Note: I'm resurrecting this blog to pay proper homage to the 2010 Cincinnati Reds baseball season. Maybe I'll even crap out a blog post here and there from this point forward. Who can say?
I was 14-years-old in 1995. It was three years prior to my brief "I'm too cool for sports" phase when I attempted to adopt the 7 Seconds song "I Hate Sports" as some sort of anthem. It was a ridiculous and trivial facade. In late elementary school and throughout junior high, I was a sports junkie. I wore a killer Florida Marlins Starter jacket and a St. Louis Blues wool hat as my day-to-day uniform. There was no rhyme or reason to my choosing these teams as articles of clothing. I just wore anything affiliated with sports. I mean, why the fuck did I have a St. Louis Blues hat? Aside from playing NHL '94 on Sega Genesis until my thumbs cramped up, I didn't really hold much affinity for hockey or really follow it a lick, aside from occasionally checking the sports section of the Cincinnati Enquirer to see how the Cincinnati Cylones--a minor league rogue hockey team--had fared the night before. I actually think I still have a signed Ray LeBlanc hockey card tucked away somewhere. But I digress . . .
Baseball was always my focal point growing up. I was a chubby, timid kid with little skill at running and even less desire (or parental consent) to seek full contact. If it hadn't been for a grueling streak of conditioning my freshman year of high school, I may have even stuck through tryouts and made the junior varsity team. It was possible. I swear I didn't suck. Sure, I played the "just stick him there" position other than right field, but I was serviceable at first base and most importantly, I could hit. I never played on shitty teams (a few flirted with state tournaments), always had solid chemistry with teammates/friends, and was raised by great coaches who possessed the rare desire to both win and teach the kids a thing or two in the process.
I remember watching every game of the 1991 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves and still legitimately think it was the best seven-game-series I've ever witnessed in my life (sorry, 2004 Red Sox). Aside from two games, every game of the series was decided by one run, and three of them went into extra innings, including a decisive Game 7 that ended in a 1-0 Twins victory with a Gene Larkin single to score Dan Gladden from third (I was actually forced to go to bed and didn't catch the end of the game. You're damn right I haven't forgiven my mom for this injustice). The Reds had swept the A's in four games the year before, and seeing that the Twins' Kirby Puckett was my baseball hero, you can probably see why the two year stretch was a bit of a defining moment for me in baseball terms. Add in a Joe Carter walk-off home run against the Phillies' Mitch Williams to win the Series in 1993, and you have a wicked stretch of baseball that had me digging my heels in.
The strike came in 1994. Already 114 games into the season, the Reds were in the midst of a solid 66-48 season (with the poor Expos at 70-44, believe it or not), quite possibly losing another chance at an extended playoff run. The 1995 season had a delayed start due to the eventually resolved labor dispute and only contained 144 regular season games. So, until this year the Reds hadn't earned a trip to the playoffs following a proper 162-game regular season since the team's World Series run in 1990. That's just kind of fucked, isn't it?
With a roster that included pitchers like John Smiley, Pete Schourek, David Wells, Frank Viola, Dave Burba, and the one-and-only Jeff Brantley and fielders by the name of Barry Larkin, Hal Morris, Bret Boone, Deion and Reggie Sanders, and Ron Gant, the Davey Johnson-managed ballclub found itself in the NLCS against a far superior Atlanta Braves team that promptly swept them on its way to the team's only World Series under the supposedly immortal Bobby Cox.
So, what happened in the 15 years between playoff appearances? Well, aside from the blip in 2000 when the Reds lost a play-in game to the New York Mets, the simple answer is that the team adopted a system that sucked unless you had assloads of money to throw at players that would probably end up heading to New York or Boston anyway.
Now, I was as big a Ken Griffey Jr. fan as anyone. I stood by his side as he never played more than 150 games in any of his nine seasons in Cincinnati. I stood by his side as he played a position he just wasn't suited for any longer and consequently injured himself by forcing his body to do things it couldn't. I stood by his side when he showed obvious disinterest in his team by lazily running out ground balls. Let's be honest, though, Griffey was a massive part of the problem for the Reds between 2000 and 2010.
The Reds built a home run hitters ballpark with a short right field so hitters like Griffey and the epitome of all evil, Adam Dunn, could tear the covers off the balls as we all watched wide-eyed while home run after home run landed in the Ohio River. Actually, check that. The Reds built that ballpark for Griffey. No doubt about it. Maybe the steroid era is to blame or maybe ownership had diluted itself to think that all the city needed was a hometown hero. Regardless, we threw big money at a big name player all the while expecting him to make everything well and good. Like I said before, if you're not the Yankees and can't attract a slew of A-Rods and Mark Teixeiras, this approach is straight bullshit. Living in Chicago, I (happily) watch the Cubs fuck up each year as they heave stupid amounts of money at second tier players (Soriano, Lee, Ramirez, etc) that simply weren't worth the Yankees or Red Sox time of day. They give superstar money to eventual stiffs and wonder what the hell went wrong? Sorry, Cubbies, it's not about any sort of a curse. You just suck as an organization.
So, why has baseball become king again in Cincinnati (well, at least until the Bengals fool the public into thinking they're worth a damn), and why am I so damn excited about the playoffs? It's plain and simple, and you've heard it before--building from the ground up by recruiting some seasoned, hardened baseball players who have been there and done that (Scott Rolen, Orlando Cabrera) and surrounding them with young talent that has worked it's way through the farm system and/or college ball (Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake). That's how small market teams like the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays and Cincinnati Reds become worth a shit.
I've waited 15 years for this. I don't expect the Reds to win the World Series, and I'd probably keel over if they even made it there, but it's nice to see my devotion to baseball, the Reds, and even Cincinnati sports for that matter finally starting to pay off. Now, if we could just rally together to send the Astros to the four-team AL West so all of the MLB divisions will be equally fair with five teams, and abolish the travesty that is the season opener on Sunday night, thus restoring order by allowing Cincinnati to host the first game of the proper baseball season, I'm pretty sure all would be right with the world.
Note: I began writing this the Tuesday evening prior to the opening of the postseason in which we were all treated to a no-hitter by Roy Halladay. It was utterly painful and initially put a damper on this blog post. I said fuck it, though, and finished it anyway. I'm glad I did.