Two weeks ago, Pokey Reese took a trip to the Greater Boston Sports Collectors Club’s annual convention to sign memorabilia with other members of the 2004 Boston Red Sox.
A glow still hovers over the team that won the World Series – Boston’s first championship in 86 years – and the 10-year anniversary brought back many warm memories for the players and the team’s fans across New England.
Reese, a former Lower Richland High standout whose given name is Calvin Jr., also visited Fenway Park in May, when the franchise staged a celebration of the title run that included coming back from a three-game deficit to defeat the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
As the second baseman who caught the ground ball and threw to first base for the final out of ALCS Game 7 at Yankee Stadium, Reese looks back with reverence for Boston’s place in baseball history. He served as a defensive replacement for Mark Bellhorn at second base in the sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
The 2004 championship parade in Boston featured 17 rolling duck boats carrying the conquering heroes in front of the large jubilant crowds that packed the streets. Reese took his place on one boat with Bellhorn, outfielder Johnny Damon, outfielder Dave Roberts, and first baseman Dave McCarty.
Flashing his World Series ring last week in an interview at the Lower Richland baseball field, Reese called those times a crowning achievement.
“The most special was being down three games (in the ALCS) and no one gave up. We believed in each other and took it game by game. ‘Let’s win today.’ That was the motto,” Reese said. “Being in the parade was just an unbelievable feeling. Coming from the airport the night before, the bridges were packed and people were everywhere congratulating us and welcoming us back home (from St. Louis). That was the most exciting thing I ever accomplished in baseball, and to do it with those guys was great.”
That special moment, which came at the conclusion of his eighth season in the major leagues, proved to be the end of the road for Reese, who was 31 years old at the time. He never played in another MLB game.
A combination of injuries, personal tragedy, and burnout took a toll on him as he struggled to make it back with the Seattle Mariners in 2005, the Miami Marlins in 2006, and the Washington Nationals in 2008 before calling it quits.
Reese returned to the Columbia area and settled into a quiet life out of the public eye – running a trucking company with his brother for four years, spending time with family and playing golf. He avoided media requests for years to discuss the end of his baseball career because he liked being out of the spotlight.
“It’s not my style. I don’t like to be seen a lot. I don’t like to be heard,” he said. “I just like being to myself. I’m a loner, I guess you could say. I love my family and hanging out with them. As far as that other stuff, I just like to stay low-key.”
The abrupt finish to his baseball days can make people forget how remarkable his climb to the top was. Growing up in the Arthurtown community, his family’s two-bedroom home on a dirt road had no bathroom and no running water, with eight to 10 people living there at times. His mother, Clara Spivey, raised five kids on the salary of a nurse’s assistant at local hospitals.
“It was hard, but it didn’t seem like it was hard. We were all there, and I guess it made us a close-knit family,” Spivey said. “Coming up in an area like that, we were poor but we had food, we had a roof over our heads. It would make us appreciate what we had later in life.”
Reese’s considerable athletic talents surfaced as he grew up, and they gave him an opportunity to escape the poverty.
After he came to Lower Richland as a sophomore, he developed into a North-South All-Star quarterback for the football team and a highly coveted pro baseball prospect as the Diamonds’ shortstop. Drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the first round of 1991 MLB draft with the 20th selection, Reese spent seven seasons in the minor leagues before reaching the majors in 1997.
His career included remarkable highs. He won Gold Gloves for defense in 1999 and 2000 as a second baseman playing alongside future Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin for the Reds.
That 1999 season was his best, as he batted .285 with 37 doubles, 10 home runs, 57 RBIs, and 38 stolen bases for a 96-67 team. He played for the Reds (1997-2001), Pittsburgh Pirates (2002-03) and Red Sox (2004).
“I knew in my heart that I was pretty good, and all I had to do was go out there and do my job,” Reese said. “Getting out there and playing with Barry Larkin, it was just easy. It was butter. We’d go out there and do our early work around the base. I already knew I could play shortstop, but I had to adjust to second base on the other side of bag. Once I figured it out, it was all downhill.”
AN UPHILL CLIMB
Reese’s journey began in one of Columbia’s poorest neighborhoods in the shadow of Williams-Brice Stadium. But it didn’t keep him from discovering what made him happy.
That was playing ball. One story goes that he used his grandmother’s flour to draw batter’s boxes and foul lines in his yard trying to build a makeshift field like he ones he loved to watch on the televised Saturday game of the week. Wasting the precious food supplies, however, earned him only a spanking.
A chubby youngster, he quickly earned his nickname for a hernia-caused protruding belly button, which served as an invitation for family and friends to give it a push.
“Everybody would come out and poke it,” Reese said of the handle Pokey. “It was just a childhood name, but everyone called me that ever since I was a kid. It was funny the name stuck, since I was fast.”
There was nothing pokey about the way he moved on athletics fields, as his range scooping up ground balls in the infield and his 144 career stolen bases proved. Before that talent could shine through, he had to survive an upbringing in which his father, Calvin Sr., was not always around because of his own personal struggles.
Family, friends and coaches worked to bring out the best in Reese. Lower Richland baseball coach Henry Mixon, who coached the Diamonds from 1987 to 2010, recognized the great potential and did his best to ensure Reese stayed headed in the right direction.
Reese remembers how his coach would give him rides from his Starlight neighborhood off Bluff Road to the LR campus off Garners Ferry Road in Hopkins.
“He would come through, make sure I got to school, and after school, he’d make sure I got home,” Reese said. “That’s what we had to do to get by, and I was appreciative of that. To this day, I’m appreciative of it.”
Reese showed that appreciation by giving Mixon one of his Red Sox World Series jerseys as a gift. Mixon always appreciated that Reese was as good a person as a player while reminiscing about their car rides together.
“We’d talk, and he’s not a talker. He was quiet,” Mixon said. “He was a very likeable person, and I loved the smile on his face. He was just so enjoyable.”
The way Reese played the game also brought joy to Mixon. A three-year starter at shortstop, he led the Diamonds to one of the greatest periods in school history, with a 61-17 record from 1989-91.
Lower Richland’s games against Lancaster High during that era became the stuff of legend. The Bruins won several championships to block the Diamonds’ path and produced a string of high draft picks, such as Earl Cunningham, Mark Anthony, Jon Barnes, Pep Harris and Danny Clyburn. Reese smiles as he recollects the moment that first put him on the radar of major league scouts.
In 1989, when Reese was a skinny sophomore shortstop playing against the Bruins, Cunningham, Lancaster’s senior outfielder who would be a first-round pick of the Chicago Cubs that summer, blistered a line drive up the middle. But the ball never made it to the outfield.
“I just laid out, and I snatched it out of the air,” Reese said. “After the game, a scout came up to me and gave my mother and father a card, and he told me that they’d be watching from here on out. That’s pretty much where it started.”
Mixon watched as Reese kept improving that first season, and it had as much to do with his dedication as his raw talent.
“The writing was on the wall after his sophomore year. You could tell he had the commitment,” Mixon said. “He just loved the game. He loved it. He’d play it all day long if he could. You could tell that he wanted to make something of it. He wanted to be the best and to be drafted.“
By the time he was a senior, Reese had rocketed up the draft boards of many clubs. He finished his final season with a .446 average, five homers, 38 RBIs and 20 stolen bases to go with his magical defensive skills for a team that posted a 25-5 record.
Mixon remembers another play that season against Lancaster with the stands full of scouts, as Reese got to a ball to his right deep in the hole and uncorked a bullet of a throw that sailed wildly over the first baseman’s head. It didn’t matter. He had displayed the great range and remarkable arm strength the scouts wanted to see.
After the Reds chose him in the first round, the 17-year-old quickly signed for a bonus of $200,000, with his father making the decision to cut the deal without any further negotiating.
Signing the contract ended a standout football career. A quarterback and defensive back, he was good enough to sign a letter-of-intent with Arizona State to play football and baseball, although he would have gone to Bakersfield College, a California JUCO, because he wasn’t going to qualify academically under NCAA rules. He wasn’t recruited by South Carolina, even though he grew up so close to campus. He said his academic status might have been an issue for the Gamecocks.
Calhoun County football coach Bill Kimrey, who coached Reese at Lower Richland, called him so gifted that he was given complete autonomy on the field.
“He was just a very good athlete,” Kimrey said. “Most of the time when you have a quarterback, you have a scramble rule. I didn’t have any rules for him.”
Kimrey played in amateur baseball leagues with Calvin. Sr., a standout local player whose nickname was Slick, so he got to know Pokey as a young child. He admired the work ethic of youngster as he watched him grow up. “Sports were always in his blood,” Kimrey said.
Reese also took great pride in his football ability, even after he stopped playing the game. When Kimrey was coaching at Dutch Fork High, he discovered as much.
“It’s funny, because one time I was sitting in my office and the phone rang. It was Pokey, and I think the Reds were in a rain delay,” Kimrey said. “He said, ‘Coach, tell Barry Larkin that I was a quarterback.’ They were playing cards, and I could hear Larkin say, ‘Ah, man, you were no quarterback.’ I had to tell Larkin that Pokey played quarterback.”
TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
Reese’s journey to the major leagues proved to be an ordeal that went well past the adjustments of playing in the minor leagues.
Off-field tragedy struck just before the 1993 season, as he prepared to report to Double-A Chattanooga. His fiancé Tieronay Duckett – the mother of his then four-month-old daughter LaBresha – died in a single-car crash in Columbia on the way to run an errand for him. Duckett was driving his Nissan when she lost control and struck a tree on a two-lane road near Eastover. She was 19.
Her death was an emotional blow to the up-and-coming player. He began the 1993 season in a long hitless slump and finished the year batting .212. He went through his share of soul-searching and leaned on his mother for solace.
“He took it really hard. After the death of Tieronay, he just wanted to give up,” Spivey said. “We talked to him, and he thought about it. She always told him not to give up. It was hard for all of us. She was like a daughter to me.”
Three years later, Reese was playing for Triple-A Indianapolis when Rhonda Richardson, the mother of Reese’s son, Naquwan, died while delivering a child fathered by another man. Naquwan and LaBresha were born several months apart in 1992.
Although he had not been in a serious relationship with Richardson, the second death jarred him as he was knocking on the door of the major leagues.
“It was tough. I’d call Mom and talk to her a lot about it,” Reese said. “There was a time when I was thinking about just coming home, because I wanted to be with the kids. But when I was out there on the field, I still had a job to do. If I didn’t do my job well, the next man up would take it. My family tried the best they could to help me out and help raise them. Everybody involved helped me. I’m thankful for that.”
The horrible misfortune did not end there. On Christmas Eve in 1997, Naquwan was living with his maternal grandmother and great-grandmother when a man entered their home and murdered the women. Naquwan was discovered near the bodies. The killer was caught and is serving life in prison.
Reese credits Naquwan’s family on the mother’s side for stabilizing the youngster’s life.
“I know the Richardsons, and they did a great job of getting through that. While I was playing, they pretty much raised him,” Reese said. “They got him through those times. It was tough for them and a sad situation at the time.”
Reese’s mother provided emotional support for him through those years, and she also made sure at every stop that his apartment was set up properly at the start of each season. Her regular visits buoyed his spirits.
“As long as he saw Mama, he was fine,” she said.
All through the heartbreak, Reese maintained his focus on making it to Cincinnati. He spent parts of three seasons in Indianapolis before making it to the majors in 1997. Although he never hit for a high batting average in his four minor league stops , he did show a little pop for his frame, a lot of speed, and, of course, sparkling defense.
RIDING THE ROLLER COASTER
Reese’s offensive numbers never jumped off the charts, but he quickly became a favorite in Cincinnati for his high-energy style and electrifying skills in the field. Teammates admired his flair and fans loved his hustle.
After his breakout 1999 season, the Reds refused to include him in a trade to get superstar outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. from the Seattle Mariners. Reese’s future seemed incredibly bright.
Marlins manager Jim Leyland called him the best defensive shortstop in the National League in a 1997 Cincinnati Enquirer story. Padres All-Star outfielder Tony Gwynn called him one of the best young players in the game in a 2000 Sports Illustrated story, adding that Reese was a player a team could build around.
He also began to show flashes of excellence at the plate to go with his ability to steal bases and take runs away from opposing teams with his glove. One highlight that remains on YouTube is a three-run, walk-off homer in the 12th inning of a game against St. Louis late in the 1999 season.
After another solid season in 2000, when the 5-foot-11, 190-pound right-handed hitter drilled a career-high 12 home runs and stole 29-of-32 bases, an amazing 91-percent success rate, Reese’s agent began negotiating a long-term contract with the Reds. Reports at the time stated a four-year, $21-million offer was on the table, but Reese didn’t take the deal. At some point, it was leaked to the media that Reese was demanding $10 million per season, although Reds general manager Jim Bowden insisted he wasn’t the source. Reese denied the story at the time and still refutes it to this day.
The public squabble took some of the zest out of Reese’s play and soured a number of Reds fans on him. It didn’t help that he batted .224 and made a career-high 15 errors in an injury-plagued 2001 season. Despite his hopes of finishing his career in Cincinnati, like his infield mate Larkin, Reese was soon to depart.
“They drafted me and gave me the opportunity, but it didn’t work out. They were building the new stadium. We took pictures wearing hardhats in the new stadium (which opened in 2003). I was hoping I’d be there, but it didn’t work out,” Reese said. “I miss Cincinnati. It’s one of my favorite places to this day. I love going back there. There were great fans, and I wish I would have ended it there.”
After the Reds traded him to the Mariners in December 2001, Seattle traded him to the Red Sox, who promptly released him – a series of events that occurred in a three-day span. Reese looked around and made the decision to sign a two-year, $5-million contract with the Pirates, his lifelong favorite team and one in desperate need of a second baseman.
His 2002 season was workmanlike, with a .264 average, 25 doubles and 50 RBIs and more sterling defense, but his 2003 season was limited to 37 games after he suffered a serious thumb injury. That led him to sign with the Red Sox before the 2004 season.
He played 71 games at shortstop, in part because Nomar Garciaparra was injured to start the year. After Garciaparra was traded to the Cubs, Reese backed up Orlando Cabrera, who came over in the deal. He also played 30 games at second base in support of Bellhorn. One highlight at Fenway Park came in early May when he had his only career two-homer game, which also included his only inside-the-park home run.
He was back to being the old Pokey, the guy who played the game with a special joy, even with a ribcage injury causing him to miss 45 games. First baseman Kevin Millar, who’s now a talk-show host with the MLB Network, told the Boston Globe that season Reese was the best defensive player that he had played alongside in his career.
The Red Sox went on to win their first title since 1918, igniting their fans like never before. After the historic comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS, Boston swept the Cardinals in four games in the World Series
Although he got just one at-bat in the World Series, he finished all four games on the field as Bellhorn’s defensive replacement. He understood his role and embraced it. When closer Keith Foulke got a comebacker to the mound for the final out at Busch Stadium, Reese excitedly jumped into the air and ran into an embrace with Cabrera before the two of them raced to join the mob at home plate.
Reese’s mom was watching from the bedroom of her home in Charlotte – the one her son had built for her in 1999 – when the final out was recorded. She, too, was overjoyed by his triumphant moment.
“I was jumping up and down on the bed so hard that I almost fell off,” she said.
FALLING OFF THE MOUNTAIN TOP
All the good karma that came with the 2004 title vanished the next season. Reese had no way of knowing it at the time, but he would not play in a major league game again.
He signed a $900,000 deal with the Seattle Mariners with performance incentives to earn $300,000 more. But those incentives never were realized. Penciled in to start at shortstop along with third baseman Adrian Beltre, second baseman Bret Boone, and first baseman Richie Sexson, he would have completed a great defensive infield.
But a bad shoulder blew up his season, and he would be able to play in only five minor league rehab games.
“It was very disappointing that I couldn’t get the arm right,” Reese said. “I’d never had arm troubles before in my life. I ended up having a couple of surgeries on my labrum, and it never got right.”
That ended his stay in Seattle, which declined to pick up the option year on his deal. So he found a new home in Miami with the Marlins for the 2006 season. Once again, he was expected to play a key role in the middle infield, but things quickly fell apart early in spring training.
In March, he abruptly left camp and disappeared. When the Marlins didn’t hear from him for three days, they released him and terminated his $800,000 contract. He now looks back at that period with regret – offering an apology to the team and his fans – for walking away from the job with no explanation.
He said it was related to his complicated family dynamic involving his daughter LaBresha, who was close to entering her teen years.
“It was a personal situation I had. I was a single parent, I was missing my daughter. Things weren’t going right. She was getting older,” he said. “She was doing some things she shouldn’t have been doing. I made the decision to come home. It is what it is. I love my family, and I wanted to do better for her. I wasn’t feeling right. I didn’t have the love for the game anymore. I did it wrong, yes, but it was the decision I made.”
It also meant that he would not play baseball in the 2006 and 2007 seasons. But he got one last chance to resume his professional career in May of the 2008 season, when he was signed to a minor-league contract by the Washington Nationals, whose general manager was none other than Jim Bowden, his old nemesis at the end of his Reds tenure.
He was unable to conjure up his old magic. Nearly three years removed from meaningful playing time, he played in 31 games at three minor-league stops. In the 23 games at Triple-A Columbus, he batted .169 and dealt with recurring hamstring issues that would curtail both his mobility and comeback attempt.
“I wasn’t a great hitter anyway, and my legs were a big part of my game, stealing and running down the ball,” he said. “I thought it might be time to hang it up.”
He decided to retire for good and head home at Hopkins.
KEEP ON TRUCKIN’
For the past six years, Reese has settled into a quiet life among family and friends in his old stomping grounds.
He teamed up with his older brother Angelo Wilson to run a small trucking business for a number of years. Growing up in an industrial area where trucks were prevalent, he always had a love for them.
But he’s not driving them these days as he tries to figure out the next stage of his life. At 41, he is biding his time.
“I’m just playing golf, enjoying watching college football and the Gamecocks, even though they’re struggling this year. I’m a big fan,” Reese said.
He’s not kidding. He’s wearing a USC cap and shirt on the day of the interview and appears to be as happy discussing the football team’s struggling defense and Frank Martin’s basketball recruiting as he is talking about himself. He doesn’t mind that he never heard from USC coaches during his high school days.
He would love nothing more than to return to the sports he loved growing up, especially if it meant coaching football and baseball at Lower Richland.
“I love this school. I love this community,” he said.
But he didn’t go to college and doesn’t have a degree, which means he can’t teach at the school. Most coaches also are teachers or administrators. Reese spoke with Lower Richland athletics director Bob Matz about coaching the baseball team last season, but the two couldn’t work it out. Matz called the discussions cordial and would like to see the former star involved again, but Reese said it came down to what would be fair compensation for him.
He’s not giving up hope that it will happen. He wants to help youngsters who are in similar situations to the one he faced growing up. He continues to credit Mixon for being an important role model in his life.
“Having a coach like coach Mixon, who pushed us and pushed us and pushed us, got me into a position where I was able to have scouts come out here and get drafted,” Reese said.
Mixon remembers 1991 as the time of his coaching life, too, especially his strong-armed shortstop.
“He was the best I ever had,” Mixon said
Resse’s complex on-and-off relationship with Calvin Sr. – chronicled in detail in a 2000 Sports Illustrated story – is on these days. Reese has pardoned his father for drifting in and out of his life and the substance-abuse problems that led to those fractured times.
“You only have one dad and you’ve got to forgive. I forgave all that,” Reese said. “He had his problems, and he dealt with them. Now he’s great. I love him, and I see him a lot. I’m happy he’s doing well and his health is good.”
His mom Clara still lives in the Charlotte suburbs, but she visits frequently so she can see her extended family and attend her home church of Zion Pilgrim Baptist in Arthurtown. Reese remains close to his two brothers and two sisters, especially Alissia, the youngest who starred at Lower Richland in basketball and attended Voorhees.
LaBresha, 21, lives in Columbia and has a daughter who turns two in December. Naquwan, 22, is living in Hopkins. Reese also fathered two other children during his playing days, McKayla, 17, who lives in Atlanta, and Cameron, 13, who lives in Cincinnati. He says he tries to keep up with them.
Reese, who has never married, laughed as he called himself “single and loving it,” but his mother wistfully wonders what might have been if he had gotten to marry Tieronay Duckett.
“I just want him to be happy when I look at him,” Clara Spivey said. “I think about how he would have been married if Tieronay had lived.”
Reese says that he’s in good financial health from his playing days, thanks to a good adviser. He flashes a grin and professes satisfaction with his life.
“I love the Lord. I couldn’t be any more happy than I am today,” he said.
Reese visited Kimrey a few times when the coach was at Dutch Fork. The two share a bond that remains strong, and Kimrey is proud Reese reached his professional pinnacle 10 years ago.
“When they won the World Series and he got the ring, it was almost like a happy ending to a fairy tale,” he said.
Reese’s mom couldn’t agree more. Her pride in her son continues to shine through.
“To see him come from a little scrawny child running around in Arthurtown playing Little League baseball to the big leagues and the World Series was really something special,” she said. “It was a dream that came true. That’s what he wanted. It was something I never could have imagined.”