Arts & Life
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This article was published 19/7/2019 (359 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
You likely know his name, regardless of whether you are a die-hard baseball fan or not.
After all, Reggie Abercrombie has cemented himself as a local sporting icon, re-writing the American Association history books while becoming one of the most popular and longest-tenured players to ever put on a Winnipeg Goldeyes uniform.
Now in his 20th professional season — and sixth in River City — the finish line is in sight. After years of teasing retirement, this really looks to be it for the 39-year-old with the big swing, smile and personality.
Abercrombie is expected to hang up his cleats for good once the final out is recorded in September and head back home to Maryland where family and a full-time job in the "real world" await.
The humble Abercrombie would prepare to go quietly. But the impact he’s made is worth noting, and the hole he’ll leave behind — for the Goldeyes organization and the community in general — will be enormous.
As much as Abercrombie’s on-field accomplishments are obvious, there’s plenty you don’t know about the man who has recorded more hits, home runs and RBI than any player in league history while also serving as a mentor and role model to many youths.
Before his time in Winnipeg comes to an end, here’s an in-depth look at one of the most unique athletes this city has ever seen — from a modest upbringing, his emergence as a top prospect in high school, his rise and subsequent fall in Major League Baseball, the famous friends he still keeps and how and why he became a mainstay in independent ball, where low pay and marathon bus travel typically chase players much younger than him from the sport.
The timing couldn’t have been better for Dorotha Abercrombie’s annual summer trip.
Her son was slumping badly when she arrived in St. Paul, Minn., last weekend to see him play in person for the first time this season — and perhaps the final time ever.
Stuck in a terrible rut at the plate in which his average was on the verge of dipping below .200, Abercrombie showed there’s still some life left in his bat during a three-game series in which he had three hits, including a home run and two RBI.
"I think all he needs is just to see and talk to Mom. I try to encourage him to do things," said the woman known affectionately as "Dot," who flew in from Columbus, Ga.
"I’m very stressed when he’s down and not playing very well. I try to encourage him to keep hanging in there, it’s going to come, it’s going to come."
A hug and a pep talk seemingly did the trick, just like it always has since Abercrombie first picked up a bat as a child.
"That always picks up my spirits. When I see my family, I don’t think about anything else. I don’t think about struggling. I just go out and try to have fun, I think about when I was younger and getting to see them in the stands and know I’m going to do better," said Abercrombie.
Dot and her husband, James, didn’t always have it easy raising three children in Georgia. Money was tight, and trouble often seemed to be lurking around the corner in the neighbourhood, especially for young Reggie. James worked long hours at a local peanut factory, while Dot was working as a medical assistant.
"I was always the kid being bad, being mean, getting in trouble," Abercrombie admitted.
But he and his two older sisters, LaToya and Lisa, learned to appreciate the value of family, which included plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins who were always present in their lives and kept them on the straight and narrow.
"It was like a little village. Everybody took part in molding and shaping who we are today," said LaToya, who still lives in Columbus with her three children who all adore "Uncle Reggie."
She knew her brother was destined for big things, even at a young age. He had all the physical tools, plus a drive and determination that couldn’t be taught.
“He’s always loved baseball since he was about five when I put him in T-ball. That’s what keeps him going. He loves it. He would play for free.” — Reggie Abercrombie's mother, Dorotha
"He has a love and a drive for the game. If he messed up in the game, he was the kid who gave the extra gusto. He’d be out in the yard saying ‘I need you to catch for me,’ and I’d be like ‘Dude, you’re throwing 80 miles an hour!’" she said.
Abercrombie dominated in Little League and was seen as a can’t-miss prospect by the time he attended Columbus High School, where he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 23rd round in 1999.
"It was a proud moment, for him and for us, to make it. There’s a lot who don’t make it, of course. So it was a very very powerful thing for him," said Dot.
"He’s always loved baseball since he was about five when I put him in T-ball. That’s what keeps him going. He loves it. He would play for free."
He had worked his way through the minor-league system — from rookie ball, to single-A, to Double-A.
And a future star in the making, Dontrelle Willis, couldn’t believe what he just saw as Abercrombie took him deep during their first head-to-head meeting in early 2003.
"Reggie hit one of the furthest balls I’d ever given up in the minor leagues. I was like ‘Wow,’ this guy’s the real deal. He’s fast, he’s strong. it came so effortless for him," said Willis, known to fans as the "D-Train."
"We hung out after the game and we made a bond after that, then we got in the big leagues and built off that bond."
Willis got his call to "The Show" later that season, which ended with a World Series championship with the Florida Marlins and winning the National League rookie-of-the-year award.
Abercrombie would ultimately be traded from the Dodgers to the Arizona Diamondbacks, then placed on waivers and picked up by the Marlins, who called him up for his MLB debut in 2006. Waiting for him was his old friend, Willis, where they spent two seasons together.
"He was a phenomenal teammate. Always happy, he annoyed me a lot, never had a bad day. He’s always happy, always enjoying being around the park and the fellas. You gotta have your head on a swivel because he’s always going to be doing something to mess with you — your shoe on fire, a pie in your face," said Willis, who retired in 2014 and now works as an analyst for Fox Sports.
Abercrombie and Willis have remained close over the years, along with a pair of other active major league players in Edwin Jackson (most recently with the Toronto Blue Jays) and Miguel Cabrera (Detroit Tigers).
Willis isn’t surprised his old pal is still playing.
"This guy would come in the weight room. He was chiselled, and he’d be eating candy. I don’t think he’s ever eaten a salad before, he was a Greek god, it was a marvel to see how easy it came," said Willis.
Getting to the big leagues was one thing. Staying there was another. And Abercrombie, despite all the talent, simply couldn’t stick. The numbers didn’t lie, as he hit just .212 during the 2006 season and .197 during the 2007 campaign.
He was sent down to Triple-A and eventually claimed on waivers by the Houston Astros, who gave him a brief look during the 2009 season as an injury replacement in which he hit an impressive .309 in 34 games. Yet he was demoted once they got healthy, and never got another chance.
In that sense, perhaps the numbers do lie.
Steve Shirley, a former MLB pitcher who began managing the Sioux Falls Canaries in 2006, remembers getting a phone call in early 2010 from an agency his team often dealt with for player recruitment.
"He said he had Reggie available. At the time, I told (the agent) I didn’t have much money. I knew who Reggie was and had looked him up. (The agent) said that’s not really that important, we’re looking for a good place for him to be," said Shirley.
He eventually spoke on the phone with Abercrombie, who had been cut loose by the Astros that winter and was now looking for a new landing spot, quite bitter at how it had all played out.
"I could just hear there wasn’t a lot of light in him in the conversation. A very polite young man, always treated me with the utmost respect. But I could tell there was something troubling him. So I asked him. He said ‘I feel like I’ve been lied to and I feel like I’m not having any fun in baseball any more,’" said Shirley.
"I told him ‘Reggie, I can’t promise you I can get you back into an organization, I can’t make promises to you I can’t keep, I just won’t do it, that’s not how I operate. But what I can tell you and promise me is if you come play for me, you will have fun.’"
Shirley wasn’t expecting to have Abercrombie around for long, believing another MLB club would soon come calling.
"I’m still amazed that didn’t happen, I truly am," said Shirley.
"Reggie’s unique. Reggie is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had in my locker room. He’s one of the best people that puts on a uniform every day.” — Steve Shirley, former MLB pitcher and former Sioux Falls Canaries manager
He recalls one game in particular where he had just re-joined the Canaries after a brief summer stint in a top Mexican league, driving most of the day to make it to the park in time for the game, where he hit a walk-off home run in the 11th inning.
Local media wanted to speak with Abercrombie post-game, but he couldn’t be found in the locker room. Turns out he was mingling with fans, taking photographs and signing autographs. The next morning he headed to a local hospital to visit sick children.
"From the second he got there, he showed himself to be an extraordinary person. Reggie’s unique. Reggie is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had in my locker room. He’s one of the best people that puts on a uniform every day," said Shirley.
"Our relationship became much more than player-manager. I consider him a great friend of mine. I love the guy to pieces."
Abercrombie spent four seasons with Sioux Falls, before both he and Shirley moved on from the organization. In Abercrombie’s case, it was off to Winnipeg to join the Goldeyes, a team he held in high regard.
"I always think about our first conversation. And he must have had fun, because he’s still playing. He wanted to play. He wanted to enjoy playing. He wanted to be a 12 year old kid again. We were able to help him find that 12 year old kid that was still in there, but had gotten lost by the callousness of the game," said Shirley.
They have been rivals, and they have been teammates. Through it all, they remain close friends.
And Josh Mazzola, who literally looks up to Abercrombie when it comes to several American Association records (he is second in both all-time home runs and RBI), said he’s proud to be in the same conversation.
"He’s one of the best teammates that I’ve had, and I’ve learned a lot from him," said the former Goldeyes slugger, who is currently playing for the Lincoln Saltdogs.
"I don’t know any other veteran in the league on the teams I’ve played on that helps unload the bus. Just stuff like that, he’s not bigger than the game, but he does everything the right way," he said.
Mazzola has his doubts Abercrombie is actually going to retire after this season, saying he expects him to "be playing until he’s 50."
"He suits it up every day and goes about his business the right way every day. I don’t think people realize how hard he works off the field to be able to do what he does. He truly leads by example when it comes to that," said Mazzola.
In a bottom-line business, there’s no question Abercrombie is good for the product. Abercrombie has become the face of the Goldeyes, one that team owner Sam Katz is going to miss dearly.
"Reggie is one-in-a million. There are so many reasons. It’s his attitude, how he treats people. He’s absolutely totally giving of himself," said Katz.
"He’s been to the show. He’s got so many records, it’s unbelievable. That attests to his longevity, but the longevity is there for so many reasons. He absolutely loves the game, he’s a workaholic, he takes care of himself, at his age he’s still one of the fastest on the team, which is amazing."
Katz is also going to miss the regular bear hugs he gets from Abercrombie.
"He’s friendly to everybody. It doesn’t make a difference who you are. You could be working in the box office, production, the field manager, the general manager, the owner. He treats you all with respect and love," said Katz.
"God blessed him with some phenomenal skills and he’s certainly used them, but more important than his skills is how he treats people, regardless of their station in life. Puts them up on a pedestal and makes them feel good. There’s a lot of great athletes, but that doesn’t mean they’re great men. He’s a great athlete, and he’s a great man."
Abercrombie helped the Goldeyes win back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017, but said his biggest honour was winning the inaugural American Association’s Scott Miller/Brian Rose Man of the Year Award in 2016.
"That’s no. 1. Any time you can go out and have fun and give back to the community it’s fun for me. My mom and dad gave me everything, they tried their best. To give back to the community is a wonderful thing," said Abercrombie.
When her father, Jerry, died suddenly in 2016 – just days after a cancer diagnosis – Tara Maslowsky was shattered. And she’ll never forget how Abercrombie was there for her and her family in their darkest hour.
To her, Abercrombie the human being was even better than Abercrombie the baseball star.
"I’m very lucky and fortunate that he came into my life. He was my support system when my dad passed. We’re still the best of friends and talk every day," she said.
Maslowsky met Abercrombie while working in marketing and promotions for the Goldeyes, which she no longer does. She said his energy was infectious, and she marvelled at his ability to connect with young people whenever he’d do community clinics and talks around the province.
"He’d talk about how his upbringing wasn’t the greatest but he continued to work hard and follow his dreams," she said.
"And he’s a big little kid himself. He loves to have fun and make sure everyone else around him is having fun. He’s definitely one-of-a-kind. He’s one of the nicest, most humble, down-to-earth people I’ve ever met."
After the Goldeyes won the league title in September 2017 at Shaw Park, Abercrombie took the celebration to the crowd -- posing for pictures and letting fans touch the trophy, including in the lobby of the stadium.
"He wanted everybody to feel as much a part of it as he did," she said. "That says a lot about him. He goes out of his way to make sure everybody is looked after and feels appreciated."
It definitely wasn’t love at first sight when it came to Tom Vaeth.
The long-time Goldeyes hitting coach admits he clashed with Abercrombie when he first came to town in 2014. In a nutshell, he couldn’t understand what he was doing at this level.
"We butted heads a lot. I knew the talent that was there," said Vaeth. "A lot of arguments and hard feelings back and forth. From my perspective, it was done out of love and out of respect for the ability I knew was there."
Building trust was also difficult in those early days, as Abercrombie put up some walls. But those eventually came down over time.
"Once he knew I wasn’t going to lie to him and be up front with him every day, good or bad, we really hit it off," said Vaeth.
Nobody works more closely with Abercrombie, as the two often put in extra time in the batting cages to work on flaws in his game.
"When he struggles I probably feel worse than he does. You just hope things start clicking for him. I know they will, I’m seeing it as we speak. He’s going to get hot here really soon, you can print that," said Vaeth.
Regardless of his average – he was batting .209 with five home runs and 31 RBI through the first 56 games of this season – Vaeth said it’s about so much more with Abercrombie, who is a career .293 hitter at this level.
"Reggie brings more to the clubhouse than any numbers he’s going to put up. He’s like another coach in the clubhouse. He’s unique. He has a lot of knowledge of the game," said Vaeth. "You get a kid who maybe got to double-A or triple-A and they come in with a bit of attitude and maybe think they’re bigger than this. You can’t do that when you’ve got Reggie in the clubhouse."
Yes, he’s taking a bit of extra time to stop and smell the roses this season. But don’t confuse it for some kind of sentimental farewell tour.
Beneath it all, Abercrombie’s biggest priority is still winning.
"Still gotta go out here and grind, help us win a championship. I’ve been struggling a little bit, but it’s great when you’ve got guys that have been behind you all season, a manager and hitting coach working with you 24/7," said Abercrombie, who apologized to his teammates a few weeks ago for his recent stretch of play and letting some of his frustrations show.
"You can’t let them see you down. If they see you down, as a leader, then they’re gonna get down. I try to keep it even-keeled."
The long bus rides, especially considering Winnipeg is the northern outpost in the league, haven’t got any more enjoyable over time. And while Abercrombie is still one of the top paid players in the league, consider that the salary cap for an entire 23-man roster is $125,000 and do the math.
"It’s just the love of the game. I know you’re not gonna make a lot of money. Rick (Forney) has let me come back and deal with my ups and downs. I’ve been lucky to have two great managers, and Tom (Vaeth) has been right there with me, too. You can’t really ask for anything more," said Abercrombie.
“This city means a lot to me. It’s a wonderful city to play in, wonderful people, wonderful fans. It’s just a great city to come back to and call my second home.” — Reggie Abercrombie.
Once it’s over, Abercrombie is looking forward to what’s next. That includes helping raise his nine-year-old son, Jacoby, who currently lives in Texas with his mother. He’ll settle in Maryland where his girlfriend and her children and live and go to work full-time for a company called ISM Connect, which uses technology to improve fan engagement at sports stadiums and concert venues across the United States.
He’ll also continue adding to his shoe collection, which currently stands at about 800 pairs. Yes, you read that right. Some people invest in stocks and bonds -- Abercrombie prefers footwear.
"I got a problem. I could open up a shoe store or a museum," Abercrombie joked.
As for baseball, parting is definitely going to be sweet sorrow.
"This city means a lot to me. It’s a wonderful city to play in, wonderful people, wonderful fans. It’s just a great city to come back to and call my second home. I’m blessed to have this be my second home and play baseball as long as I have in a city like this," said Abercrombie.
"This game is pretty hard. But once you can fight through this you can fight through anything in life. Once you deal with failure you can do anything."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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