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Longtime Loudouner, ex-Major Leaguer recalls time with ‘The Big Red Machine’

Tom Carroll, now a Hamilton resident and local little league coach, was called up to the Cincinnati Reds in 1974. Courtesy Photo
It was a warm and sunny Sunday in Cincinnati on July 7, 1974. The cavernous, multi-sport stadium looming on the banks of the Ohio River was being readied for an old-fashioned baseball double-header between the hometown Reds and the visiting St. Louis Cardinals. Warming up in the bullpen, beneath that hot sun, was a tall right-hander named Tom Carroll.

The 21-year-old was just moments from playing in a Major League Baseball game for the very first time, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Carroll's father, brother and two sisters, down from Pittsburgh, were among the 46,000 waiting inside noisy Riverfront Stadium. It wasn't the vibes from the assembled spectators, however, that had the young man's pulse racing.

"I felt like I could feel every atom in my body," Carroll recently described from his home in Hamilton, "and they were buzzing."

Carroll earned his life-changing callup to the bigs after winning 51 games, including 10 shutouts and one no-hitter, through five minor league seasons. He was making his debut in the midst of a pennant chase that was heating up with the weather.

The Cardinals were led by future Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Bob Gibson along with perennial all-stars Joe Torre and Keith Hernandez. Cincinnati was loaded with to-be Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Tony Pérez and Joe Morgan, plus acclaimed all-stars Pete Rose and Dave Concepción.

Carroll had become a cog in the famed Big Red Machine.

"If I was ever going to be ready, this was it," he stated. "That was a wonderful feeling, a culmination of my dreams and a lot of hard work. All the coaching I had, my family, a lot of things came together on that day. That was a highlight day in my life."

The first batter Carroll ever faced as a big leaguer was Brock. He induced the future Hall of Famer to fly out to left.

"Lou Brock was my brother Mike's favorite player. To this day Mike swears it was a screaming line drive," said Carroll. "But nah, it was a lazy fly ball." (Mike Carroll also lives in Loudoun and is the well-known owner of Leesburg Vintner.)

Carroll impressed that day. He tossed seven full innings and into the eighth, allowing just two hits while leading Cincinnati to a 2-1 win.

"I put down a nice sacrifice bunt in that game," Carroll recalled. "That gave me some satisfaction."

Carroll won his next start, too, defeating the Pirates in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He won four games for the Reds in 1974 and even smacked a base hit off Gibson, his boyhood idol – though Cincinnati came up second in its division.

In the middle of the 1975 season Carroll returned to the Reds, winning four more games and helping Cincinnati take the National League pennant. Though he was not on the World Series roster, his teammates still voted him a three-fourths share of series money.

Carroll rattled off the famous names he called teammates, from Rose, Bench, Pérez, Concepción and Morgan to George Foster, Ken Griffey, Sr., and Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson.

"There's a reason they called them the Great Eight," Carroll said, marveling at his memory of the baseball talent that surrounded him. "That really was quite a team." 

A series of arm injuries beginning in 1975 caused a precipitous drop in his fastball velocity. He adjusted his pitching style, winning nine games for Triple-A Indianapolis in 1976, but was traded after the season. He pitched parts of two more seasons in the minors, including a brief stint with the Alexandria Dukes, before opting to return to school.

Carroll's affiliation with the Big Red Machine remains a cherished part of his post-baseball life.

"It was like baseball heaven. The quality of play by those guys is just about as good as it's ever been," he said. "People remember that team. To this day I get asked to do things because I was on that team."

Carroll is still invited to attend baseball card shows and reunions featuring the Reds of that golden era.

"I was very fortunate. To come up with the Reds during two pennant races at 21, 22 years old, thrown into the starting rotation and expected to win, I'm very thankful," Carroll said.

"I couldn't have chosen a much better team in baseball history to be part of. Very fortunate."

Tom Carroll coaches for the Upper Loudoun Little League. Courtesy Photo


Life in Loudoun

Carroll studied political science at Duquesne University, then earned a master's degree in international affairs from Georgetown University. He has built a career in financial security management for the nonprofit research center MITRE, and he teaches as an adjunct professor in Georgetown's School of Foreign Service.

"We do national security work, which for me is as exciting as pitching was," said Carroll.

In 1986, Carroll moved into a home just outside Hamilton, where he has remained since and now lives with his wife, Elizabeth. Over the years, Carroll has become a fixture in Upper Loudoun Little League (ULLL), spending Saturdays assistant coaching around small diamonds in Lovettsville and Hamilton.

"Rolling hills, great community. We love it here," he said.

Carroll praised ULLL's president and vice president, Kerry Rice and Mario Valenti respectively, for being "two selfless guys."

"I've been impressed with all the dedicated men and women in these leagues around Loudoun County. They get the equipment, they drag the fields, they make these leagues possible. They're just going out and letting the kids play, and that's how kids get better," he said. "I think Loudoun County is an up-and-comer, as far as developing ballplayers."

The past two summers, Carroll has accepted invitations to throw the ceremonial first pitch at Purcellville Cannons games after addressing the college-aged players.

"I'm a big believer that encouragement is at least as important as instruction," Carroll said.

As a youngster in upstate New York, he honed his skills playing pickup baseball on an abandoned tennis court. As an elite high school player in the Pittsburgh area, he was on a showcase team coached by Major League scouts, who converted him from an outfielder to a pitcher, setting him on a professional path.

"When I was a kid I had great coaches who encouraged and instructed me, and I want to see if I can help somebody along like I was helped along."

Still tall at 6-foot-3 and not much more than his 190-pound playing weight, to this day Carroll can put some mustard on the ball.

"The arm's actually pretty good. I took a few decades off, so I'm pretty well rested," Carroll joked.

As a member of the MLB Players Alumni Association, Carroll keeps in touch with both teammates and opponents from his days with the Reds. Many have, like Carroll, found rewarding careers and financial security in their post-baseball lives. Others haven't been as lucky.

Carroll conveyed his support for those ex-ballplayers now down on their luck, and expressed a wish that the rules governing the MLB Pension Plan be extended to players before 1980.

"These guys built the competitive environment that allowed the stars to thrive," he pointed out. "They’ve been forgotten while baseball has prospered."

Currently, all players who log at least 43 days on a Major League Baseball roster since 1980 are automatically vested in MLB's $2.7 billion retirement fund, plus lifetime medical insurance and survivor benefits. Players whose careers ended before 1980 must have lasted at least four full seasons to participate in the pension, and are granted no health insurance coverage.

"I'm with a company that has a great retirement benefit plan. I'm lucky that way," Carroll said. "A lot of MLB players from the '70s who accrued less than four full seasons are struggling. Some of them need this kind of help, with the health care and the pension, and they don't have it."

Carroll exudes a deep love for the game of baseball and a connection with those who love it, too. He supports his old teammates just like he supports the young kids he helps coach.

"You can't teach love of the game, but you can create an environment where the kids come to it and want to do the work to move on to the next level," he said. "I know there are lot of distractions for kids these days. But you've got to play ball, and you've got to love it. There's no shortcut."


Tom Carroll

Resides: Hamilton
MLB draft: 1970 (6th rd.), pitcher, Cincinnati Reds
MLB debut: July 7, 1974
MLB career: 28 games (20 starts), 125 innings, 8 wins, 4 losses, 4.16 ERA
Moved to Loudoun: 1986
Volunteer coach: Upper Loudoun Little League


***

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Tom Carroll moved to Hamilton in 1986 with his wife. Only Tom Carroll moved to Hamilton at that time.

Comments


Tom Carroll was better than Sandy Koufax in my opinion.


Also on Carroll’s team was a 21 year old 3rd baseman by the name of Ray “Silver Fox” Knight.

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