues, and easily his best moment as a professional ballplayer. Asked to identify his last indelible hit, Reese recalled a double he had hit to square a state semifinal series his high school team would later lose. That was six years ago, and Pokey Reese has been trying to recapture that rapture for more than 2,000 at-bats.

Saturday, he succeeded. Saturday, he shone.

Reese was told Friday night of his recall by the Reds, and less than 12 hours later pulled into a parking space at Cinergy Field for the start of his second shuttle mission of the young season. He had spent Opening Day with the big club, replaced Larkin at shortstop for the ninth inning against the Rockies, only to be reassigned to Indianapolis after the game.

Perhaps this time around Pokey will be allowed to unpack. Larkin's tender left heel is of sufficient concern that his superiors have weighed placing him on the disabled list. Though the Reds' captain remains on the active roster, his availability is still a day-by-day determination. Even as Reese responded to reporters' questions Saturday afternoon, Larkin sat at his locker with his left foot soaking in a tub of ice.

What hopes the Reds have for 1997 hinge on Larkin's health. Reese's role is to make us regard Larkin's absences more fondly.

''Pokey had a pretty tough day at the plate,'' Larkin said of his understudy Saturday. ''But he went out and made all the plays defensively, and then he came up with the big hit. More than anything, that makes him feel like he belongs here.''

Defensive credentials

Defensively, Pokey Reese has been performing at major-league standards for several seasons. He has soft hands, a strong arm and extensive range. In another organization, his hitting might have been overlooked. Because the Reds' shortstop standard is the limitless Larkin, Reese is widely regarded as one-dimensional. Shortstops in the Reds' system see about as much room for advancement as does Prince Andrew.

''It's not frustrating,'' Reese said. ''It is, but it isn't. You know you're playing behind the best.''

Playing in Larkin's place Saturday, Reese grounded out in his first two at-bats, flied out in the fifth inning, and popped out in the eighth. When his turn came again in the 10th, he hurried to the plate for fear Reds manager Ray Knight might decide on a pinch hitter if he dawdled.

Reese fell behind, one ball and two strikes, before working the count full. He then blooped his hit to right field, enabling Eric Owens to score the winning run. He would have had a ground-rule double had he continued running to second base, but he was more than satisfied with the single.

''It was just a pop up,'' Florida's Helling said later. ''He just hit in a spot where no one could get to it. He didn't hit it hard at all.''

A ball for mom

It hardly mattered. When the ball bounced into the stands, Reds bullpen coach Tom Hume immediately recognized its significance. He traded two autographed balls to retrieve Reese's first hit. The ball, Reese said, would go to his mother. The bat he hopes to use again.

''I'm so happy right now, I can't even express it,'' Reese said. ''It's a dream come true. My first hit is the game-winning hit.''

If Pokey Reese has not yet found a home, he has at least made himself welcome.