Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Load-Out

There are reasons for what happened to the Cincinnati Reds in the 2012 MLB Playoffs. There are explanations and even excuses for squandering a 2-0 series lead against the San Francisco Giants by dropping three straight games at your home ballpark. Advancing in the postseason would have been preferred, obviously, but boy if this season wasn't a heaping pile of steps in the right direction. I mean, the Reds pulled out an impressive 97 victories, running away with the NL Central division like Usain Bolt racing the cast of The Biggest Loser. The squad was one mere win away from taking their opening-round playoff series, a position that plenty of other ball clubs would have gladly traded fates for while watching the games from their sofas. Regardless of how it ended, it was still a great season. Plus, there's always next year.

That's one way to look at things. It's probably the best and most rational point of view, really, considering the fact that sports are just entertainment and those losses were just games and this season was the best the team has had since winning it all in 1990. There are real issues in the world today, like the election and the economy and education and probably something else important that starts with the letter “e” if I thought long enough. As my 8th grade math teacher used to say, “It's not tragic, but it's not good either.” If the worst part of your day is a baseball team ending its season sooner than you had hoped, well, you probably have to chalk that one up in the “not too shabby” column when everything is said and done.

All of this is true.

Except that sports have become much more than entertainment in today's culture, and the money that's going in (and coming back out) is stacked far too high to just dismiss these games as trivial or unimportant or something with which to pass the time. Sure, there are things in life of much greater importance, and at times we do lose sight of that when it comes to our athletic rooting interests. But the old cliché of “don't tell me that sports don't matter” has some validity to it. Maybe it's because of the communal aspect and triumph of human spirit and the joy and togetherness and interaction it spawns among family and friends and relative strangers. Or maybe it's just because we like sports and want our teams to win. I assume the answer falls somewhere between those two. Either way, “It's just a game” is never something uttered by the winners.

And that's why the Cincinnati Reds' complete and utter collapse in the NLDS totally sucks. We the fans can offer up all of the explanations and excuses we want — Johnny Cueto got hurt, Joey Votto's knee still isn't 100 percent healthy, Mat Latos got jobbed on what should have been a called third-strike — but that in no way diminishes how disappointing the series and, subsequently, this season ended up. Yeah, winning 97 games and a division title is great. But if it's followed immediately by blowing a seemingly in-the-bag lead and laying a giant turd in front of your hometown fans for three straight days, what's the point? They don't hand out diamond-encrusted rings for a strong regular season. This isn't fat camp.

I could easily roar off on a lengthy tangent about this simply being another example of how dreadful Cincinnati sports have been for the better part of my lifetime — how everything after the 1990 wire-to-wire Reds has been nothing but failure and incompetence, with the few flickers of improved-but-ultimately-fleeting success the only things separating us from Cleveland sports fans. I could drone on about putrid seasons by the Reds and Bengals, playoff berths that ended far too quickly, and Kenyon Martin's shattered fibula. I could drum up all of my feelings about Stanley Wilson's coke binge or Carson Palmer's busted knee or the absolute and irreversible breakdown of Ken Griffey Jr.'s entire body over a multi-year span. But I'm not up for it. Whether it stands alone or is tossed on the massive pile of Cincy sports suckfests, the Reds collapse hits in a place that hurts. Yeah, there are more important things, but it doesn't change the outcome of this one. It's not tragic, but it sure isn't good either.

Longtime Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty wrote post-choke: “The Reds still should be playing, and they aren’t. They were outhit and outmanaged. They let die a once-in-a-generation chance. ... It’s darned near impossible to duplicate the sort of season the Reds had, to make the playoffs this year. The karma, the chemistry, the health. It doesn’t align like this much, for small-money teams.”

Doc is right. The last 20 years is proof enough that entering the playoffs with a legitimate chance to win is not a year-to-year thing, at least for the majority of teams. It's not even a semi-regular thing. For the Reds, this was the first time in 22 years that a World Series ring would have been anything short of miraculous, assuming any championship is to begin with. And yet, the Redlegs let it slip away in dramatic and demoralizing fashion. Maybe the team, the fans and the city will all have that same chance again next October. Unfortunately, history suggests otherwise.

Jackson Browne once sang, “But the only time that seems too short / is the time that we get to play.” This holds true for the 2012 Cincinnati Reds, in spite of all the good — and there was quite a bit — that came along the way.

But hey, at least there's always next year. Which is both the best and worst thing about sports.


Thanks for reading

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