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.

Thanks for reading

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