Thursday, August 18, 2005

Mr. and Mrs. Holbert make it to the big leagues

Batting practice had been “weathered out” so Aaron Holbert and his Louisville Bats teammates were relaxing in the clubhouse enjoying a friendly game of cards prior to their game against Scranton Wilkes-Barre.

“We were just going to hit in the cage,” said the 32-year old infielder. “We were sitting there playing cards, Dominos, what have you.”

Fifteen years have passed since the June 1990 draft when Holbert was selected in the first round by the Cardinals. Since then, he’s played his share of card games, made a lifetime’s worth of bus trips and heard the National Anthem sung in countless degrees of quality.

Unbeknownst to Holbert, the Reds had already been dealt their hand.

Utility-man Ryan Freel was placed on the 15-day disabled list with torn cartilage in his left knee. Freel’s injury required arthroscopic surgery. A prognosis as to his recovery was to be made on Thursday following the procedure.

Bats skipper Rick Sweet entered Louisville’s home clubhouse with a somber expression and told the players he had an announcement.

“He had kind of a mean look on his face,” said Holbert. “We were wondering who was in trouble.”

Instead, Sweet uttered the sweetest words of all.

“Hobey, you’re going to the big leagues,” he said.

“I thought he was kidding.” Holbert said. “I told him that he could mess up my game playing a joke like that. Then he said he was serious and they needed me there by game-time.”

After exchanging hugs and high-fives with his teammates, Holbert was packing for Great American Ball Park.

All the while, he couldn’t stop thinking about his wife, Jackie, who has stood by his side through all the ups and downs of his arduous minor-league baseball career.

“It’s just not the ballplayers who go through the rigors of baseball and travel, she’s gone through it too,” Holbert said. “Without her strength and support, I probably would have retired by now. It was great to allow her to experience this with me.”

Holbert said he and his wife had discussed retirement on a number of occasions.

“I contemplated retirement,” he said. “Without my wife, I probably would have. My wife’s the main reason why I’m still playing. She still saw the fire in my eyes. She didn’t want me to quit. She knows I enjoy playing but she also enjoys watching me play.”

The Torrence, CA native became Louisville franchise’s all-time hits leader earlier this season. He was batting .304 with six home runs and 23 RBI in 68 games at the time of his promotion. In 2004, his first year in the Reds organization, Holbert hit .271 in 115 games. In addition to ranking first in Louisville franchise history in hits, he’s also among the leaders in at-bats, triples, runs and games played.

The Reds are Holbert’s eighth organization since 1990. He had previously spent time in the farm systems of the Cardinals, Devil Rays, Blue Jays, Marlins, Red Sox, Pirates and Mariners.

The trip from Louisville to Cincinnati was longer than just an hour’s drive for Holbert.

It was a nine-year journey.

Holbert arrived in the Queen City on Tuesday just in time to pinch-hit in the fifth inning. He struck out swinging. The ball popped out of the mitt of Giants catcher Mike Matheny who threw to first base to complete the out.

And, Jackie was in the stands to see it all.

“It was a great moment,” he said. “I wanted to bless her with the opportunity to see me on a major league field in a major league uniform. That’s what kept going through my mind.”

It was the fourth big-league at-bat for Holbert who made three plate appearances for the Cardinals in 1996.

“When I was up back the first time, it was only for five days,” Holbert said. “She didn’t have the opportunity to come see me play. Since then I haven’t gotten back. I’ve been trying to get back to the big leagues ever since then.”

Following Tuesday’s game, a 10-8 loss to the Giants, Holbert changed out of his uniform just as he had hundreds of times before. Only this time he hung his No. 7 jersey on a big-league hook.

“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I’m most happy for my wife. I wanted her to see me out there playing with all of the big names of the game. Today she got that opportunity.

It was just fate, I guess.”

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