Thursday, September 30, 2010

And This One Belongs To The Reds

Tough to script it any better.

As the crack off of Jay Bruce’s home-run swing rang out in Great American Ballpark, a sound amplified by both the sweet part of the bat and the gravity of the situation, the Cincinnati Reds clinched the National League Central Title. The game ended, literally and figuratively, with a bang.

For the first time since 1995, the Cincinnati Reds are in the playoffs, earning a postseason berth with a 3-2 victory over the Astros on Tuesday night. The Reds – the first professional baseball team back in 1869, a team that beat the 1919 “Black Sox” in the World Series, a team that dominated the 1970s as the “Big Red Machine”, a team that shocked the league by winning the title in 1990 – are finally back at the top of the standings.

The last time the Redlegs were playing ball in October, Barry Larkin was MVP, Larry Sanders was in his prime, and Bret Boone (not Bob Boone, not Aaron Boone) was in the midst of his stint with the ballclub. It has been a long, loooonnnggg drought since then, save for a ’99 season that resulted in 96 wins, but no playoff berth. There was a lot of blame to be passed around during those years. Now, there are finally a lot of congratulations to dish out.

First and foremost, a great deal of credit is due to Walt Jocketty, General Manager of the team. Since being named to the position in 2008, Jocketty has promised to bring success and championships to Cincinnati. I, among many others, was skeptical at the time. Some of the moves and decisions he has made since then left me scratching my head and feeling even more skeptical. Turns out the man had a plan all along, which is why he is the General Manager of a baseball team, and I’m just a jackass college kid writing this column.

Credit should also be served to both CEO Bob Castellini and manager Dusty Baker who brought respect and experience to an organization that desperately needed it. Baker is a man that has taken a lot of flack in the past for coming up short and not being able to get things done (most notably in Chicago), but it’s hard to argue that he had a positive impact with this team. He did a great job of managing the mix of veterans and youngsters, and I think his loyalty to his players (which some have said has aided in his past shortcomings) really paid off with this squad. Castellini deserves recognition for taking a mid-market ballclub with a mid-market payroll to the top of the division, especially in one that includes the bigger-payroll St. Louis Cardinals and mega-payroll Chicago Cubs. That’s not an easy thing to do in a league with no salary cap.

But even with all the work that Jocketty, Castellini, and Baker have done to reach this point, you certainly can’t neglect the players. Joey Votto (who should be named the NL MVP this year) has paced the team all season with his Triple Crown-esque numbers, and proven that St. Louis no longer has the best first baseman in the game. Brandon Phillips was a rock in the field and at the plate. Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera have added stable, calming, veteran influence, something that was necessary on a team with a bunch of youngsters. At the time, the signings of both players seemed about five seasons too late. But again, I’m just a jacka…well you get the point.

You also have to applaud the young, everyday players like Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce; true, their play throughout the season was more erratic than the mood swings of a 17-year-old girl, but they always seemed to come up big when they had to, something that was never more obvious than during the clinching game on Tuesday (Bruce with the game-winner, Stubbs with a 2-run homer-robbing catch earlier in the night). The bench came up huge too, with guys like Hanigan, Heisey, Nix, Janish, and Cairo filling in very well when called upon.

But the most impressive aspect of the team, far and away, was the performance of the young pitching. Bronson Arroyo served as the elder statesman, setting the stage for the youthful cannons of Cueto, Volquez, Wood, Leake, and Bailey. Oh, and then there is flame-throwing reliever Aroldis Chapman, fresh off the boat from Cuba, who makes throwing 104 mph fastballs look easier than selling cocaine to Lindsay Lohan. Sure, the kids had some hiccups along the way, but for a bunch of guys barely older than me to come in and play the way they did this season, remarkable doesn’t even begin to describe it.

And finally, the best thing about all of this – the players, the management, the season as a whole – is what it means for the city of Cincinnati and major league baseball. The truth is, the game of baseball is better off when a team like Cincinnati plays well and has success, similar to the Chicago Bears in football, the New York Knicks in basketball, and the Montreal Canadiens in hockey. Aside from that, it’s great for the city. Ask anyone who was around during the 70s (umm…not me), and they’ll tell you how electric Cincinnati was, all because of guys like Rose, Morgan, and Bench.

The city, which most would probably consider a “middle-class” area, has been hit hard by the economic downturn. A good baseball club helps to alleviate some of those problems. Plus, for the first time since the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, both professional sports teams are relatively successful. The Bengals (whom I promise to comment on in a couple weeks) went to the Super Bowl during the ’88-’89 season, followed by a Reds’ World Series win in ’90. A pair of Division Championships between the two teams (Bengals last year, Reds now) might not exactly measure up, but at least it’s a start. Cincinnati doesn’t always get a lot of credit for being a downtrodden sports town (thanks largely to the LeBron-less losers up north), but for the better part of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, we were bottom-rung. At least for now, we are dregs no more.

Can the Reds keep it going? Can they streak towards an NL Pennant, or even a sixth World Series ring? Hard to say. The San Francisco Giants don’t exactly put the fear of God into me, and the Atlanta Braves don’t appear to have the horses to keep up. But the Philadelphia Phillies are a juggernaut, and there are numerous clubs in the AL that will give the Reds more than a little trouble. Nevertheless, the Reds have a shot, something you couldn’t have said for the past decade and a half. Heck, if they can keep this squad intact and focused, they could have a shot for the next few years. But that’s not important. What’s important is where they are now. It’s not quite the top, but it’s getting close. And at the present time, the air up here smells pretty damn sweet.


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Monday, September 13, 2010

Bad Behavior Goes Rewarded

The NFL season is finally underway, and no one is more excited for it than yours truly. Between rooting for the Bengals, rooting against everyone else (especially those women-disrespecting-Steelers), playing Fantasy Football, and gambling, the start of football season is a long-awaited prize. However, I can’t help but notice the one blinding, glaring, upside-down aspect of the NFL; for a league that is so concerned with the image it promotes and the standards it upholds (oh, and the money it makes), it is shocking how much the league rewards its members for bad behavior.

I know, I know. My Bengals are the perfect example of bad behavior getting rewarded: Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson, Ced Benson, Terrell Owens…the list goes on forever. But the problem is beyond that. Yes, it is somewhat ridiculous that Pacman Jones can have a rap-sheet as long as Omar from The Wire and still get a spot on a roster. It is somewhat ridiculous that T.O. can be a human grenade (not the kind from Jersey Shore) within numerous franchises, and still continue to sign multi-million dollar contracts, or that Michael Vick can cruelly murder innocent animals and still get consideration as a starting quarterback. Yes, I see the insanity in all of that. But to be honest, it only scratches the surface of the NFL’s propensity to compensate misconduct.

Look at Ben Roethlisberger. Despite the fact that I would hate Big Ben even if he was saving seagulls from the oil spill during the day and ridding the world of graffiti by night, he is a great example of how the league rewards players, especially its stars, for bad behavior. The man has two instances of sexual assault over the past two years, both of which garnered legal action, as well as attention from the police and the league. And regardless of what you think about the cases or the validity of the charges against him, the league deemed his actions questionable enough to garner a suspension.

In April of this year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Ben for the first six games of this season, for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Should he have gotten more games? Less? Irrelevant, because he was given six, so that’s just the way it should have been. Except that not even five months later, Ben’s suspension was reduced to four games. Why is this exactly? Was the fact that Roethlisberger had avoided an arrest for less than half a year warranting of two games off the sentence? Is the absence of controversy – the lack of bad behavior – really worthy of leniency? Prisoners don’t even get parole hearings after five months. You give a kid candy for succeeding at his toilet training, not for making himself constipated.

Exhibit B: Darrelle Revis. Revis is widely considered the top defensive player in the league. He shuts-down opposing wide receivers as easily as Eminem makes white people think they have flow. And after an incredible season last year, in which Revis helped lead the Jets to the AFC Championship game, Darrelle felt he deserved to be a little better compensated. Despite being smack in the middle of his six-year rookie contract, Revis felt that the $1 million he was slated to receive this season wasn’t enough (and considering his profession and performance, he’s probably right). So the Jets’ cornerback decided he would sit out the season until his organization compensated him properly. He essentially quit on his team and his city, skipping organized team activities, training camp, and preseason, just so he could pad his wallet. And what was his punishment? He signed a four-year, $46 million contract, with $32 million guaranteed, and got his starting spot back without any offseason reps. Try not showing up to work for the next two months, and see how willing they are to throw money at you.

You can go back and look at the NFL over the past few years and undoubtedly see more and more examples of players, coaches, and management getting some type of reward, despite what most would consider “douchy” behavior. And it could all culminate after this season, with the impending lockout looking more and more ominous. According to all of those in the know, there is a very real possibility that we will not have professional football in 2011, or at least not on schedule. Why? Well, to those within in the league (players and owners alike), it’s due to a lot of logistics and numerous details, some of which are probably reasonable and deserved – especially on the players side of the argument. But to the fans, the reason there might be no football is simple dollars and sense. The average football lover, and general public as a whole, could really care less about the inside details of the labor arguments. In our eyes, we see two sides of millionaires arguing over money. We have no sympathy for that. All we want is football.

We have to make sure we enjoy the NFL this season. Cherish the comfort in knowing that with each new Sunday that comes around, we will have a new batch of games to watch. Because if the NFL stays true to itself, this collective bargaining process will end in a long, pointless, stupid holdout, resulting only in us as fans paying more money for tickets, merchandise, and TV packages, all while our interest continues to grow and the players and owners receive more and more money. Or, as it’s known around the league, business as usual.


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