CINCINNATI -- Sean Casey found out Opening Day in Cincinnati was a big deal when he walked into the dugout before his first opener in 1998.
“I come out and Pete Harnisch was feeding sunflower seeds to an elephant,” Casey said. “I’m like ‘what the heck!’ There were horses and clown cars. I’m like, ‘what is this?’ They’re like, ‘this is Opening Day in Cincinnati.’
“I realized it was a huge deal.”
Casey will return to Cincinnati for Opening Day for the first time since his departure in 2005. He’s not returning as a fan or TV talking head or even as a Reds Hall of Famer. Casey is returning as the grand marshal of the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade.
Not to disparage any of the former marshals, but I’ve got to think Casey is best-qualified grand marshal in the history of the parade. That’s based on two things: Niceness and enthusiasm.
When people asked me who the nicest Red I covered was, I don’t have to ponder the answer. Casey isn’t just the nicest Red I ever covered, he may be the nicest guy I’ve ever met.
As for enthusiasm, it pours out of Casey. When they announced that he was the grand marshal, I tweeted that there would likely be spate of injuries from overzealous high fives and hugs. I was only half-kidding. Casey’s bear hugs can crack your back like a trip to the chiropractor.
Casey, as you might have guessed, is thrilled to be the grand marshal.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “I think it’s really cool. We all know the history of Opening Day, what a big deal it is, the parade. When Bob Castellini asked me to be the grand marshal, I was really touched.”
Casey Nice Guy Story No. 1: My wife made a road trip with me to Atlanta probably in 2001 or so. We're having lunch near the team hotel. Casey walks in with an older couple. He comes over and says hello. He introduces himself to my wife. We chat a bit.
That afternoon when I show up in the clubhouse, Casey rushes over to me. “Johnny, Johnny, I just want to apologize for not introducing those people. They’re (Sean's wife) Mandi’s grandparents. I didn’t know their first names. Man, I’m sorry.”
Casey spent eight years with the Reds until they traded him for Dave Williams in 2005 -- that won’t go down in history as one of the great moves. This will be his first Opening Day parade.
“I was always playing,” he said. “When Marge Schott was the owner, it ended in the stadium, so we’d see some of it.”
Casey is 42 and has been retired since 2008 -- he hit .322 the year he retired and I’m guessing he could hit .275 right now. It’s been 12 years since he played in Cincinnati. But he still holds a special spot in the hearts of fans here because he played hard and showed such emotion.
Casey Nice Guy Story No. 2: When Casey signed his first big contract with the Reds, he came in the next day with a stack of brochures -- not for luxury cars or exotic trips. They were from an investment company and he was setting up college funds for his niece or nephew.
Casey signed the deal in spring training. He bought a suit for the press conference. The salesman picked out a matching shirt. Mandi made Sean find another when she saw the $100 price tag.
Casey lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He works about 70 days a year for MLB Network.
“It gives me time to be home with my kids,” he said. “They have a lot going on. It allows me to stay in the game. MLB Network gave me such a cool gig. It’s been great.”
Casey Nice Guy Story No. 3: Casey spoke at the Elder Sports Stag two years ago and he was great. He had plenty of stories suitable only for a stag crowd.
But he made the night about Bernie Stowe, the Reds' legendary clubhouse manager. Every 10 minutes or so, Casey would stop, grab his beer and say: “Let’s raise one up for Bernie!”
It made Bernie’s night.
Bernie died just before spring training of last year. Casey drove through a wicked snow storm to get to the funeral.
Casey has four children: Andrew is a freshman in high school, Jake’s in the eighth grade, Carle's in fifth and Jullian's in first grade.
“I was going to bring the whole family but they start testing at school Monday,” he said. “I might be solo. That’s the only bummer.”
But Casey will make due.
“There’s nothing like Opening Day in Cincinnati,” he said. “I always tell people I wish they’d go back to the tradition when Opening Day in Cincinnati when it was the first game. I hope one day they do do that. There was so much behind it. It’s a holiday in Cincinnati. Not everyone around the country knows it, but I was there for eight years so I know it.”
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.