Talkative Casey creates good will in MLB

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 19, 2004

CINCINNATI - Sean Casey's day off lasted only five innings.

Concerned that Casey looked tired during a rare hitless game last week, Reds manager Dave Miley decided to give him a day to rest and rejuvenate.

By the fifth inning, he changed his mind and sent Casey in.

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''He drove us crazy on the bench,'' Miley said. ''He had to be in there. The players voted him off the bench. We said, 'Go talk to the first base umpire and the first base coach and leave us alone.'''

Baseball's most talkative first baseman rarely shuts up. For the first three months of the season, he's rarely been shut down.

Casey is having the kind of season that everyone expected before shoulder problems slowed him down the last two years. Batting third in front of Ken Griffey Jr., Casey has led the NL in hitting for most of the season.

He returned from his half-game hiatus and went 2-for-3 Thursday, raising his average to .364. He was around .380 for most of June, before a brief downturn dropped him below Barry Bonds for the NL batting lead.

No one is surprised.

''When we first got him here, I said this guy's got a chance to win a batting title before his career is over,'' said former Reds manager Jack McKeon, who won a World Series title with Florida last year. ''It's nice to see it happening.''

Casey arrived in one of the Reds' most stunning trades. They sent starter Dave Burba to the Indians right before the season opener in 1998. A year later, he hit .332, made the All-Star team and helped the Reds win 96 games.

Injuries interfered with his swing for the next four seasons. He played in 2002 despite a torn muscle in the back of his shoulder that eventually required surgery. He hit only .291 with 19 doubles and 14 homers last season, when the shoulder wasn't back to full strength.

This year, it's vintage Casey.

''I wasn't able to drive the ball to left-center last year,'' he said. ''I probably only hit one ball that way all year. That's the telltale sign for me: I want to drive the ball into that gap.''

His 2-for-3 game Thursday left him with 24 doubles and 13 homers. He led the league in hits and multihit games. He hadn't gone two consecutive starts without a hit all season.

And everyone was happy about it.

Casey, 29, is one of the majors' most popular players. He goes out of his way to make friends, laughs easily and is willing to talk about anything with just about anyone.

In an age of standoff stars, Casey is a regular guy. Other players call him ''The Mayor'' because he seems to know everyone and has a ready handshake.

That hasn't changed.

''He's one of the two nicest guys in the big leagues, him and Mark Sweeney in Kansas City,'' reliever Todd Jones said. ''He's just a good human, a nice, thoughtful, caring guy.''

One who loves to talk any chance he gets.

Whenever a runner reaches first, Casey immediately strikes up a conversation. He'll compliment a nice hit, talk about a big play, or just chat about how things are going.

Casey even had prickly Barry Bonds laughing after he reached first base in a game earlier this season.

''They just know that's part and parcel of what's going to happen if you get a single off one of our pitchers,'' Jones said. ''Sean Casey might get you picked off because he's talking to you.''

Not that they'd mind. Even opponents like to see him do well.

When Griffey glared into the Marlins' dugout after a homer last month, Florida pitcher Brad Penny suggested he should be more like his beloved teammate.

''The perfect example is Sean Casey,'' Penny said. ''Are you ever going to see him do something like that? You don't mind giving up stuff to somebody like that.''

Casey's character was a big factor in the decision to give him a three-year, $20.4 million extension in 2002 - a lot of money for a small-market team. He'll make $6.8 million this season and $7.8 million next year, second only to Griffey on the team payroll.

So far, it's money well-spent. Casey has been the most consistent hitter on an unexpected contender. He's also a rallying point with his enthusiastic outbursts and postgame victory dance in the clubhouse.

Asked to describe the dance performed behind closed doors, reliever Danny Graves said, ''Uh, I don't know. I have no idea. Tryouts for ‘Dance Fever,’ maybe.''

It's what he does during games that gets them talking.

''He's unbelievable,'' Graves said. ''It seems our energy feeds off his energy. He gets excited and gets guys pumped up. I think he's one of the few people that can truly do that.

''A lot of guys have that false chatter, trying to pump guys up. When it's coming from Casey, you know it's real.''