I grew up in Cincinnati but left the area for 20 years after college. The Reds chose 18-year-old Homer Bailey in the summer of 2004, just a couple weeks before my moving truck pulled back into town. I re-engaged with the Reds, but didn’t know that much about Bailey when I drove downtown for his 2007 major league debut.
The season was two months old and the Reds were already 15 games under .500 and in last place. It was plain the front office was rushing its previous first-round pick to the big leagues. But with the club’s record 23-38, we didn’t care. The Friday night crowd of 38,000 paid full attention when Homer Bailey struck out the first batter he faced, Cleveland’s Grady Sizemore. Manager Jerry Narron let Bailey throw 114 pitches to get through five innings so his young starter could qualify for the win.
Yet Homer Bailey’s path to the Reds rotation was rough and crooked. It zigged to Louisville and zagged to the disabled list. But there would be progress. If you combine the 41 starts for the Reds over the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Bailey produced an xFIP better than MLB average. In 2012, Bailey put together a complete season of 33 starts for the Reds, with 208 innings pitched.
That 2012 season included a no-hitter for Bailey in late September. But that accomplishment had struggled for top billing in the city. The game was in Pittsburgh during the final week of the season. The Reds had a 10-game lead in the division. Fans were rightly focused on the impending postseason. I was at Princeton High School that crisp fall Friday, a night perfect for high school football. Like many in Cincinnati, I wasn’t home watching the Reds.
That 2012 postseason featured Homer Bailey’s single best pitching performance.
Eleven days after he no-hit Pittsburgh, Bailey took to the biggest stage of his career and dominated the San Francisco Giants. In NLDS Game Three, Bailey no-hit the Giants through six innings. He had given up a run on a hit batter, walk, bunt and sacrifice fly. Over seven innings, Bailey struck out ten and walked one. He struck out six Giants in a row the second time through their lineup. When Dusty Baker lifted Bailey for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the seventh, the 26-year-old had only thrown 88 pitches.
As every Reds fan knows, the home team lost that game 2-1 in extra innings. If the offense had come up with a couple runs, the Reds would have won their first playoff series in more than 10 years. Bailey’s performance would have become legend in Reds Country.
Then, in 2013 Homer Bailey picked up right where he’d left off. And on a Tuesday night in July, he’d create this enduring memory.
Bailey’s second no-hitter took place in raucous Great American Ball Park on July 2, 2013. His team was locked in a tight three-way race for first place in the division. And most important, from my perspective, I was there. To watch Homer Bailey pitch.
There’s nothing unusual about children having favorite players. Sports heroes, like popular entertainers and beloved teachers, are idols for them to mimic. But as we settle into adult lives, admiration for sports figures becomes more complex. Yes, we still appreciate the skill and athleticism. For example, I loved when Bailey’s fastball velocity surged late in games. Beyond that, adults attach ourselves to hometown players for deeper psychological reasons such as belonging, escapism or identification.
Whatever the explanation, rooting for Homer Bailey became that kind of connection for me. I wrote my first Reds blog post about him in 2011 and I still use his picture as my avatar on social media. It’s an image of him celebrating the moment I’m about to describe.
In full candor, I was also at GABP that night for the matchup. Not only were the Giants the defending World Series champs, making this a replay of that dramatic and fateful postseason game. But 2-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum was pitching for San Francisco.
I had a good seat, my 2013 season ticket. Field level, over the Reds dugout, about 20 rows off the field, a terrific view of first base. The temperature record says it was a comfortable 79º that night. But what I remember about the weather is it was one of those nights where the Ohio River Valley coated your skin and didn’t let go.
You never expect a pitcher to throw a no-hitter. Baseball games are filled with randomness. That’s why no-hitters are so rare. But Homer Bailey was cruising that night from the start. His no-hitter a few months before being still fresh in my memory made another one feel more plausible than it really was.
Bailey started by striking out the first batter, like he had Grady Sizemore six years before, and didn’t let up. By the end of the fifth, a buzz started in the stands that never stopped.
I texted an alert to a friend.
The crowd had begun to hail its local hero, shouting HO-MER! HO-MER! HO-MER! between innings like we had during Game Three.
Bailey was perfect through six innings. There hadn’t yet been a great defensive play to save the no-hitter because the Giants hadn’t hit the ball hard. That was about to change.
[I don’t believe in no-hitter jinxes. Bracketing for a moment that they, you know, have no basis in science or reality of any kind. What are the odds that no one anywhere says out loud that a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter? I’ll answer that. There’s never been one. No pitcher has ever thrown a no-hitter where someone hadn’t said what was happening. Also, does the jinx apply only to hometown players, broadcasters and fans? Couldn’t an opposing fan or player by intention jinx the no-hitter by mentioning it? And who makes these rules? You see my point.]
Anyhow, during the break after the sixth inning, the GABP scoreboard played a video clip of recent Reds memorable moments. The Reds showed it the same time every game. Well, one of the replays in the video was the last-pitch call by Marty Brennaman of Bailey’s 2012 no-hitter. I remember that instant being mad at the scoreboard programmers for jinxing Bailey. Irrational fan reaction, anyone?
Of course, Bailey walked Gregor Blanco on a full count leading off the next inning.
That free pass meant the end of Bailey’s perfection. It also set up the game’s most memorable defensive play, one that unfolded right in front of me. Blanco had advanced to second on a fielder’s choice. The next batter, stupid Buster Posey, on an 0-2 count, hit a broken-bat liner to Joey Votto who was playing deep and way, way off first base. Bailey expected the ball to be caught so he paused before racing to first to cover. Posey’s hit was soft and landed in right in front of Votto (and me). The Reds first baseman recognized his pitcher might not beat Posey to first. So Joey Votto, with the no-hitter in full jeopardy, wheeled and threw to Todd Frazier at THIRD to tag out Blanco trying to advance.
It was breath-taking. We looked at each other, jaws on the concrete, in disbelief. Had that really just happened? If Votto makes that play in a regular situation, it barely produces a murmur. But in this high-wire circumstance, it was stunning. Votto’s decision was smart, his throw was true. Frazier caught the ball and applied the tag.
Bailey struck out Pablo Sandoval on a 97-mph fastball to end the inning.
HO-MER! HO-MER! HO-MER!
I was grateful the bottom of the eighth was far less eventful than the seventh. Bailey retired the three Giants, including the dangerous Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt, on seven pitches.
HO-MER! HO-MER! HO-MER!
>Oh man. Three to go. Everyone on their feet before first warm up pitch.
In the ninth, Bailey got two outs before inducing Gregor Blanco to ground out to Todd Frazier to complete his second no-hitter. Twelve of Bailey’s thirteen pitches in the ninth were fastballs, including three at 98-mph to Blanco. Bailey’s next-to-last pitch was 98.1 mph, his fastest four-seamer of the game. There’s that rising end-game velocity, a thoroughbred down the stretch.
In all, Bailey had thrown 109 pitches, 77% fastballs. He struck out nine, walked one and out-pitched Tim Lincecum. The Reds won 3-0.
The moment was thrilling, but couldn’t escape a bit of media controversy. In a post-game interview on the field and broadcast in the stadium, Bailey was asked if his at bat the previous inning had affected the Blanco walk. Dripping pink Gatorade, covered in shaving cream, endorphins up, filters down, the Reds pitcher added an X-rated and apparently newsworthy adverb to “No man. I just walked a guy. This game is pretty tough.”
I turned on my car radio to hear what Marty Brennaman had to say. He was offended and complaining that Bailey hadn’t done an interview with him after the game. Bailey maintained otherwise, but I suspect the bill for all the criticism Brennaman had levied over the years toward Bailey and other Reds players had come due.
But that small change didn’t bother me. I was elated. My favorite pitcher throw a no-hitter and I’d seen it in person. The box score says 27,509 fans were in attendance, a great crowd for a Tuesday. I’ve still got my ticket (pictured above) and a couple photos to prove I was among the lucky ones.
Homer Bailey finished the 2013 season ranked in the top 20 of MLB starters in fWAR, xFIP, SIERA, strikeout percentage, K%-BB%, fastball velocity, swinging strike rate and innings pitched. He was 27 years old, coming off two outstanding seasons of not missing a turn and throwing over 200 innings. Bailey didn’t start the Reds play-in game in PNC Park because he’d pitched in the final regular season series.
Dave Cameron at FanGraphs wrote the morning after the no-hitter:
“Bailey’s no-hitter last night wasn’t a frustrating young pitcher finally putting it all together; it was a high quality pitcher having a great night in the middle of a great season. Homer Bailey didn’t arrive last night. He’s been really good for a while now.”
That offseason, with one year of team control remaining, Bailey signed a 6-year agreement for $105 million. While the deal was nowhere near top-end money for a starter, it was large enough to trigger that segment of fans who begrudge a baseball player for earning as much as he can. That’s a choice every single one of those fans would make for themselves if given the chance.
As fate would have it, Homer Bailey never pitched another healthy season for the Reds. In 2014, he underwent flexor mass surgery on his right elbow, followed by a long rehab. After two 2015 starts he had to shut it down again for Tommy John surgery. Bailey made a half-dozen starts in mid-2016 before undergoing season-ending bone spur surgery.
The Reds traded Bailey (and the final year of his contract) to the LA Dodgers who, as part of the deal, released him. The Kansas City Royals then signed the right-hander for 2019 and traded him to the contending Oakland A’s at the summer deadline. Bailey made 31 starts last year, the first time he’d taken the mound at least 30 times since 2013. This past New Year’s Eve, Bailey, who turns 34 next month, signed a 1-year, $7 million deal with the Minnesota Twins, defending AL Central champions, for 2020.
Just like a repeat championship makes the defining statement the first was no fluke, a second no-hitter more than doubles a legacy. Homer Bailey wore #34 in tribute to Nolan Ryan, a fellow Texan known for his record seven major league no-hitters.
I’ve never quite put my finger on why Homer Bailey became one of my favorite Reds players. Bailey’s good-to-great seasons with the Reds were bracketed by stubbornness, inconsistency and unrealistic hype on one side, and a pickup truck full of serious arm injuries on the other.
Yet on that muggy July night, the Cincinnati crowd responded to a Reds pitcher in a way I’d never seen before or since. Being part of that is a wonderful Reds memory I hope to never forget.
[Featured image: https://twitter.com/Reds/status/594906311852167168]