Monday, July 12, 2010

Let the Streets Run Red

I have spent a great deal of words in this forum on my beloved Cincinnati Bengals, and in no way do I regret or apologize for this. I am a die-hard, life-long fan of the team, and while I admit that I care waaaayyyy too much about the history, controversy, success (or lack thereof), and current status of the squad, they are something that I am passionate about and interested in. The Bengals also happen to be one of the few things that I am actually knowledgeable of (other than Bob Dylan, cereal, and Seinfeld trivia), and this is my blog, so when I want to write about them, I do. Nevertheless, I do regret that I have largely neglected another of my hometown rooting interests: the Cincinnati Reds.

I will openly confess that my love and interest in the local baseball team comes nowhere close to my obsessive, stalkerish infatuation with the Bengals, but I have been following and rooting for the Reds for just as long as I have been following and rooting for the “men in stripes.” I grew up playing baseball, learning the game, and watching the Redlegs, always wishing they could escape the same pit of small-market mediocrity that the Bengals have seemingly been trapped in for the better part of my existence. Luckily, the Reds history is a little brighter than that of the Bengals.

Aside from being the first professional baseball team ever back in 1869, they are also largely regarded as having the best team in the sport’s history, during the 1970s era of “The Big Red Machine.” The franchise has five World Series Titles, including two from the mid-70s, when the historic squad featured legends such as Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez. The team’s most recent championship came in 1990, about a year after I was born.

I also have somewhat of a special connection with the Reds thanks to my grandfather Omar Williams, who closely covered the team as the “Dean of Sports” in Dayton, working as a broadcaster with the local news. My father too passed on his love of the team, much in the same way he did with the Bengals. (Not coincidentally, my father is also much more passionate about the Bengals than the Reds, yet still a big fan all the same.)

And while I may be much too young to remember all the great things about the Reds rich history, my own history, love of the game, and connection to the city have made me a lifelong fan nonetheless. I can remember watching guys like Barry Larkin, Brett Boone and Sean Casey while growing up, and even Deion Sanders during his stint with the team. I have a distinct memory of going to a game and watching a young infielder by the name of Pokey Reese play in one of his first contests, and – despite the fact that Pokey would later go on to earn a Gold Glove for his outstanding fielding – watching him play like Ray Charles in cleats, committing a bunch of errors. I remember seeing Sean Casey hit a game-winning homerun at a game I went to for my birthday, and how excited I was when the team traded for Ken Griffey Jr. (I also remember how disappointed I was when Griffey tore his hamstring in about 84 different places on about 12 different occasions.) And similar to the Bengals, I remember how disappointing the Reds organization has been over the vast majority of my two-plus decades on this earth.

If it’s any conciliation, the Reds actually have a more legitimate excuse for their struggles over the past few years than the other professional team they share a city with. The lack of a salary cap in professional baseball makes it much tougher for a small-market team like the Reds to keep up with the big boys. Teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cubs can simply outspend the Reds for big-name free agents and star players on the trading block. However, teams like the Florida Marlins, Minnesota Twins, and Tampa Bay Rays have proven that lower-level clubs can keep themselves in contention by making smart draft picks, doing a good job of developing and recognizing younger talent and prospects, and making smart pick-ups of veterans, role players, and chemistry guys. For the longest time, this was always something the Reds have struggled with…until now.

The 2010 Cincinnati Reds are heading into the mid-season All-Star Break in first place of the NL Central Division, a full game ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals and comfortably ahead of everyone else. The ballclub has finally put itself in place to get back to the playoffs and compete for a pennant, thanks in large part to smart front office decisions, talented players, and a little bit of luck.

This organization will never be able to fill their roster with the league’s top players. The days of The Big Red Machine are long gone. The Griffey trade was a shining example of what the Reds shouldn’t do, which was gut their current team and hinder the development of younger players, all to make room for one high-priced superstar who may not (and did not) produce or stay healthy. It took the team a few years (and a revolving door of managers) to recover from these past mistakes, but they have finally shoved themselves back atop their division and back into baseball relevancy.

Why the change? Well, the Reds finally started following the blueprint laid out by those successful small-market teams. They started drafting smarter and working harder at developing those picks. They started trading away high-profile players who were earning or on the cusp of demanding large salaries (Adam Dunn, Josh Hamilton) in order to bring in prospects that would pay off in a couple years. The team is currently ripe with young talent, including position players like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, and Chris Heisey. Even more impressive has been the young pitching that the team has produced, with guys like Edison Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and Travis Wood putting up great numbers at a young age. The successes of Votto and Leake have been two of the top stories in baseball this season, and both are guys the club drafted and developed in-house.

The Reds have started making smart trades and signings in recent years, as well. Brandon Phillips was an underachiever that the Reds grabbed on the cheap and in exchange for very little a few years ago, and the man has turned into a Gold Glove, All-Star second baseman. Why? They noticed the talent, gave him time, and put him in the right situations to develop into a stud player. The squad also added Johnny Gomes, a once highly touted young player who went through some early slumps, injuries, and an inability to find a situation where he could develop his talents. The Reds have given him that chance, and it has more than paid off through the first half of this year.

It doesn’t end there. There was a lot of head-scratching among Reds fans when the team picked up veterans Scott Rolen, Orlando Cabrera, and Arthur Rhodes the past couple of seasons, all guys that are a little too expensive and a little too old for a club like Cincinnati. Why risk overpaying a player (or players) that is on the verge of being washed-up and a huge injury threat? Well, because the Reds recognized that these guys still had a little left in the tank, but more importantly, could be great role models and chemistry/character guys for a team with so many young players. Maybe they can no longer set the world on fire, but they work hard, are consistent, and are a great example for the rest of the guys. And as long as they aren’t complete busts (which they haven’t been), can stay healthy (which they have been) and produce (Rolen and Rhodes were named to the All-Star team), then it’s basically found money.

The young pitching staff can gain invaluable information from a lifer like Rhodes. Votto, Bruce, and the rest of the diaper dandies can look at a guy like Rolen and see how a major leaguer should carry himself. Cabrera’s commitment to defense has had a huge impact on the rest of the club, especially Phillips and Votto. These were all things that Reds’ management knew they would get from their veteran pick-ups; the impressive stats were things they hoped for and knew were a possibility. So either way, management knew the decisions would simply pay-off, but could possibly hit the lottery, too. And so far, jackpot.

But the thing that makes baseball so different from the other major sports is the fact that it covers 162 games and seven months of the year. That, and the fact that each of those 162 games can be excruciatingly long and boring, is probably why it is harder for me to be as passionate about the Reds as I am about the Bengals. It’s a lot easier to get jacked-up for 20 games of football a year than it is for 200 games of baseball. But the length of each season also offers up more and more chances for a team to discover and define themselves well before the season is over. Yeah, things can still go wrong. The Reds may be in first place now – but we’re only half way done. Will Votto get hurt? Will Phillips slump? Will Rolen and Rhodes burn out? Will the young pitching get shaky? All of these things are real possibilities. But they could just easily go the other way, leading to a bunch of good things happening and an even stronger ballclub in the second half.

More realistically, ninety games serves as a good sample size, and has shown us who the Reds are. Yeah, the relief pitching stinks and the young guns can fluctuate more than Lindsay Lohan’s blood alcohol level. But the starting pitching is solid, the veterans are consistent, and Votto and Phillips are clutch on the field and at the plate. History shows us that in baseball, the second half will yield fairly similar results. By now, we have a pretty good idea of what this team will be come late September…and it doesn’t look too shabby.

A World Series is a long-shot. A pennant seems too good to be true. The playoffs could be gone in the blink of a series sweep. But regardless of how it ends, the Cincinnati Reds have clawed their way back into these conversations. They’ve given the Queen City a baseball squad that we can once again get excited for. And it’s about time we – myself included – start talking about them.

Thanks for reading