Ken ReitzJuly 23, 2008
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by what I thought was the nickname of the man shown here making one of his frequent outs (this particular out perhaps stemming from his failure to don the batting glove sticking out of his back pocket, or perhaps due to a batting grip seemingly modeled on a tableside waiter grinding a pepper mill):
I remember Ken Reitz’s nickname as being The Big Zamboni.
I don’t know where I got that idea. Maybe it’s on the back of another of my Ken Reitz baseball cards. More likely I made it up by somehow combining the actual nickname for Reitz listed on Baseball-Reference.com, Zamboni, with the nickname of the song-and-dance-prone Laverne and Shirley character, Carmine “The Big Ragu” Ragusa, whose name sounds like the ace of the post-Tatum O’Neal Bad News Bears, Carmen Ronzonni, whose last name sort of sounds like Zamboni. I’m pretty sure that when I did get it in my head that Ken Reitz was The Big Zamboni I didn’t know what a Zamboni was, but even though a Zamboni is a pretty colorful thing to be named after I think my version made Ken Reitz seem even more colorful than he would have seemed if I’d known he was named after a steamroller that smoothed ice. Sometimes things that don’t really mean anything mean more than things that mean something specific. A little magic is lost whenever something gets unequivocally defined. So I imagined The Big Zamboni as a booming friendly guy liked by everyone, the kind of guy who burst into rooms loudly, causing everyone to turn and smile and call his name. Hey, look who it is! The Big Zamboni!
From perusing the internet for more info about Reitz, specifically trying and failing to find an article I once read about a famously demon-haunted minor league team in the mid-1980s stocked with former major leaguers trying to climb back up from rock bottom, including Reitz and Steve Howe, I have gotten the idea that Reitz was something like what I’d imagined him to be when I was a kid and knew only his baseball cards and my version of his nickname. I can’t cite any reliable sources on this, so I hope people more knowledgeable on the subject will confirm or deny the sketch I got of Reitz from various message board comments floating in the cyber-ether, but from what I can gather Reitz was a life-of-the-party kind of guy during his time with his primary team, the Cardinals, and the fans loved him and he loved them back, and furthermore loved playing for the Cardinals.
For their part, the Cardinals seemed to have trouble making up their mind about Reitz. They traded him away twice, the first time only in effect loaning him to the Giants for a year, the second time packing him off for good along with Leon Durham to snatch Bruce Sutter from the Cubs. He’d been an All-Star a few months before the trade, but Whitey Herzog had decided that he didn’t fit in with plans for the team of speed-burners that would win pennants in 1982, 1985, and 1987. As Herzog put it (quoted by Joe Posnanski), “I used to shave before games. And once Reitz was up at the plate, and he hit the ball, and by the time he got to first base I had to shave again. That’s when I told him he wasn’t going to play.”
Herzog, for his part, was known as The White Rat. What nicknames! I’ve never really had a nickname. In boarding school for a little while some people called me Beaker, a hated nickname based on my weakling build and general bug-eyed look of terror. Earlier, at basketball camp, I briefly was known as “I’m Out,” a nickname based on my habit of meek capitulation in the nightly poker games. That’s about it. I’m not the kind of guy who barges into rooms with loud, charismatic jollity. Homeless dudes invariably address me as “Big Guy” before asking me for money. Does that count?