MLB.com Columnist

Terence Moore

Driessen's career to culminate in Reds Hall of Fame

Moore: Driessen to enter Reds Hall of Fame

Driessen's career to culminate in Reds Hall of Fame
They'll have bobblehead dolls in his likeness tonight at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. On Saturday afternoon, before the home team faces the Minnesota Twins, he'll gain entry into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame & Museum. He'll attend a gala on Sunday night with tables costing as much as $6,000 apiece, and the guests will include Reds icons Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez.

All of this for . . . Dan Driessen?

"Well, to have a whole weekend like this involving me, it's a tremendous honor," said Driessen, 60, over the phone from his long-time home in Hilton Head, S. C. Then he chuckled, before speaking for anybody who knew the difference between his Big Red Machine and the woeful San Diego Padres during the 1970s, "I'm totally surprised."

I'm sure, and I'm not saying as much because Driessen finished his 15 seasons in the Major Leagues -- his first 12 in Cincinnati -- with modest statistics: .267 lifetime batting average, 153 home runs, 763 RBIs and no trips to the All-Star Game.

Driessen quietly ranks among the best fielding first basemen ever, and here's the biggest thing: He finished among the game's all-time leaders in the category of "Players With The Thickest Skin."

So I posed the question of "Dan Driessen, as a Reds Hall of Famer" in the sense of irony, not of ridicule.

About that irony: Thirty-six years ago, Driessen wasn't exactly as popular around Cincinnati as its spaghetti-based chili, and it wasn't his fault. The blame goes to the late Bob Howsam, who once told me about what he called the worst baseball decision of his life.

With the Big Red Machine still in its prime after capturing two consecutive world championships through 1976, Howsam and his usually efficient lieutenants who ran the Reds back then, decided to trade the aforementioned Atanasio Perez Rigal for the stated purpose of needing to get the younger Driessen into the lineup.

Not good for a lot of reasons.

For one, Perez was so "washed up" after the Reds dealt him that winter to the Montreal Expos, that he played nearly a decade more along the way to the Hall of Fame. It was the worst trade in Reds history that didn't involve Frank Robinson. For another, Perez was the heart and soul of the Big Red Machine, with his ability to appeal to all factions of a clubhouse filled with a combustible mixture of talent and egos.

If all that wasn't enough, Perez had just finished his 13th season in Cincinnati, joining Pete Rose as the local darling -- regardless of whether you were a baseball fan or not.

So out goes Perez before the 1977 season, and in comes the 25-year-old Driessen, who had spent his previous four years with the Reds as mostly a utility guy floating between third base and the outfield. Even so, Driessen hinted of becoming a consistent hitter for average, especially after he helped the Reds destroy the New York Yankees in the 1976 World Series by batting .357 as a designated hitter.

It's just that Perez was one of the primary reasons they called it the "Big Red Machine." He already had evolved into one of baseball's most clutch hitters ever. Also consider that he was as engaging with his thick Cuban accent as Driessen was reserved with his friendly but quiet ways.

Tough cleats to fill.

Driessen didn't fill them with Perez-like production, though he nevertheless finished the 1977 season batting .300 for the only time in his career as a full-time starter. But as a writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer at the time, I remember Driessen did have Perez-like class.

"I had fans . . . ," Driessen said, laughing, which he did easily and often during his early post-Perez days despite the pressure associated with following a baseball legend. Then Driessen added, "Well, overall, I would say the fans were kind, because Cincinnati is a great baseball town, and if you're doing your job, people respect that.

"But you'd get a smart person in the stands now and then who would holler out some negativity. The main thing was to try to ignore them, and, you know, you can't please everybody all the time. You have to block all of that stuff out, and then try to do what you can do to help the club."

That's what Driessen did that first season following Perez, but it took a while -- not mentally, but physically.

"The main thing you really needed to try to do was get off to a good start," Driessen said. "But just before Spring Training broke, I tore my groin. It wasn't terrible, but it was nagging, and I think it hindered me in the first couple of weeks. Then the groin healed, and things kind of took off for me."

Eventually, after several modest years, the Reds traded Driessen in the middle of the 1984 season to -- of all places -- Montreal. Then he finished his career with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros before retiring in Hilton Head, where he ran a trucking company and helped coach a high school baseball team for a dozen years.

Now, Driessen says he just does "some hunting and some fishing," and in the midst of that, his phone rang.

Officials at the Reds Hall of Fame & Museum wanted to know his availability for this weekend. Driessen was extremely moved. Still, those emotions likely won't top the ones he'll have after he stands before those cheering his joining the Reds' Hall of Fame elite, along with that of former Reds Sean Casey and the late John Reilly.

"I'm trying to put a pulse on it now," Driessen said, chuckling. "I'm going to try to hold my ground, but I'm sure somebody is going to say something that will make me break down a little bit."

It will happen after somebody mentions the words "Driessen" and "Reds Hall of Fame" in the same sentence.

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.