Dan Driessen, Forgotten Cog of the Big Red Machine

Do you remember your first trip to a Major League ballpark?

 

The sights and sounds of the Big Leagues can be dizzying for a young fan getting his first in-person taste of the game at the highest level.

 

That was certainly the case for me when I visited Riverfront Stadium on June 23, 1984, and I could write volumes about that experience.

But of all the special memories that day holds, two stand out above all others.

 

First was the instant the ethereal green Astroturf came into view as my family and I walked along the concourse and headed toward our seats.

 

And then, just as we settled in beyond the rightfield fence with our sodas and programs and pennants, my reverie was shattered by an ear-splitting pop that snapped my attention toward first base.

 

There stood a stocky man of medium height in a Cincinnati Reds uniform, ready for the next baseball to come steaming in from across the diamond.

 

*thwack*

 

The ball crashed into the player’s glove, the sound ricocheting through a mostly empty stadium.

 

I watched the man dance around the bag and flash his glove for several minutes until one of the balls finally got by him. When he ran to retrieve it, I could read the name on the back of his jersey: Driessen.

 

 

It’s something of a miracle that Dan Driessen ever fell to the Cincinnati Reds in the first place.

 

As a teenager, Driessen played — and excelled — against older, more experienced competition, developing into a star catcher for both his high school team and two local semipro teams in his hometown of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

 

After graduation in the spring of 1969, Driessen got his first shot at professional baseball when the Atlanta Braves invited him to their tryout camp in Hardeeville, South Carolina. Though by all accounts he turned in a solid showing, he was among the last group of players cut and headed home without a clear path to a future in baseball.

 

The Braves’ loss meant opportunity for the rest of Major League Baseball, though, and the Reds bit by inviting Driessen to their own tryouts in Savannah, Georgia, that same summer.

 

This time, Driessen clicked, and the Reds signed him to a minor league deal.

 

Driessen spent the next four years climbing through the Reds’ farm system, beginning with  the Single-A Tampa Tarpons of the Florida State League in 1970. After a strong second season with Tampa in 1971 — he hit .327 with 17 stolen bases and 72 runs in 136 games — Driessen spent 1972 with the Double-A Trois-Rivieres Aigles before earning a promotion to the the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians to begin the 1973 season.

 

His time in Indy was done before summer even officially arrived

 

By then Driessen was a polished 21-year-old hitter, and he tattooed American Association pitching to the tune of .409 with six home runs, 46 RBI, six stolen bases, and 42 runs in just 47 games.

 

Unable to keep him down on the farm any longer, the Reds promoted Driessen again, and he made his Big League debut on June 9, 1973. In that first game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, Driessen collected a hit and a walk while striking out once in four at-bats. He also committed an error as Cincinnati’s starting third baseman that day.

In all, Driessen appeared in 102 games during his rookie season, recording a solid .301 batting average, stealing eight bases, and smacking four homers. Those numbers were good enough to snag third place in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting and more regular time in 1974.

 

In his first full season, Driessen hit .281 with 10 stolen bases and 63 runs as the Reds’ most frequent starter at third. He also committed 24 errors at the hot corner, which left him with a fielding percentage of just .915.

 

Those defensive struggles and the emergence of outfielder George Foster led to a change in fortunes for Driessen for 1975. In particular, manager Sparky Anderson shifted Pete Rose to third base and installed Foster as the starting left fielder, which left Driessen as a man without a position to call his own.

 

Even so, Driessen embraced his utility role with the same steadiness and professionalism that had served him so well for years and batted .281 with seven homers and 10 steals in 88 games that summer. With Foster helping to power the lineup and Driessen providing insurance in left, right, and at first base, the Cincinnati Reds had finally grown into The Big Red Machine and won a grueling seven-game World Series against the Boston Red Sox that October.

 

Driessen was mostly an afterthought in that Fall Classic, garnering two at-bats over two games played and coming up hitless.

 

It was more of the same in 1976 as The Machine turned on the afterburners and rolled through the postseason untouched to cop their second consecutive world championship. Along the way, Driessen played in 98 games at first and left, generally proving again to be a valuable substitute.

 

The 1976 World Series proved to be a boon for Driessen, however. Since the games were played under American League rules, the Reds were able to take advantage of the designated hitter rule, and Dan was their man.

 

Driessen made the most of that opportunity, too, by hitting .357 with a home run in Cincinnati’s four-game sweep of the New York Yankees. When the Reds traded Tony Perez to the Montreal Expos in the off-season, the starting first-base job opened up, and Driessen claimed it the next spring.

 

In 1977, Driessen turned in arguably his best overall season, batting an even .300 with 17 home runs, 91 RBI, 75 runs and 31 steals.

 

Still, it was a performance mostly lost in the noise of what was happening around him.

 

Not only did the Reds fail to win the old NL West division crown for the first time since 1974, but teammate George Foster lit up the summer by batting .320 with 52 home runs, 149 RBI, and 124 runs.

 

Relegated to the shadows once again, Driessen nevertheless pressed on and turned in solid season after solid season as the more glorified members of the championship team left town or retired one by one.

 

By the summer of 1984, Driessen had weathered seven rocky years as Cincinnati’s starting first baseman and looked for all the world like he was ready for seven more to a couple of baseball neophytes.

 

 

“Man, that guy is good!” my dad exclaimed, pointing from our seats in right field toward first base.

 

He had been captured by the pop and zing of Driessen’s leather, too, and we both watched in awe.

 

Dad was no kind of baseball fan, but he supported my growing obsession with the game and was even trying to learn about it, same as me.

 

It never occurred to either of us in that moment that the “good” player in the game of catch that had us so enthralled just might be the one who was throwing the ball hard enough to jar our teeth all the way up in the stands.

 

Looking back, it’s ironic to realize that it just might have been another, more ballyhooed member of those Big Red Machine teams zinging balls to Driessen. Team captain Davey Concepcion did play shortstop on the Riverfront to some acclaim for a number of years, after all.

 

But all we could see was a joyful, if aging, player who could handle anything thrown at him.

 

“Driessen,” my dad said, pondering the name. “I don’t remember him.”

 

Dad may not have been an aficionado, but he couldn’t escape the 70 as a resident of Indiana without learning a bit about the nearby Reds. He held Pete Rose and, especially, Joe Morgan, in high esteem.

 

“Me either,” I replied.

 

“You’ll have to look him up when we get home,” Dad said. “Looks like he might be a star.”

And Dan Driessen was a star, even if no one noticed.

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