From Saigon to Cincinnati
Thursday, August 26, 2004 10:12:24 AM   By Denise Nguyen




SAN FRANCISCO — It is the bottom of the ninth and final inning at SBC Park. Danny Graves walks to the pitcher’s mound, scraping the dirt with his feet, getting ready to finish the game and secure a win for his Cincinnati Reds against the home team, the San Francisco Giants.

As the “closer” — a specialized pitcher called on to end the game — Graves walks a fine line between love and hate from fans. It’s expected for him to protect the lead for the team, to shut down any hope for the opponents to win.

If he allows runs to score and blows a “save,” he becomes the target for the frustration of the Reds’ spectators.
On this night, his team is leading, 8-7. The first batter he faces hits a fly ball to right field. One out.

Graves walks the second batter, allowing the tying run on base. Then making Reds fan a little uneasy, the third batter, Marquis Grissom gets a base hit. The Wednesday night crowd of 40,095 Giants loyalists smells blood.

Graves, however, doesn’t look fazed. He strikes out the fourth batter. Two outs. All he needs is one more.

The nail biting begins after Graves tosses three straight balls to the fifth batter, Edgardo Alfonzo, inviting the possibility of walking another batter and loading the bases. On the sixth pitch, Alfonzo hits a ground ball to the shortstop, who tosses the batter out at first. Three outs. Game over. Reds win.

It’s just another day at the office for Graves, the first Vietnamese-born man to play major-league baseball. In his entire nine-year career, he’s been baffling batters in a sport that his countrymen have yet to fully embrace.

Daniel Peter Graves was born in the summer of 1973, the youngest son of an Army sergeant and a young Vietnamese woman working at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. He and his family, which includes an older brother, moved to the United States when he was 14 months old.

Graves’ dad, Jim, loved baseball. Danny learned to love it, too, as a child in the Florida city of Tampa, where the neighborhood kids would pitch in the streets. At 5, he asked his parents to register him for Little League.

At first, he wanted to be a catcher but abandoned the idea.
“As a catcher, you have to be able to hit, and I didn’t hit very well, but I always had a strong arm growing up,” he remembered.

That arm propelled him through Brandon High School and earned him a scholarship to the University of Miami, where during his junior season for the Hurricanes, Graves posted a 0.89 earned-run average and led the nation with a school-record 21 saves. In 1994, the Cleveland Indians selected him in the fourth round of the amateur draft.

His mother, Thao, who teaches English to Vietnamese students in Florida, thought he was crazy for wanting to be a professional baseball player. She didn’t understand why he wanted to take up the sport for a living.

“She wanted me to have a normal job,” he said. “She didn’t know you can get paid a lot of money being an athlete and be able to take care of your family that way. Once she figured it’s a good way for people to have a career, she was OK with it.”

It’s been a more than a good career for Graves, who earns a reported $6 million a year. After two years in the minor leagues, he made his major-league debut on July 13, 1996, for the Indians against the Minnesota Twins, becoming the first Vietnamese-born player in a sport with an increasing number of Asians.

The following season, he and three other players were traded to the Cincinnati Reds. On May 20, 2004, he became the Reds’ all-time leader in saves, successfully closing out 149 wins for the team in his career. He’s been a member of the National League All-Star team twice.

At Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Japanese fans stand up, signs in their hands and cheer whenever Hideo Nomo runs to the pitcher’s mound or Kazuhisa Ishii stands in the batter’s box. Korean fans do the same for Hee-Seop Choi. It’s not an uncommon sight in any stadium where an Asian player takes the field.

But until Graves came along, the Vietnamese were left out of rooting for one of their own.Still, despite Graves’ success, Vietnamese Americans do not flock to major-league stadiums. Other sports — soccer, tennis, basketball, football and, it seems, even table tennis — generate more fervor among the Vietnamese.

Maybe baseball is just more difficult to grasp. How many strikes constitute an out? How many outs to end an inning? What’s a sacrifice fly? With soccer, it seems easier to follow. Ball in net equals goal. Plus, in baseball, there isn’t the non-stop action other sports offer.

The lack of interest among Vietnamese hasn’t gone unnoticed by Graves. He said he would like to take his skills to the country of his birth and teach baseball.
“Any way I can introduce another sport where I came from would be nice because I know they don’t know much about it,” said Graves, who is emphatic about his love for Vietnamese food, particularly his mother’s cooking.

He also knows not a lot of Vietnamese children play Little League in the United States. A father of four, he recommends it to other parents.

“It’s a fun game,” he said. “It’s a good way for kids to interact with other people and to teach them good sportsmanship. It’s a good way to keep them away from the TV all day long. Baseball, it’s just fun to me.”

Life as a closer in the major leagues is a pressure-cooker situation. It requires being mentally tough. Graves doesn’t necessarily look the part, but he is. Blessed or cursed with the Asian quality of appearing younger than his years, Graves resembles a teen-ager, complete with blond highlights in his hair. Yet his teammates have named him “baby-faced assassin.” His ammunition of choice? A sinker, two-seam fastball, changeup and curveball.

Dr. Bill Harrison, who coaches the visual and mental aspects of the game to professional baseball players such as Greg Maddux and Jason Giambi, shares his experience working with Graves.

“It was obvious he was very much attuned to being mentally stronger than most players. And he’s not very big but he knows it’s not about being big. It’s about throwing quality pitches. Everyone says they do it but he really does it.”

Graves attributes his mental toughness to being raised to believe in himself, a trait encouraged by his parents. “It’s helped me be focused and not be scared of the outcome,” he said. “I think a lot of people in this game are afraid to fail. They don’t understand that you have to fail before you succeed.”

And Graves hasn’t had it easy. Even though he leads the National League in saves with 37, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Friday with lower back spasms. This season, he has pitched nearly 62 innings, recording one win and five losses and striking out 38. His ERA is 4.09.
“I know that if I go out there one day and don’t do well, I have the next day to do better,” Graves said before his trip to the disabled list. “A lot of guys can’t handle not doing well, but I understand that’s part of the game. You can’t be perfect all the time.”

While Graves is best known nationally on the field, people in Cincinnati know him off of it, too. He is the local spokesman for the city’s National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s READaTHON program; honorary board member of Hamilton County’s Special Olympics; and was featured in a poster on behalf of the Ohio Department of Safety’s “Sober Truth” program. He also invites Little League teams serving underprivileged children to Sunday games at the Reds’ Great American Ball Park as his guests.

“He is one of my favorite players to work with,” says Lorrie Platt, community relations manager for the Reds. “I know I can rely on him for our outreach programs. He is a great representative for our team. He gives 110 percent all the time.”

Even without the fanfare, people have noticed Graves’ giving and respectful-of-others nature, an attribute instilled in him by his parents. In 2001 and 2003, he was the Reds’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to the major-league player who combines outstanding skills on the field with devoted work in the community. He also received the 2003 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, presented annually by Phi Delta Theta International Fraternity to the major-league player who best exemplifies Gehrig’s character.

“I’m not out to get publicity for doing certain community service,” he said. “If I go out and make one group happy or one little kid happy, I feel like I did something right. It makes me feel better to help somebody out.”   

If you’d like to write to
Graves, send your letter to:
Danny Graves
c/o Cincinnati RedsGreat
American Ball Park
100 Main Street
Cincinnati, OH 45202 

Photos courtesy of the Cincinnati Reds 


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