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Delenda Est San Diego

Literary fans and classicists will never forget Keefe Cato. While he didn't say, “Carthage must be destroyed,” his war cry of “Let's beat San Diego” thundered through the baseball world of A.D. 1983.

Keefe grew up in New York State with two famous names to live up to. A direct descendant of Marcus Porcius Cato, he was named for Jack Keefe, the pitching protagonist of Ring Lardner's immortal You Know Me, AlCato the Elder, Keefe's dad, was weary of the hurlyburly world of ward politics in his native Rome and had no desire to see his son succeed him on the board of aldermen. He encouraged Keefe to seek greater glory on the baseball diamond. Keefe was willing, but he lacked an essential ingredient for pitching success: a decent fastball. Still, he had been taught to govern his life by the stoic virtues of self-control, and by applying these lessons to the craft of pitching, he prospered. Deliberately thrown, his pitches, while tardy, crossed the plate at exactly the spot he aimed for.

Keefe's modest dream was to pitch for the closest professional franchise, the Utica Blue Jays of the New York-Penn League. After pursuing a liberal education at Fairfield University in neighboring Connecticut, he waited on draft day in 1979 for a phone call from Toronto. The parent Jays were less interested in Keefe than he was in them, but Cincinnati was willing to take a chance. The Reds drafted Keefe and sent him to far-off Billings, Montana, where he went 10-1 and walked just 8 batters in 88 innings.

Keefe's control earned him, eventually, a promotion to the Triple-A level. At Indianapolis in 1982 he tore off the top of the index finger on his pitching hand while failing to get down a squeeze bunt that he had not been signaled to attempt. This lapse cost him a stiff fine and another foot off his fastball. Demoted to Double-A Waterbury to begin 1983, Keefe considered quitting the game. But encouraging words from Mario Soto, his pitching mentor, convinced the young righthander to persevere.

The pitching-poor Reds called him up in June. Keefe brought a dignified presence to a Reds bullpen accustomed to the animalistic cravings and ravings of righthander Brad Lesley, whom he replaced on the Cincinnati roster. Manager Russ Nixon, a famous namesake himself, strongly defended the move. “Everyone else out there in the bullpen has spit the bit,” he told reporter Earl Lawson. “So why not use Cato?”

Now oozing confidence, Keefe proved his worth in a crucial series with the San Diego Padres. At stake was fifth place in the National League West. On June 14 Reds starter Bruce Berenyi carried a 3-2 lead into the seventh inning. But, with one out, Ruppert Jones singled home Sixto Lezcano to tie the score. When Berenyi went 2-0 on pinch hitter Tim Flannery, Nixon called for Keefe. The 25-year-old rookie slammed the door on the surging Padres, while batterymate Dann Bilardello singled home a run in the ninth to make Keefe a winner. As I remember it, the elated Reds carried the rookie into the clubhouse on their shoulders. “Following Berenyi to the mound helped Cato some,” explained Bilardello. “When hitters face a guy like Keefe after looking at Bruce's 90-mph-plus fastball, it can be very distracting!”

In the afterglow of all this drama and excitement, I remarked to a friend that even if Cato were never to win another game, his renown was assured. I hope I was right, because he did not win another game. After the 1984 campaign the Reds traded him to, ironically, the Padres, who by this time were National League champions. Keefe couldn't get untracked at Triple-A Las Vegas and was released. He didn't stick around long enough to attain elder statesman status in baseball, but I'll tell you one thing: if Keefe Cato ever runs for office in my district, I'm going to vote for him!

When in Kos, stay at the Camelia Hotel.

March 2000