FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The wonder of it all is that nothing stopped Pokey Reese. Not the kind of childhood poverty rarely seen in America. Not the burden of a father who too often fed his addiction rather than his family. Not even the sudden deaths of two of Reese's children's mothers. The marvel of it all is Reese's enduring smile. His sparkling energy. His ability to flourish where countless others would have faltered, to ride out the destiny of his gifted talent rather than slouch back in despair.
Return with the new Red Sox second baseman to his youth in Columbia, S.C., where he was born June 10, 1973, a full nine years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared "an unconditional war on poverty in America."
"We grew up on a dirt road," Reese said yesterday amid the post-workout hurly-burly in the Sox clubhouse. "No sewer system. No running water. We had to pump out of a well. My great-granddad had the well. We used to go [a half-mile] down there and pump water. No bathtub. We had to use outhouses, buckets, whatever we could use for a toilet, or jump in the woods. It was pretty rough."
Their two-bedroom shanty housed an extended family of eight, nine, sometimes 10.
"My grandmother and my older sister would sleep together," he said. "Then in the back room, it would be me and my brother on the top bunk, and my other brother and my cousin on the bottom bunk. Then my mother had a big bed in the corner where it was my little sister sleeping with her. And there was someone sleeping on the couch in the living room also. It was a real small shack."
Reese, who became a Gold Glover with the Reds in 1999 and 2000, had no glove when he learned to handle ground balls on the mottled fields along his dusty road.
"I used to go out there barehanded with makeshift spikes," he said. "We used to break up Pepsi cans and bend them so they would grip on the bottom of our shoes to make them sound like spikes. They always came off, but for a little while you got the sound."
Reese tried to further re-create the magic he felt each Saturday watching baseball's game of the week on a black and white television in his grandfather's house by dipping into his grandmother's flour supply and drawing batter's boxes and foul lines in the fields. But, oh, the pain from the whupping his grandmother inflicted when she nabbed him.
"I don't even want to talk about that one," he said. "I had to go pick my own switch."
His father, Calvin "Slick" Reese Sr., was away at the time, as he often was. Reese's father played in the low minors for the Pirates before he became a truck driver and held assorted other jobs when he could.
"My dad was in and out of the family," Reese said. "He had his rough times. He did the drinking and all that stuff, but he's a great guy. I love him. He wasn't there all the time, but my mom taught us love. So you have to forgive and forget."
His mother, Clara, moved the family to a more rural, but little less rustic, setting in nearby Hopkins, S.C., when Reese was in grade school. Still, the only gloves he used until he was a teenager were handouts.
"My first glove was given to me by my Little League coach," he said. "I used to borrow it just for practice and games, and I had to give it back afterwards, just pack it in his bag. I never owned one. After that, people would let me use their gloves until I was in high school. Then I had my own."
Then a shortstop, Reese used it with such precision and flair -- in the fashion of his idol, Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith -- that the Reds selected him in the first round of the 1991 draft out of Lower Richland High School and signed him for $200,000. Reese, an All-State quarterback who also was scouted by major college football programs, was selected 20th overall, soon after the Indians took Manny Ramirez with the 13th pick and signed him for $257,000, and just before the Sox drafted Aaron Sele 23d and signed him for $210,000.
Life was good, though Reese ran into trouble with his girlfriend, Tieronay Duckett, when he fathered children with her and another friend, Rhonda Richardson, three months apart in 1992. Still, Reese and Duckett remained close. He described her as "my first love."
Their baby girl, LaBresha Reese, was 4 months old when Tieronay borrowed Reese's car to deliver his laundry to the cleaners. She died in a single-car crash on the way, two weeks before he was due to report to spring training with Double A Chattanooga.
"I started the year off going 0 for 29 and ended up hitting .212," he said. "I called home a couple of times and talked to my mother and brother and I said, `I'm coming home.' I wasn't in it anymore. Then I had a long talk with my mom. She said, `Stick it out. You've got to do it for the baby.' "
Still, the memory nags him.
"It's always on my mind," he said. "I see my daughter and she looks just like her mom. I think about it every day."
By the time tragedy struck again, Reese was playing for Triple A Indianapolis. It was the spring of 1996 when Rhonda, the mother of Reese's son, Naquawan, died delivering a child fathered by another man. Naquawan went to live with his maternal grandmother and great-grandmother, but they were murdered on Christmas Eve in 1997. Now, Reese has custody of Naquawan, who lives with Reese's mother in a house he bought her in Charlotte, N.C. The killer is serving two life sentences.
"[Naquawan] was sitting there actually when the guy murdered them," Reese said. "Now I have to have him see a psychiatrist because if you ask him his favorite color, he says, `Red,' because it's like blood, because he saw all the stuff. He's not right now. We've got some work to do."
Through it all, baseball has remained Reese's beacon. He also provides support for a daughter, McKayla, whose mother he met in Indianapolis in 1996.
"This is it, the only thing I know," he said of baseball. "I can always know I've got to come to work every day. That's what keeps me going, my kids and my mom. I've got to do it for them. No one else."
Scott Williamson, who played with Reese in Cincinnati, is familiar with Reese's saga.
"I wouldn't know what he went through because I didn't grow up the way Pokey did, but I can tell you one thing: He's an unbelievable person," Williamson said. "It shows the kind of character he has, that he didn't let all that stuff bring him down. He ended up turning into a great person and a great teammate on and off the field. And he's a tremendous player."
Reese credited his mother with instilling in him the drive to persevere.
"My mom worked hard," he said. "She basically raised five kids on her own. She's a strong black woman. I think that's where I get it from."
He expects his mother to attend Opening Night in Baltimore and the home opener in Boston. And he hopes his father, with whom he reunited in 2000 after a long estrangement, turns out as well. His father lives on Long Island.
"I help him whenever I can," Reese said. "I'm a nice kid. I know how to forgive."