The Case for Foster

 

 

Foster stared into the night sky as the blinding stadium lights returned the same unmoving gaze. Gravity had yet to overcome the ball, but it peaked soon before plummeting to the earth. Mere seconds felt like hours in moments like this.

The reigning MVP and Rookie of the Year, Fred Lynn, the man who sent the ball into the atmosphere, bolted towards first base. The score was tied in the bottom of the 9th of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. Oh, and the bases were loaded. No pressure.

Beads of sweat dripped down Foster’s face as the tiny sphere grew in the sky. His eyes remained locked on the ball, a result of the first and most important rule any player must learn. His glove squeezed around it as it entered his grasp and his eyes shifted to home plate. Denny Doyle was desperately sprinting for the winning run and nearing home plate where the catcher, Johnny Bench, impatiently awaited the swing of history.

Soon enough, the ball sped through the air. Bench snagged it and swung his arms down upon the sliding leg of Doyle. The umpire clinched his fist and hoisted it in the air. Because of Foster’s heroics, the game was sent into extra innings.

This was simply one example of what made George Foster a shining star in the halls of fame, or rather, it should be said that he deserves to be among those others who have managed to have their picture hung in such fashion. Yet Foster goes neglected by Cooperstown.

Photo courtesy The Cincinnati Reds

Foster’s career was nothing short of marvelous. In 1977, he smacked 52 home runs, drove in 149 runs, and scored 124 runs of his own en route to becoming the National League MVP. He was the league leader in runs, home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, OPS, and total bases. But one season does not the Hall of Fame make. Foster drove in 80 runs on 8 occasions during his career and garnered 1925 total hits. His lifetime batting average of .274 is modest, but his 348 home runs ranks him in the Top 100 players of all-time. He was a five-time All-Star and finished in the top 6 of league MVP balloting on three occasions. 

Foster had his name on the HoF ballot for years, but nothing came of it. This was not due to any sort of problem with conduct; in fact, all of those who ever met Foster provide nothing but outstanding reviews of his character. He played an integral role in the success of the “Big Red Machine” and their two consecutive World Series wins.

He has the talent, significance, awards, and wins to back up his deserving spot in the hall. So, with that being said, what is the hold up? Why is this man who has contributed so much to the sport not being immortalized in the way that he deserves?

If you were to ask Foster his opinion on the matter today, he would most likely tell you that he does not concern himself with such things. Make no mistake, he would be absolutely honored if he was to be placed alongside many of his childhood heroes and even some of his former teammates, but he is not a man who has ever chased praises. Instead, Foster sought after his own goals. He wanted to be the best at everything he attempted, and this was the case for every aspect of his life.

Before his baseball career, young Foster spent his days in the oppressive Alabama heat. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was the home of the Fosters. George, alongside his two siblings, was taught from a young age that a loving God is watching over them and wants the best for their futures, a common acquiescence in the Bible Belt. George was told that this faith would be tested at some point in his life, but he could not have known it would first happen at only the age of eight.

Then, the marriage between Regina and George Foster Sr. cracked and shattered, resulting in Regina packing her belongings and children up and bolting to the foreign world of California. This is where George would spend the next few years studying two individuals: Jesus Christ and Willie Mays. If he was not bettering himself as a baseball player, he was working on his relationship with his Savior.

Foster was always a listener, not a speaker. He had much more interest in learning than in teaching, which led to the other children finding him to be soft-spoken and, well, “different” is a polite way to word it. Little did they realize just how influential he would one day become.

Soon enough, he realized that baseball was his calling. The raw talent was there, and though he needed some coaching, Foster wasted no time gaining the reputation of an all-star athlete. The world of professional sports was on the horizon for the senior at Leuzinger High School, which was located in a suburb of Los Angeles called Lawndale. Unfortunately, this alluring dream soon imploded, the former hopes of glory and fame breaking into a million shards before scattering in the wind as if they never existed. Baseball season had yet to emerge, and since George was such a talented athlete, other sports also sparked his interest. While playing basketball his senior year, Foster snapped his leg and was unable to participate in baseball the following spring.

What would be a devastating, career-ending injury for any sane man, merely became motivation Foster. He searched for all those tiny shards of his former dream, and fused them back together. A new routine became his other religion, second to only his time spent reading his Bible.

Every day was filled with intense training and workouts. Foster not only reached his old equivalence, but managed to improve exponentially. He got stronger. Faster. At bat, he was more intimidating than ever before. 

Willie Mays remained his idol. Foster was inspired by the success Mays was able to achieve as a black man in the world of baseball—no easy feat in a country that was still navigating the difficulties of race. And now, after only one season playing for El Camino College, Foster would play alongside his idol–the great Willie Mays. The San Francisco Giants drafted Foster in 1968, and here, he would learn from some of the most fascinating figures in sports history. Though Foster, for the most part, kept to himself, he paid great attention to players such as Bobby Bonds and Ken Henderson, men who would hold starting positions before Foster for the next few years.

The time spent with the Giants was more of a learning curve than anything. Sure, he had some playing time, managed to hit his first home run there, and played alongside some great men, but there were more moments of irony for Foster with this team than moments of note (one such instance occurred when his hero, Willie Mays, notched his 600th home run while pinch hitting for him). But Foster would soon get his chance to firmly engrave his name into the myths and legends of baseball.

History was made by the Cincinnati Reds front office after the conclusion of the 1971 season, bringing Foster to the banks of the Ohio in exchange for backup shortstop Frank Duffy and hurler Vern Geishert. The Reds may not have known how important of a decision that they had made at the time, but an integral member of the “Big Red Machine” had now been properly added to the mix. Willie Mays provided a bit of foreshadowing when, lamenting the loss of Foster, he admitted the Giants had lost “some kind of player.” 

But often, Foster didn’t mix well. According to Joe Posnaski’s book, The Machine, which chronicles the 1975 Reds, Foster made manager Sparky Anderson uncomfortableThis was not the result of Foster being a typical cocky major leaguer, but actually quite the opposite. Foster spoke seldom, instead choosing to sit in his locker off by himself, perusing his Bible. Unlike many of the other guys, he cared not to drink or smoke. Foster was a man with high morals, traits many find rare in the exciting lives of professional players.

The guys accepted him regardless. He might crack a joke to everyone’s surprise from time to time, and it would always transform the dugout into a comedy show audience. Besides, Foster had the propensity to knock one out of the park fairly often, so that never hurt.  

In 1975, Foster won the job in left field and set final piece of the puzzle into place. By summer, the “Big Red Machine” would hit full stride.

Photo courtesy The Cincinnati Reds

After a season of utter domination, the Reds were not only attempting to immortalize themselves as World Series Champions, but to drown the demons of disappointment from years previous. The team had come up short in Game 6 against the Red Sox the night before, even after Foster’s incredible play to send it into extra innings. Carlton Fisk hit a home run that zoomed above Foster’s reach and ricocheted off the foul pole in the twelfth inning.

But Game 7 would end differently. The Reds, down 3-0, made a historic comeback. It started with Tony Pérez sending Bill Lee’s famous “Space ball” pitch over the Green Monster, resulting a two-run home run. In the next inning, Ken Griffey scored on a two-out single by Pete Rose. And finally, Griffey scored the winning run in the ninth after Jim Burton gave up a bloop single to Joe Morgan.

On this night, Foster became a World Series Champion. And he would do it again the very next year, in 1976. This year would witness Foster clobbering 29 home runs and 121 RBIs. In the World Series, his batting average would jump to .429. He would finish second on the ballot for National League MVP behind his friend and teammate, Joe Morgan. He would win the award the next year after yet another astonishing season.

Photo courtesy The Cincinnati Reds

In 2003, Foster was elected to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. But the acceptance of Cooperstown continues to elude him. 

Foster finds no interest in a Hall of Fame discussion. He instead chooses to spend his days alongside his wife, Shelia, and their two daughters in Greenwich, Connecticut. It is in the mesmerizing Gulf Coast andscape that the soft-spoken man now runs an internet radio show. He finds joy in reminiscing in his days as a player and by sponsoring baseball camps for children.

This is a man who has lived a full, blissful life. Through the obstacles and hurdles, he managed to become a great baseball player and man. George Foster is well aware of who he is. And he does not require a plaque in any hall of fame to reassure himself of that.

One quote from Foster sums up his worldview to perfection: “Like other spiritual fruit, joy must be cultivated.” H&A

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