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Casey At The Bat There's joy in Cincy when Sean Casey, the majors' leading hitter, takes his cuts

Even as he cruises along with high-profile stats--through Sunday
he led the majors with a .377 batting average--Cincinnati first
baseman Sean Casey remains low-key. He sports sweatshirts and
baggy jeans, wears his floppy brown bangs over his eyes and last
week, while the Reds visited the Marlins, shuttled between Pro
Player Stadium and his Jupiter, Fla., off-season home in a
beat-up '95 Honda Accord. "My wife's like, 'Are you ever going to
get rid of that thing?'" Casey says. "I'm like, No. The kids will
be driving that thing. It still drives great."

Because of his humility, his graciousness and, most important,
his .300 lifetime average entering the season, Casey's most
glaring flaw has long gone overlooked: For a corner infielder he
is an inadequate power hitter. In 2002, when he missed 42 games
because of a torn labrum, rotator cuff and teres minor muscle in
his left shoulder, Casey hit only six homers (one every 70.8 at
bats) and had a .362 slugging percentage. He underwent
arthroscopic surgery that September and reported to spring
training healthy, but his power numbers in '03 remained well
below average: 14 homers (one every 40.9 at bats) and a .408
slugging mark, 15th and 10th, respectively, among regular NL
first basemen. "I didn't have any pain," he says, "but I also
didn't have a lot of strength behind my swings."

That has changed dramatically. Last winter Casey returned to the
weightlifting regimen he'd abandoned after his surgery; as a
result he feels stronger and is on the best sustained power run
of his career: 10 home runs at week's end (one every 21.5 at
bats) and a .619 slugging percentage. Typically, though, he's not
getting carried away. "I don't see myself as a power hitter,"
says Casey, 29. "I'm a gap-to-gap guy. I'm going to hit for
average. If I consistently hit the ball hard, I'm going to hit my
share of home runs, but I'm not going to be like Jim Thome or
Jeff Bagwell, the big boppers."

Hitting for average has always been Casey's strength. As a junior
at Richmond in 1995 he led the NCAA at .461, and given his
propensity for making contact, he has the potential to win a
major league batting title. Says manager Dave Miley, "It seems
like every time he swings, he's got a chance of getting a hit."

Though he has two years and $14.6 million remaining on a contract
extension he signed in 2002--a significant obligation for the
cost-conscious Reds--Casey, like Ken Griffey Jr., is going
nowhere, at least as long as Cincinnati continues to win. But for
a change, he's providing some bang for those bucks. --D.G.H.

COLOR PHOTO: JEFF SWINGER/CINCINNATI ENQUIRER/AP CHEERLEADER The hot-hitting Casey (21) celebrated last Saturday's10th-inning win over the Expos.