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For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

Why Bob Castellini Once Hunted Me Down In Goodyear

Bob Castellini
David Kohl
Bob Castellini on Reds Opening Day on March 31, 2014.

When you have been a reporter as long as I have, you have been assigned to countless boring stories in hundreds of dreary places, where, try as you might, it is a herculean task to come up with a tale that anyone but the chronically bored would read.

If you are a young reporter reading this, trust me. This is part of the deal. And my young friends, if an editor ever comes to you and says you are being sent on assignment to Beaumont, Texas, run for your life.

Just disappear, before you find yourself on an airplane to the most miserable, sorrowful city in North America, bar none.

Believe me, I know. The Cincinnati Enquirer sent me there for two days in 1985. It felt like two months.

But, for every Beaumont you find yourself in, there is, on occasion, a dream assignment, a trip to paradise that makes it all worthwhile.

That happened to me nine years ago when the Enquirer editors came to me and said they were sending me to Goodyear, Arizona – the new spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds – for a solid week.

goodyear ball park
Credit Howard Wilkinson / WVXU
The very first pitch in Goodyear Ball Park by then-Reds pitcher Mike Lincoln in 2010.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am obsessed with the game of baseball, and that I have loved the Cincinnati Reds since I was a toddler.

Up until the move to brand-new facilities in Goodyear – a rather dull suburb in the southwest corner of the Phoenix metro area – the Reds had been training in Florida for the better part of 80 years: first in Tampa, then in Plant City and, lastly, in Sarasota, at what Marty Brennaman used to call "tired old Ed Smith Stadium."

The Enquirer knew I had been going to spring training for a March vacation almost every year since 1982, and they sent me to do a story comparing spring baseball in the Sunshine State to baseball in the desert.

The Reds had wanted Sarasota County, which owned tired old Ed Smith Stadium to upgrade the ball park and the training facilities adjacent to it, including a modern clubhouse.  

But the Sarasota County commissioners balked at asking the county's taxpayers – many of them retirees on fixed incomes – from shelling out to turn the old ball park into a Taj Mahal.

In the meantime, Reds chief executive officer and principal owner Bob Castellini began talking to Goodyear, which had just built a brand-new ball park for the Cleveland Indians, with a state-of-the-art training facility about a mile away.

Goodyear offered to build training facilities for the Reds right next door to the Indians and allow them to share the ball park. Teams sharing ball parks is the norm in Arizona's Cactus League.

And the price to the Reds was next to nothing!

The Reds jumped on the deal, kissed Sarasota goodbye and headed for the desert.

The Sarasota County commissioners almost immediately regretted the mistake and, in the end, cut a deal with the Baltimore Orioles which gave the Birds everything the Reds had asked for and more.

Every time I had been to spring training in Florida, it was on my dime. Which was fine, because it was my vacation.

I remember standing in the seats along with the first base line at tired old Ed Smith Stadium. It was long before game time and the baseball scribes were walking across the field, headed to the clubhouse to talk to the players.

Enquirer sports columnist Paul Daugherty walked by and saw me, doing a double-take.

What are you doing here?, he said. Did they send you down here?

No, man, I'm on vacation, I said.

Vacation? He looked at me like I had suddenly sprouted a second head. Why would anybody come down here for vacation?

Doc, look at this. Palm trees. Sunshine. Baseball. It doesn’t get any better.

He laughed and kept heading for the clubhouse.

But, in 2010 in Goodyear, it was not a vacation. And it was not on my dime. Although it was as close to a vacation as any work assignment I had ever had.

I was staying in a three-bedroom apartment the Enquirer subleased for the six weeks of spring training. It was in Avondale, the next town over from Goodyear, and a short hop to the ball park and the training fields.

During the week I was there, I shared the apartment with John Fay, the Enquirer's beat writer, and photographer Gary Landers. I didn't have a car, so I traveled around with Landers.

Joey Votto was staying with his uncle in the apartment behind us.

I felt like I should be filing stories from Goodyear every day, but my editors back home told me to save it until I came back for a front page Sunday blow-out, with lots of Landers' photos.

I would go out to the training camp in the morning; sit in on manager Dusty Baker's 8:30 a.m. meeting with the writers; and then wander around the practice fields, talking to players and fans alike.

One day, though, I had to function as "acting beat writer."

Fay was taking a well-earned day off and going up to Sedona to enjoy the scenery and do some hiking. I was left behind to cover the team.

The Reds had their final intra-squad game that day. I was in the press box when the young phenom Aroldis Chapman made his debut on the mound facing a live batter. He promptly drilled the Reds' Todd Frazier in the right knee, dropping him to the ground in pain.

Fortunately, there was no serious damage and Frazier was fine, but that was my lead story on my one day as the Enquirer's baseball beat writer.

But the most interesting day came on the morning of the first exhibition game.

I had been rather conspicuous, roaming all over the training complex all week.

I had apparently attracted the attention of Bob Castellini, who was curious about what the Enquirer's politics reporter was doing wandering around the camp with media credentials hanging around his neck.

Rob Butcher, the Reds vice president of media relations, must have filled him in.

That morning, Landers and I were sitting around the apartment. Fay had already left for the complex. Landers and I were going to go out to the ball park early and talk to some fans there for the Reds' first game in Arizona.

My Blackberry rang. It was Butcher.

Butch here. Mr. Castellini wants to talk to you. Can you get over here?

Sure, I said. I wasn't going to turn down an interview with The Big Man.

Landers and I jumped in the car for the 10-minute ride over to the training camp. Butcher was waiting for me at the front door.

goodyear ball park
Credit Howard Wilkinson / WVXU
"The Ziz" is a fiberglass sculpture that towers over the home plate entrance to Goodyear. Artist Donald Lipski explains that it combines a baseball with an airplane propeller.

I'll take you upstairs to Mr. Castellini's office. Then he looked at Landers. No photos on this one, sorry. Just Howard and a notebook.

We protested, but got nowhere and it wasn't worth giving up a rarity like a Bob Castellini interview.

I was ushered into his huge office, with wraparound picture windows that gave me a view of all of the practice fields and the mountains in the distance. Really gorgeous vista.

Mr. Castellini gave me a warm welcome. I had run into him many times in the Enquirer's building at 312 Elm Street; the Castellini business offices were on the top floor of the tower.

He knew full well that I was a huge Reds fan; that I shared season tickets with a friend of mine; and that I had been going to Florida for spring training for many years.

We talked for a while about how the deal went down to move the Reds from the Grapefruit League to the Cactus League. Money, he said, was a big factor.

"Like they say, they made us an offer we couldn’t refuse,'' he said.

And we talked about the major upgrade in facilities and he made a point of the fact that the practice fields were so much more accessible to fans than Sarasota. That was indeed the case.

I remember telling him that I thought there was less for fans to do in Arizona when they weren't at the ballpark than there was in Florida. It was cactus and tumbleweed versus the white sand beaches and the Gulf of Mexico.

"People are going to like going up in the mountains,'' Castellini said. "And there's this wild west show over in Mesa, I think. Bang, bang, shoot 'em up. Lots of fun for the kids."

I told him that some years I drove to Florida and other years I flew into Tampa and rented a car. But when I drove, I said, "all I had to do was go two blocks from my home, turn left on to I-75 and keep going until I hit Fruitville Road in Sarasota."

Then I told him about the last spring training game I went to in 2009 at tired old Ed Smith Stadium.

I was sitting in the lower deck, just beyond first base. Sitting in front of me was a family. A man, a woman, two little girls wearing Minnie Mouse ears and an infant behind held by her mother.

They were nice folks and I got into a conversation with them. The man said he worked in the casket factory in Batesville, Indiana. His wife worked part-time as a secretary in one of the local schools.

The family had piled into a van and took off for Florida, stopping for a few days at Disney World before cutting across the state to Sarasota, to enjoy the beaches and make Dad happy by seeing a couple of Reds games.

"What a great vacation,'' I said.

Then I posed a question to Mr. Castellini that he couldn't really answer.

"Do you think,'' I said, "that that guy from the casket factory in Batesville and his wife are going to pile themselves and three kids on an airplane to come to Phoenix for baseball in Goodyear? That would cost that guy a fortune."

"It's going to take a while to catch on,'' he said. "I believe it will. And we are going to do everything we can to make it so families like that can come here.

"Every Reds fan should get a chance to see spring training."

That's my hope too.

tales from the trail
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.