Ken Reitz

July 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?


  1. 1.  In college, we coined the nickname Sully for a particular type of person (as in “he’s a Sully), and here is the only way to define it: Imagine yourself walking into a keg party and shouting to a guy at the center of the action “Hey Sully!” Describe for me the guy who answers.

  2. 2.  1 : That’s funny. The guy at the center of the keg party at my college was named Smitty, which seems close enough.

    FYI: There are some new comments on old posts for Luis Tiant, 1980 (Yankees); Gene Michael (Yankees); Wade Boggs (Yankees); Wille Horton (Tigers); and Ray Corbin (Twins).

  3. 3.  Excellent describtion of Kenny Reitz’s batting grip. The tableside waiter grinding a pepper mill.

    I can just picture the waiter right now, “OK, Big Guy, tell me when to stop grinding.”

  4. 4.  Homeless dudes invariably address me as “Big Guy” before asking me for money. Does that count?

    For some reason, I get “Chief” a lot.

  5. 5.  For some reason Beaker has always been my favorite muppet. To this day when he shows up unannounced I yell out “B E A K E R” like some idiot. Imagine my foolish delight when my favorite writer had the nickname of this goofy character.

  6. 6.  Great point about fact morphing into fact morphing into fact. I do that a lot.

    I was subbed “Spud”, naturally, playing basketball during the brief heyday of Anthony “Spud” Webb of the Atlanta Hawks.

  7. 7.  Spud was the bomb, started following NCS after the crazy championship run.

  8. 8.  Is this a psychological experiment to see how long we’ll ignore the number written on the side of his helmet? What is this, the St. Louis Crimson Tide? Paul Lukas is getting an email from me…

  9. 9.  Would Ken Reitz even have a chance at a career these days? And did the early- to mid-’70s Cards have the least imposing infielders in history? The combined offensive skills of Sizemore, Reitz, and Tyson can be summed up as Reitz’s ability to post a league average BA, and Sizemore’s willingness to take the occasional walk. Sure, there were a lot of light-hitting middle infielders back then, but these guys were fixtures. Put them all in the same lineup, and Reitz barely scored a run every fourth game. Amazing.

  10. 10.  I remember him being called “The Human Zamboni Machine.”

  11. 11.  6 , 7 : Yes, Spud was awesome.

    8 : Great point. That uniform atrocity was the first thing I noticed when I first looked at it a while ago, but I had writer’s block about the card for so long that when I finally wrote about it I’d looked at it so much that I’d ceased seeing the ridiculous helmet number.

    9 : I wonder if Reitz (Gold Glove winner in 1975) and current defensive standout Joe Crede are sort of comparable, with their power numbers put in league and park context. They both had/have trouble getting on base consistently.

    10 : Yes, that sounds very familiar. The extended version was particularly confusing to me as a kid, what with my not knowing what a zamboni was.

  12. 12.  Reitz may have ended up with a league average BA but he usually got off to torrid starts. 1980 when he made the AS team was the biggest example but he also did it in 79 and 77 and 74 too.

  13. 13.  “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 remember reading what was probably the same article. I think it was from Rolling Stone magazine (1985 or 86), and the team was called the San Jose Bees. I think Mike Norris was also on that team.

  14. 14.  Mike Verdi was the Manager of the “Bad News Bees”. WIth that article, he was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone with some Bees players that were former major leaguers. Years later when he managed a club for me in the minors, each time he made a trip to the mound any guess as to what song was played……..”Cover of the Rolling Stone” by Dr. Hook naturally.

  15. 15.  it was the San Jose Bees…as a quick google search found for me. here’s the roster: http://www.thebaseballcube.com/statistics/1986/10379.shtml

    1986 and a few familiar names: Daryl Sconiers, Todd Cruz, Terry Whitfield, Steve McCatty, Vern Ruhle, Steve Howe and the aforementioned Ken Reitz who posted very mediocre numbers in 386 AB’s. he even pitched an inning!

    looking over the rosters for this club i’m amazed at the number of Japanese players on the team.


  16. 16.  14 : Great song choice.

    15 : Thanks for that link!

  17. 17.  http://www.thebaseballcube.com/statistics/1987/10379.shtml
    The ’87 Bees – that’s some bad baseball.

  18. 18.  17 : Ha, looking through those stats (’87 Bees), I notice a pitcher by the name of “Ted Taraguchi” who was 0-12 in 20 games with an era of 8.95. Now THAT’S a stat line.

  19. 19.  The article in question, “Bad-Nose Bees” by Neal Karlen, was reprinted in The Complete Armchair Book of Baseball. Excerpts (10 of 14 pages) can be found by Googling “bad nose bees.”

    A few years later, in his book Slouching Toward Fargo, Karlen expressed regret for “betraying” the Bees. Details here: http://www.observer.com/node/41656

  20. Reitz was the favorite player of one of my close childhood friends. I recall saying to him “I like Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson, and your favorite is Reitz?”

    Man Reitz was slow. Look at his runs scored totals. Pathetic. In 1976 he scored only 40 times with 614 plate appearances. In 1979 he scored 43 times with 643 PA’s. In 1980 39 runs with 561 PA’s. Career OBP .290. Ugh. Here is the biggest curiosity. How did he possibly steal 10 bases in his career?

  21. For some reason, possibly because if I had ever achieved my childhood dream, my name would have appeared reasonably close to his in an alphabetical listing of major league players, Ken Reitz was my favorite player during the late 70s. One reason for the lack of runs scored is because he was typically batting seventh, usually in front of such stellar hitters as Mike Tyson, Mike Phillips, or Steve Swisher. But I do remember in the low-rent simulation games I’d play in those days(we came from a poor family and couldn’t afford Strat-O-Matic), his speed ratings would be something like -30 (where Luis Tiant would have been, oh, say, -10).

    Ken Reitz’s longevity may be a testament to the Cardinals’ bizarre desire to combine sheer speed types (think Lou Brock, Garry Templeton, Tony Scott, Bake McBride) with guys who could hit but but not run their way out of a wet paper bag (Ted Simmons, Terry Kennedy, Keith Hernandez). Maybe they figured that by alternating fast doubles hitters with slow doubles hitters, everyone would score. Chalk it up to another noble but failed experiment of the era, along with gas rationing, the Carter presidency, and the Bay City Rollers.

  22. I realize it’s been 11 years since anyone commented on this thread, but because it’s the Internet, it is forever.

    The San Jose Bees of the mid-80s, with whom I was spent time, had an arrangement with the Seibu lions to act as a sort of “sister” ball club, like exchange students. Seibu would send over their aspiring players and get them some American baseball playing time, and we’d send them back. They were rarely talented, but always amusing, good guts, and we all had a great time playing together.

    Hence, all the Japanese names. The other guys, the ex-major leaguers, like Steve Howe and Mike Norris and Ken Reitz, they put in their work, but minor leaguers on their way down or out are having a wholly different experience than those on the way up.

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