SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- For the soon-to-be-22-year-old, there's little that Cincinnati Reds pitching phenom Homer Bailey hasn't already heard -- be they questions from the media or attempts at wit from the fans -- when it comes to his baseball-centric nickname (for the record, his given name is David Dewitt Bailey).
In a game where the catchier the nickname the better, it almost seems that a kid nicknamed "Homer" in honor of his great-grandfather would be destined to play baseball. But when you're a pitcher instead of a hitter, it can lead to a little catcalling.
Which, for Bailey, has gotten about as old as his much-loved and well-worn cowboy boots. So his advice is, unless you can come up with something witty, please keep it to yourself.
"Everyone tries to make a story about it and, you know, after about the 20th time, you're like, 'Find something else!'" Bailey laughed. "A fan cannot say anything I haven't heard before about my name being Homer. Think of something new! I want to see some creativity!"
Sitting with his Louisville Bats teammates in the visiting clubhouse in Syracuse, N.Y., watching television at 11 a.m. on a Friday morning, Bailey couldn't really be blamed had he declined to chat with yet one more reporter.
During a long Spring Training in which he vied for a spot in the Reds rotation until the final week, the 2004 first-round pick was very much under the media magnifying glass.
But, while he was considered by most to be in the running for one of the last three spots from the get-go, Bailey himself did not come into Grapefruit League action with any sense of entitlement or exalted expectations.
After all, last spring, coming off a 2006 Minor League campaign where he dominated at both Class A Advanced Sarasota and Double-A Chattanooga, with a combined 153 strikeouts in 138 2/3 innings, there were whispers that the then-20-year-old could make the club out of Spring Training. Instead, he stumbled out of the gate with control issues and was one of the first cuts.
He regrouped for a hot start in '07 at Triple-A Louisville, posting a 1.89 ERA in his first nine starts there. He made his big-league debut June 8 at home against interstate (and future Arizona Spring Training) rival Cleveland, getting the win after allowing two runs over five innings.
But inconsistency was his downfall during his first six-week stint in the bigs. He had two brilliant starts, giving up one run over seven and five innings, respectively. In his other three starts, however, he allowed 18 earned runs over 11 1/3 innings before heading back to Louisville.
He lasted just two starts with the Bats in July before landing on the DL with a groin strain, and he remained sidelined until returning to action in Cincinnati in September. The second time around he posted a very respectable 3.71 ERA in three starts down the stretch.
This spring, he once again had control issues early on, with inconsistency again the biggest problem. When he was sent back to Minor League camp late in March, he took the reassignment with equanimity, and if his first two outings of 2008 are any indication, he should be more than ready when that inevitable call comes.
In fact, the early results with Louisville have been nothing short of brilliant. Flashing the blazing fastball and knee-buckling curve that have tantalized Reds fans, he's posted an 0.71 ERA in 12 2/3 innings, walking one and striking out nine.
As the Bats' Opening Day pitcher at Syracuse on April 3, he allowed one run on five hits over seven seemingly effortless innings of work, walking one and striking out two.
"Any time you go seven innings and give up one run, you can't really be too picky about it," said Bailey, whose lone run was a partially wind-aided homer by Chiefs outfielder Adam Lind in the fourth inning, a shot that barely bounced off the center-field wall on its way out. "I told (center fielder) Jay (Bruce), 'You know, I just gave you the perfect opportunity for a web gem there, but that's alright.'"
In his second outing on April 8 against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, he was even better, striking out seven and walking one over 5 2/3 shutout innings.
As Bailey kicked back in a cold and rainy visitors' dugout less than 24 hours after that impressive 2008 debut and, blessedly, not long before that day's game was called due to lousy weather, he was refreshingly candid and upbeat.
Wearing the pointy-toed boots that are nearly half his own age and speaking with a drawl that gives away his LaGrange, Texas, roots, Bailey certainly stands out among the ballplayers. So perhaps it's no surprise that Canadian-born organization-mate Joey Votto called him the most unusual person he'd met so far in his career.
"He's a cowboy," Votto said of the lanky 6-foot-4 right-hander. "I'd never met a real cowboy before, with the Wranglers and the cowboy hat."
And like any good cowboy, Bailey loves his country music. So when asked about the "coolest" thing he'd ever done, the answer had nothing to do with any of his baseball exploits, but rather a memorable experience he'd had while on the DL last summer.
"I got to hang out with Merle Haggard on his bus last year!" said Bailey, his eyes lighting up at the memory.
Ironically, Bailey's chance to meet the music legend, who has more than three dozen No. 1 country music chart-toppers to his credit, would likely not have come about had Bailey not been injured.
He was rehabbing in Cincinnati in early August when a friend called and suggested they head north to tiny Preble, Ohio, where Haggard was headlining at the Preble County Fair.
"It was just a small county fair," he recalled with a smile. "You know, I'm kind of used to those."
It wasn't a matter of them using Bailey's already well-known name as an up-and-coming Reds star to snag tickets. They simply walked up to the gate, bought their general admission tickets and headed over to the stage.
Once there, though, it wasn't long before some die-hard Reds fans on hand for the show recognized Bailey and approached him for his autograph.
"I didn't have a problem with that at all," he said, "but an usher came up and said, 'Hey, if you don't want to deal with that I can see if we can get you backstage.'"
Who was going to turn down that kind of offer? While hanging out with his friend backstage, Bailey struck up a conversation with some local policemen and members of the sheriffs department, and one of them quickly headed over to the local Wal-Mart to buy a box of baseballs for Bailey to sign.
"Hey, they let me hang out backstage, I figured that was the least I could do," Bailey recalled. "But when Merle Haggard was walking out, he saw me doing that and asked his manager who I was."
While Haggard performed what turned out to be a rain-shortened set, Bailey enjoyed the up-close access, the refreshments (some homemade cake, "which was outstanding by the way") and the company, including several members of Haggard's road crew.
"They asked me if I wanted to go on his bus and meet him after the show, and I was like, 'Yeah!!!'" he said. "So I got to go on his bus and hang out with him and talk to him! He's a real nice guy, very down to earth, just a cool man."