You didn’t have to squint with Eddie Milner

See, sometimes, when the team you root for is terrible, you see things that aren’t there.

Take the 1983 Cincinnati Reds, for example. They were the first club I followed closely, and they lost a lot of games that summer, though not as many as they had lost in 1982 and not as many as they would lose in 1984.

Still, this was the Big Red Machine in its jalopy years, after management parked it overnight in a rough neighborhood. The thing was stripped down like an old Plymouth, leaving only a couple pieces of the engine, and there wasn’t much a creaky Johnny Bench and Davey Concepcion could do without some spark plugs, gasoline, and wheels.

So us fans squinted at the roster, and we looked for signs of hope.

Mario Soto was a stud on the mound (this much is true) and he’d be there forever.

Ron Oester was going to be an All-Star second baseman someday.

Bill Scherrer was a lock-down closer.

Cesar Cedeno was going to rebound and head into the Hall of Fame as a Red.

It was all bunk, and most of us probably knew it, even though I was a little green at this whole fandom thing — I pretty much believed it all.

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But Eddie Milner was one guy we didn’t have to hedge on that summer. After six long seasons spent working his way up through Cincy’s minor league system while The Machine tore through MLB (1976) and then teased everyone with a few more solid years, Milner finally stuck with the big club in 1982.

Along the way, he developed a reputation as a slick center fielder who could manage a bit of pop at the plate, who could take a walk, and who could fly on the bases.

Milner put it all together in that summer of 1983, smacking nine home runs, stealing 41 bases, scoring 77 runs, and playing an exciting brand of center field. He was maybe the Reds’ most well-rounded position player, and indeed led all Reds not named “Soto” with 4.1 WAR.

What really made Milner stand out for me that summer, though, and I’ll bet for older Reds fans who were lamenting the demise of their dynasty, was his constant smile, and the joy he seemed to take in playing the game.

That exuberance came through on his baseball cards, too, like the 1984 Fleer up there (^) a bit. I always imagined Eddie was ribbing a teammate, maybe telling Gary Redus he was enjoying the breeze from all those strikeouts.

Or maybe he was jawing at a rookie, or a coach … or maybe you and me.

Whatever the case, you gotta figure it all ended with a big smile and an invitation …

“Grab a bat, kid. Let’s see what you got!”

Milner ran into some personal problems down the line, and the Reds traded him to the Giants before the 1987 season.

He came back to Cincy as a free agent in 1988, though, and retired as a Red that year.

Milner passed away at age 60 in 2015, but he’ll always be there waiting for us on his happy 1984 Fleer card, ready to poke a little fun and take a few fly balls.

And smile.

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