Sunday, February 27, 2000

Old Left-hander should have day




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

nuxhall
Joe Nuxhall
        SARASOTA, Fla. — The Old Left-hander isn't getting any younger. Joe Nuxhall will be 72 this season, and there's at least an outside chance he won't live forever. Perhaps it is time to ensure his immortality.

        The Cincinnati Reds really ought to retire Nuxhall's number, bronze his microphone and celebrate his singular contributions to baseball's oldest professional ballclub. And they ought to do it now.

        Before it's too late. Before too many cigarettes or too much blood pressure summon the Old Left-hander to a higher league. Before Cinergy Field becomes a parking lot. Before Marty Brennaman's Cooperstown summer leaves the senior partner of Reds on radio feeling forgotten.

        “There is no one who has meant more to this franchise and its fans than Joe Nuxhall,” Brennaman said. “Why not retire his number while he's still around to enjoy it?”

        Tom Seaver was the best pitcher ever to wear No.41 for the Reds, and the number now appears on the jersey of Ron Villone. But while other men have borrowed it periodically, its rightful owner is the same overgrown child who won 135 games, lost 117 and is forever rounding third and headed for home.

        Unpolished and unrepentant, Hamilton Joe can be hard on the ears. He mangles names. He eschews preparation. He leaves too much dead air between pitches and too many pertinent facts unspoken. He asks the world's most circuitous questions and rarely taps his lifetime of baseball experience to provide insight for the listener.

        And yet, he is beloved. Joe Nuxhall is everybody's favorite uncle — folksy, flawed, but so fun-loving and familiar that you tend to make allowances for his shortcomings. Like Little Kings and Simon Leis, he might not work in another market. Yet he is revered in Cincinnati.

        “We retired Ted Kluszewski's number, even though he isn't in the Hall of Fame,” said John Allen, the Reds chief operating officer. “He was a good ballplayer, but what was special about him was that he was Cincinnati. He was close to an icon. I kind of put Nuxie in that category. He's kind of rough around the edges, but people just love him. And they love listening to him.”

        Allen's commemorative calendar is already crowded for 2000. Tony Perez' number will be retired May 27. The Big Red Machine will be recognized June 3. Sparky Anderson and Dave Concepcion are to be added to the Reds' Hall of Fame. Additional ceremonies could get repetitive.

        “We've got to save something for down the road,” Allen said. “And Joe's got a three-year contract.”

        Still, if the Reds are going to recognize Marty Brennaman's addition to Cooperstown's broadcasting wing this year, it would be remiss to neglect Nuxhall. In the mind's eye, the two men are joined at the hip, like Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Skipper and Gilligan.

        “He would never campaign for anything,” Brennaman said. “But I think retiring his number would mean more to him than anyone could ever know. I continually have people talk to me about putting his name on the (new) stadium. And they're dead serious.”

        Because of the lucrative market for naming rights, the Reds' next ballpark will surely bear some soulless corporate title. What mail Allen has received on the subject, however, is overwhelmingly in favor of Nuxhall Field. (If that effort is organized rather than spontaneous, it is no less sincere).

        Nuxhall broke in with the Reds during the Roosevelt Administration — Franklin's, not Teddy's — and has been associated with the ballclub for 54 of the last 56 years as a player and broadcaster. He started out as the youngest player ever to appear in a major-league game, and he has grown up to achieve astonishing longevity.

        Tune in the Reds in a middle of a game, and you can usually surmise the score based only on Nuxhall's tone of voice. When a Reds hitter hits one deep, Nuxhall responds as if his enthusiasm can help carry the ball over the fence. Should someone on the other team hit a home run, Nuxhall reports it in a comically muted monotone — as if providing play-by-play for a golf tournament or a state funeral.

        Between spring training, the regular season and the playoffs, Nuxhall has seen close to 10,000 big-league ballgames. He has talked about skipping some road trips in recent years, but he can't bear to be away.

        “He's not going to be doing a postgame interview this year,” Brennaman said. “I told him, "You can do the seventh inning and go home.' He said, "I won't be leaving. I'll be sticking around.'” We tend to take him for granted. We ought to know better.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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