by Landry Smith
I met Alex in August 2005. We were both freshman at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy. Mr. Jack Bailey’s 9th grade Biology class is what brought us together, but it almost never happened. On the first day of class, everybody sat in the back of the classroom on the three rows of lab desks, but this didn’t sit too well with Mr. Bailey. He wasn’t too happy with this seating arrangement, so he asked as many people as possible to move up to the front of the classroom. I thought, “Not me, I’m not leaving this back row for anything.”
There was an empty seat beside me that first day, but I didn’t think anything of it. On day two of class, Alex Bain walked in and sat down right beside me. He claimed to have been sick on day one, a still debatable excuse. I often wondered if he had been in class the first day, he might have sat somewhere else and we might not have ever struck up a friendship. We would always talk about this pivotal moment that launched our friendship.. We called it “the day that everything hinges on.” I can’t think of a bigger moment in my life where divine intervention was in play than in that one obscure day when I was 14 years old. When Alex got settled in to that back row next to me that semester, we quickly found that we had a common love and passion for our hometown baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds. In those early days our friendship was founded on conversations about Ryan Freel, Jason LaRue, and Ken Griffey Jr. The Reds weren’t great, but our conversations were and more importantly our friendship formed a deep bond that went beyond the game of baseball.
Then there is Mitch Kenny, a native Cincinnatian himself who I met when I was 5 years old. Mitch also was a Reds fan and I was excited to introduce him to Alex. The three of us were inseparable during our high school years. The next spring, the three of us went to Opening Day 2006 and a friendship tradition was born. We would go to Reds games all the time, tickets were cheap, but our passion was enthusiastic and our loyalty was unrivaled. We would easily hit 15 games a year and even peaked at about 30 one season
Fast forward several years and we have graduated high school, are now spread out across the country in college, yet our love was one of the central themes to our friendship. It was March 30, 2011, and I was in my sophomore year at Lipscomb University in Nashville. I left Nashville headed home for Cincinnati and this trip would be different and unlike any other trip home I had ever taken.
You see this was the first time I was going home since Christmas break. On Christmas Day 2010, Alex suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. Losing a best friend at 19 years old was the most difficult time of my life. The drive from Nashville to Cincinnati was long. I knew it was not going to be easy heading back, but I thought I could handle it. However, as I started to get into the city, memories and thoughts started flooding back, and it was harder than I could have ever imagined. I walked into my house, dropped my stuff, and talked to my parents for a minute. It was hard being in my own home. I walked down the hallway to my room, and as soon as I did, I looked over and saw Alex’s old tattoo magazines he would always leave at my house. After I saw those, I sat down on my bed, and I began to weep. In Nashville, I usually would not see Alex. But here at home, it was a matter of I couldn’t see Alex, even if I wanted to. It was like walking in a museum of memories. Fingerprints Alex had left permanently in my life were everywhere, and I missed when they weren’t memories. I missed when they were real moments and I missed getting the chance to make more of them.
The emotions were almost too much, so I had to get out out of house. So I crawled into my car not knowing where to go, and I ended up on the way to the Speedway where me and Alex would get Icees every chance we got. I arrived in the parking lot, and thought to myself, “I should be with Alex right now. He should be in my driveway picking me up for tonight’s adventure, whatever it may be. He should be going to Opening Day with me and Mitch tomorrow.” But he wasn’t. He was gone, and we would never know what it was that caused his untimely death. It hurt to be in that parking lot without him.I finally worked up enough courage to head back home and catch some sleep.
With Opening Day and the 2011 baseball season upon us and the first since his passing, we all knew we were going to have to do it without Alex. I knew that first game without him was going to mean a lot to me, but I just didn’t know how much yet.
Now, here is the thing about Opening Day: No team in Major League Baseball does Opening Day like Cincinnati does. There is no debate about it! Mitch and I arrived at Great American Ball Park and would you know it, our seats were in the same section where we sat for Game 3 of the 2010 NLDS versus the Phillies.
In epic Reds fashion, our starting pitcher Edinson Volquez started off the season by giving up back to back home runs, which was not exactly what we were hoping for. The Reds hung in the game, but every time we got within a run or two, the Brewers would extend the lead again.
That was, until the 9th inning. Brandon Phillips led off the inning with a single off the outfield wall. Then, Joey Votto came up and drew a walk to put guys on 1st and 2nd with no outs. Next, Scott Rolen steps up and hits a chopper to third. The Brewers 3rd baseman reaches to tag Phillips and throw to first, thus turning a double play. However, he missed Phillips by a hair and the throw to first was late! Are you kidding me!? Bases loaded, no outs, and Jay Bruuuuuce up at the plate. In that moment, I thought to myself, “Now this, this is how it is supposed to go. Down 6-3 in the bottom of the 9th, Bruce is supposed to hit a grand slam, and we are supposed to go home happy.” But guess what, it didn’t happen that way. Jay Bruce went down swinging. One out. Jonny Gomes dug in and gave it a go, and as he lifted one to center, I jumped up out of my seat. I once again told myself that it was supposed to go this way. That he was the hero we were looking for to end the game, and that the comeback was complete. Unfortunately, he hit it to the deepest part of the ballpark and Carlos Gomez snagged it. Phillips scampered home to make it 6-4, leaving runners on 1st and 2nd with two down.
Reds catcher Ramon Hernandez was our last hope. As he walked to the plate, Mitch exclaimed, “He’s our best player! He’s batting .750! this year!” Now I know it was only four at bats into the new season, but that was the confident spirit we all needed. On the first pitch, a strike was called, and I began to lose hope. My thoughts went from storybook ending to heartbreaking let down. I now thought to myself, “This is how it is supposed to go. In typical Cincinnati fashion, we are going to be given false hope, only to be let down once again.”
But something special happened on that 0-1 pitch to Hernandez. As John Axford sent the ball to the plate, Hernandez hit a drive to right field, and as it left the bat, and I assumed it was a fly out – game over. But as the ball kept sailing towards the fence, hope began to grow in my heart and in the stadium. As the ball landed in the Brewers bullpen for a walk-off three-run homer, pandemonium broke out in Great American Ballpark. I then yelled out loud for the entire stadium to hear, “THIS IS HOW IT WAS SUPPOSED TO GO!” Final score – Reds 7, Brewers 6. Game over. (Click here or the image below to watch the video of the walk-off HR.)
Mitch and I hugged each other, and kept our arms around each other even long after Ramon Hernandez had crossed home plate to score the winning run. I danced. I screamed. I laughed. I wanted to live in that moment for as long as I possibly could. I knew in that moment, Alex was with us for at least one more Reds Opening Day. I wanted that moment to last forever.
I’d like to think that Alex had a part in pushing Brandon Phillips out of the fielders reach to avoid the out. I’d like to think that Alex had Jay Bruce strike out and Johnny Gomes come up just short, so the legend could grow just a little bit longer. I like to think Alex had a part in hitting that Ramon Hernandez walk-off home run, and that when it left the bat, he helped carry it over the fence. I’d like to think those things, but here is what I know. I know that Alex was there hugging with me and Mitch, and I know he had his arms around us as we celebrated. I know Alex was there with us on that day and in that moment, what has been the best sports memory of my entire life.
Sometimes, we are reminded everything is going to be okay through everyday things. That day, I just happened to be reminded of that by a simple ball going over a big green fence. I was reminded of it as the Reds won the most special game of my life. I was reminded of it while I hugged and celebrated with Mitch. Most importantly, I was reminded of it while Alex celebrated one more time with me.
This one belongs to the Reds. And this one belongs to Alex.
*Story title is a reference to the Reds legendary and Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman who ends every Reds victory with the sign-ff “And this one belongs to the Reds.”
Cincinnati Reds’ Ramon Hernandez (55) is greeted by teammates at home plate after hitting the game-winning three-run home run off Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher John Axford in the ninth inning of an opening day baseball game, Thursday, March 31, 2011 in Cincinnati. The Reds won 7-6. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
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Landry Smith grew up in Cincinnati, but now lives in Nashville. He works as a campus pastor at a school in the Nashville area. He (not so much) enjoys having his heart broken continuously by Cincinnati sports teams.