[SPORTS] Danny Graves - A Closer with Vietnamese Roots
- Vietnamese American Pitcher a Man for All Seasons
Nguoi Viet Online, Sports Profile,
Denise Nguyen, Aug 28, 2004
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 pitch the ninth inning for the
Cincinnati Reds who are leading the home team, the San Francisco
As the "closer" a specialized pitcher called on to end the game
Graves walks a fine line. He's expected to protect the lead and shut
down the opposition. If he allows runs to score and blows a "save,"
he becomes the target for the frustration of the Reds' spectators.
Against the Giants on this night, 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. He
walks the second batter and Marquis Grissom up next gets a hit. With
two on, he remains unfazed and strikes out the fourth batter of the
inning and then gets Edgardo Alfonzo to ground out to shortstop.
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
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 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
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
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
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
recently 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 Gravesc/o Cincinnati RedsGreat American Ball Park100
Main StreetCincinnati, OH 45202.