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Original Issue

An Opening Day Farewell

As baseball's new season begins, the previous one recedes into dim memory, even for the World Series champions

Opening day, 1991. I pick up the new story where the old story ended. I talk with Todd Benzinger, who caught the last baseball that flew through the air last October. He caught the final out of the 1990 World Series, a foul pop behind first base that gave the Cincinnati Reds a sweep over the Oakland Athletics.

"Do you still have that ball?" I ask.

"I certainly do," he says. "It's home. Randy Myers was pitching and he asked me for it once, but he never asked again, so I kept it. It's mine."

"You're keeping it?"

"Oh, yes."

Let's see. A war has started and ended in the Middle Hast. Kevin Costner has switched from baseball player to Western hero. Snow has fallen and disappeared. Waistlines have shrunk and waistlines have grown. One of the New Kids on the Block has run into trouble in Louisville. Unemployment has risen. Bills somehow have been paid. Five months have passed.

"How's your wrist?" I ask Billy Hatcher. "How long was it in a cast after the Series?"

"Oh, it never was in a cast," he says. "I just couldn't use it for five weeks or so. It really hurt. I couldn't do anything with two hands, couldn't pick up a thing."

"It's all right now?"

"It still hurts a little on the cold days."

The bits and pieces of last year are hazy. I have been refreshed a bit by an hour-long special on Cincinnati television last night—A Storybook Year—but the immediacy of October has disappeared. Let's see. Hatcher was hitting like crazy, then was hit by a pitch. Wasn't that how it went? Jose Rijo, the pitcher, was the MVP. Eric Davis fell in the outfield and lacerated a kidney. Lou Piniella was the managerial genius in the end. Or so it seemed. The warp of memory already has taken hold.

"How has life been as a world champion?" I ask Rob Dibble, the relief pitcher. "Has life changed?"

"Not really," he says. "It's a question of priorities. Being a world champion is nice, but family always comes first with me. The big thing is that there's more attention. I've mostly tried to stay away from that. There's good attention and bad attention. Good attention is when some 12-year-old kid comes up to you in a restaurant and asks for your autograph. Bad attention is all of these people, calling you with deals, proposals, things they want you to do."

Let's see. Dibble was mad in October at the way he was being used by Piniella and at the lack of money he was making. The Reds gave him a new contract. Dibble is happy now. Let's see. Pitcher Jack Armstrong and catcher Joe Oliver were mad when camp opened, and they walked out of spring training. They weren't given more money, but both are back now. Let's see. Davis was mad because no one called him in the hospital, but he also is back. The kidney still is sore, but he is playing. He still is sore, but he did send Reds owner Marge Schott a get-well card when she was in the hospital. Let's see. She was in the hospital? She also is back now.

"How are you feeling?" I ask Schott.

"I need some hair from Schottzie," she says, not exactly replying to my question because she does not seem to hear it. "Let me get some hair from Schottzie."

She grabs a handful of hair from her pet St. Bernard, the Reds' mascot, and crosses the field through a gaggle of media onlookers and rubs the hair on the chest of manager Piniella. Yes, she is back.

Let's see. Rijo was a grand October story partly because he was married to the daughter of Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal. Then there was a story during the winter that Rijo was being divorced from Marichal's daughter. Let's see. That is her picture in his locker. Nobody seems to know what is going to happen between them. Hard to say. He is putting up some kind of doll in his locker and says that it's his lucky doll. He says he received the doll last June and good things began to happen to him.

"Where did you get it?" I ask.

"From my wife," he says.

Let's see. I talk for a bit with Barry Larkin, the shortstop, who is writing his number on the back of some shin pads that he will wear during the season. He is hoping they will protect him from being spiked on those take-out slides at second base I listen to Piniella discuss the hard parts about repeating as a champion. I talk with a man who is tying red, white and blue streamers to the tails of three white pigeons.

"What's going to happen?" I ask.

"These three pigeons will be released at home plate," he says. "Three hundred pigeons will be released in centerfield at the same time. They all will fly around the stadium."

The pigeons are released. Four F-16 Flying Falcons from the 906th Tactical Fighter Group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base scream through the Ohio sky. A recording of Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA is played. The Reds receive their championship rings. Schottzie is given a special ring. Rain appears and there is a 17-minute delay. The tarp is removed from the field by a ground crew wearing tuxedos. Tom Browning, lefthander, throws a ball, high, to Houston Astro shortstop Eric Yelding at 2:22 Monday afternoon.

The whole thing begins again. New and different and still the same.