Saturday, August 18, 2012

New Red Machine

The Cincinnati Reds might be the best team in Major League Baseball. And you might have had no idea.

At the risk of jinxing all of this (and I pray that I don’t have that much power), my hometown Redlegs currently sit atop the National League Central division, a handful of games up on the (resilient and impressive) Pittsburgh Pirates. We (yes, I’m an adamant user of ‘we’ in relation to sports teams I root for) have been consistently flirting with the Washington Nationals for the best record in baseball — not just the NL, but the whole league — and have done so without our best player for the past month. When you look at the standings and the stats, we are on the short list of those at the top. This much, I know.

Nevertheless, I am careful not to make a definitive statement about the team’s level of prowess. Claiming that the Reds “might” be the best team is far different than crowning us with anything. “Might” because, while we’ve played well without recent NL MVP Joey Votto, we’re going to need him to return to form if we plan to make any type of October run. “Might” because we haven’t been in this position much in recent years, and got swept out of the playoffs when we made it two autumns ago. “Might” because there is still a month and a half left in the season. “Might” because you become the best by getting rings, not by merely leading a division that also claims the Cubs and Astros.

Etching in the Reds as the best team in the sport, at the moment, would be foolish. But we’re squarely in the conversation — a conversation that I feel is less boisterous than it probably merits.

People in Cincinnati and that follow this team know this is a good squad. Those that keep tabs on the club on a nightly basis know they are watching quality baseball. Even those who devote their careers to analyzing the league as a whole have the Reds on their radar. And yet it’s all seemingly overshadowed by the bigger and brighter lights found elsewhere.

But does that matter?

Obviously, the national media will always focus more on the big-market teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Mets, Cubs) regardless of whether they are playing well or poorly (and often especially when they are playing poorly). The Nationals, who have largely sucked since they moved down from Montreal a few years ago, are the only team at the moment with a better record than the Reds, and have begun garnering more and more attention on the big stage, aided by the star power of youngsters Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. The same could be said of the Texans and Angels, who have both seen an increase in on-field success and stud ballplayers in recent seasons (Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout).

It's not as if the Reds are being tossed on the back burner in lieu of crappier or less important teams (or more accurately, teams that are simultaneously crappy and less important). They're just being regularly clumped in with those teams in terms of coverage and exposure. It would be ridiculous to bemoan the Red Sox for getting so much coverage in spite of having a pretty bad season – that's just the way sports coverage works. It's simply intriguing that the Reds aren't more celebrated for having a pretty good season.

But does that matter?

When Joey Votto is healthy and on the field (which he has been quite consistently, save for the last month while dealing with a knee injury), it is my opinion that I am watching the best Reds player of my lifetime (and unquestionably one of the top players in the game today). The obvious counter argument to this is Barry Larkin (although it should have been Ken Griffey Jr.), and it's a good one at that. The newly inducted Hall of Famer and Reds lifer won a World Series (in '90, which I don't exactly remember) and a ton of hardware (including an MVP) during my lifetime. If Votto's career for some reason ended right now (which would totally blow), then yes, Larkin would have to go down as the best. But if Votto competes at even 80-90% of what he has been for the foreseeable future (and it's actually quite reasonable that he could be better), he trumps Larkin in my mind. Also, if you are wondering why Votto's star power doesn't have the same type of impact for the Reds that Harper and Strasburg have for the Nationals, it's because Votto is almost painfully boring – which is totally fine with me.

Beyond this squad claiming (arguably) the franchise's best player during my lifetime, it's also easily arguable that it contains the best defensive player (Brandon Phillips) and most exciting/impressive player (Aroldis Chapman) of my existence. Guys like Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce and NL Rookie of the Year candidate Todd Frazier are all noteworthy as well, as are guys like Ryan Ludwick and Scott Rolen, both of whom “embody what this team and this city are all about.” (This is how fans stereotypically praise players that work hard, are great teammates and are well-liked, but might not be — or in Rolen's case, may no longer be — the most talented/skilled/consistent guys on the roster.) The starting rotation is the only one in the league to have used the same five guys through the first 120 games of the season (a streak ended not by injury, but by a 26th man call-up for a weekend double-header). All told, it's quite the lineup...even if casual fans of the sport don't know half the names.

But does that matter?

Maybe I'm exaggerating things. Maybe the Reds have been getting more attention than I'm giving credit for. It certainly doesn't seem that way to me, but I don't exactly have an unbiased eye. The fact that I'm invested enough to believe in this apparent slight is intriguing though. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've lost interest with the team down the stretch a few times during the course of my life. It's hard to stay attentive for 162 games when the last half of them are being played nowhere near the vicinity of first place. It's the biggest factor in why I've always been a bigger football and Bengals fan than a Reds and baseball fan. I can stay invested in a terrible team when they don't even play 20 games in a season (and at times, boy have I). But 162? I'm not a robot. I never stop rooting, but I'm far from fanatic. Attendance would suggest that a lot of Reds (and baseball) fans feel the same way. We overreact when things are good and bad. We're always loyal, we just aren't always positive. Cincinnati is a fickle city and we're a fickle fanbase, as are most. When it comes to sports, delusional is the only other option.

But this year seems to be different. The front office has gone all-in. Contracts have been extended. Core players have been retained. Big signings, trades and risks have been made. The team appears much closer to the rich history of the '70s than to the suckfests of the '00s. Management has done its job, and thus far, so have the guys on the field. Those in the Reds organization have done their part — a competitive, winning baseball team — to earn attention and support from a fanbase that has long requested exactly that. So far, we (the fans) seem to be reciprocating, as we very well should. There's certainly no excuse for the contrary.

And ultimately, that's really all that matters.

Thanks for reading

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