Having moved away from my small area of the world where there are no professional sports teams to root for, I’m sometimes asked why the teams that I do root for are so random. If you’re from Pittsburgh, you root for the Steelers, Pirates, and Pens.To fill in the basketball season time, you have the Pitt Panthers. It’s where you come from, and those are your teams.
When you come from a town of 1107–maybe half that these days–that rests 40 or so miles east of Charleston, West Virginia, river roads and a mountain that overlooks the delta where the New and Gauley birth the Kanawha, there aren’t any teams. Those Pittsburgh teams are the closest, and they’re three hours away by car. Not that I knew that during those years when I was making such monumental decisions as which teams to follow. Back then, when I’d never been more than 75 miles from home, Pittsburgh was just one more place in the everywhere and everything of that endless world that I didn’t know.
But you have to make decisions without locality as a factor. When I was a boy, with the conception I had concerning such matters, there were three sports that mattered, baseball, football, and basketball. Those were the big three. There would be a time when I would decide that the Philadelphia Flyers were my hockey team, but that decision was most likely made purely because I felt I needed a hockey team, as hockey touched no part of my world; I knew nothing about the rules, and games were never on TV. I don’t recall if I kept up with the standings in the paper or not, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have told you more than one player’s name on the Flyers roster, if I could even tell you one.
No, Hockey wasn’t really much worth considering.
The other three, however, the big three, those were worthy of great consideration.We were boys–my brother Steve was four years older than I was–and sports defined so much of us.
At times, I’ve wondered why my sons don’t seem to have the same interest in pro sports that we did, and I now know that it boils down to economic standing. We had very little when I was growing up, always just enough but most times quite slight, and I got very little when compared to all that Becky and I have been able to give Finn and Simon. And sports were free, or almost free. My parents got the afternoon paper, and we had TV a lot of the time. We didn’t always have TV, but we did more often than not. Occasionally, my dad would come up with some reason to have the cable turned off, but that was usually to cover up the real reason, which was that money was around much less frequency than TV.
It didn’t matter much about the TV, anyway; yes, it was a treat for me to get to watch the NFL and NBA on Sundays and Monday night and MLB’s Saturday games and Monday night baseball, but I didn’t need the TV to keep up with the team that has become my most beloved.
Dad was a Cincinnati Reds fan, so I became one too. I guess all of my five siblings ultimately became Reds fans too, but none of them took to the team like I did. The Reds broadcasts came to us via 58 CHS on the AM dial, and of the 162 games each year, if I couldn’t watch the game on WSAZ, I at least started 90% of the games listening to Joe and Marty’s call on the radio.
I was listening the night Joe Nuxhall called the replacement umpire a scab, and even with my lack of years, I immediately thought it was going to come back on him. It did. (He’d have been fired, these days.) “And this one belongs to the Reds” and “This is the old left-hander rounding third and heading for home” may have been the most central soundbites of my formative years. They ranked right up there with “You wanted the best, you got the best, the hottest band in the world…” Fill in the band name, if you can; if you can’t, it doesn’t matter anyway.
But the Reds were free, and I had them. Many nights I would listen to them in my room and keep stats, habits that would play into the local sports writing that I would do from ages 14 to 19, a job that Steve handed down to me when he went away to Glenville State College after high school.
I said that I would at least begin 90% of the games listening to the radio, because, in those days of nine and ten, I could seldom make it to the end of a 10:05 start west coast game, much less a 10:35. Those nights when the Reds played late–and there were a lot of them, as the team played in an NL West division that included San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego–and I fell asleep before the game was over, I had to do something hateful when it comes to some boys and the outcomes of their teams’ sporting events, I had to wait.
There was no ESPN crawl or CBS Sportsline.com for me to go to upon waking to find out the final score of a game that had seen the Reds trailin the Padres 3-2 in the fourth when I lost my grip on the last threads of the day. There was nothing but the wait for the afternoon paper.
For the afternoon paper, I’m glad my father was a Democrat. (Dad was a type of southern Christian Democrat that doesn’t exist today.) The afternoon paper was the Democratic paper, so it was the one we always took. You might think that I would have preferred the morning paper, because that would mean I wouldn’t have to spend my whole school day waiting to find out my score, but it wouldn’t have meant that at all. The morning paper went to press at 11, so the results of a west coast game wouldn’t make the paper until the following morning. Waiting that long would have like to have killed me.
So, I spent somewhere in the neighborhood of 27 days of each season waiting for the paper to find out how my Reds had fared.
I’m 50 now, and I still keep up with them just as seriously as I did in those days–I don’t keep any stats–and I’m glad I can turn on the computer to be updated at any time. I don’t miss the waiting all day for results, but I think that having to do that gave me a certain type of patience that my boys may never have.
You hear people being spoken of as being”fair weather fans” in a negative light, but we’re all fair weather fans to a point; it’s human nature for us to be so. We’re more interested in watching things that please us than those that don’t; plus, we’re more inspired to watch a contest when the team or combatant we favor promises to fare well. I’ve always been a Reds fan, never shied away from that, but the decade from 1996-2005 gave us very little inspiration to pay attention to what was going on out there in Western Ohio. The string of years from 2001 to 2005 proving especially futile, the Reds finishing no closer to the top of the division than 19 games in any of those years.
So, it does make it hard to want to keep up with the team on a regular basis. Most of us tend to shy away from things we imagine will be unpleasant, when it’s information that we can shy away from. This being true, I didn’t keep up with the Reds as much as I would have were they in the pennant race. Still, I was no less of a fan; rather, I was just so much of a fan that I didn’t care to keep up with my team’s play on a daily basis.
But I did never shy away from being a Reds fan; I even came up with a cutesy little phase to defend my choice. (I had lots of cutesy little phrases in those days.) I’d say that the good thing about being a Reds fan was that you didn’t have to worry about baseball after Memorial Day, which gave you all that extra time in the summerto do fun things, since you didn’t have to pay any attention to baseball. It was cutesy, but a lot of years it was true. I was still a fan, whether I kept up with them less or not.
This year has been different. The Reds are indeed a losing team; still, I’ve found them much more interesting than one would expect from a team that is 42-62 and 20.5 games out of first as the season closes in on being 2/3 of the way to finished.
The Reds are in rebuilding mode, which means that the team’s front office felt that the previous structure and team nucleus had reached the apex of its potential and decided to start dismantling what was in order to replace it with younger, less expensive players. Fans of pro sports teams hate the term “rebuilding.” The term usually translates to fans as “we’re gonna suck this year,” and sometimes the moves made in a rebuilding situation aren’t so much geared toward putting together a young team with years of potential, but because team ownership is cheap.
The Reds have a history of fine bean counters as owners and managing partners, and those kind of businessmen and women tend to hire fine bean counters as general managers. Thus, over the years of futility, the rebuilding notion was tossed about enough, but there was never much guarantee that the moves weren’t made just to cut costs.
And then we have this year.
The rebuilding started a couple years back, and in those two years the Reds have unloaded Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and Todd Frazier, among others.
Last year was fairly abysmal. The team finished 64-98, thirty-six games out.
Given that all five of the team’s slated starting pitchers were on the disabled list on opening day of this year, I had very little hope for the team’s outlook. There were still aspects of the season that interested me. I was interested in how individual players would fare.
If you know anything about the present Cincinnati Reds team, you know that Joey Votto is the face of it. The only player on the team who has won an NL MVP award (2010) and a 225-million dollar contract, Votto was coming off a season that saw him set personal standards for walks (143) and on-base percentage (.459). When added to his 171 hits, Joey got on 314 times in his official at-bats. Since that came on the heels of the second season of his career shortened by injury–he played in only 62 games in ’14–I was really anxious to see what he would do.
I was also interested in seeing how catcher Devin Mesoraco would fare. Devin came out of about nowhere in 2014, when, in 114 games he gave his team 25 home runs and 80 RBI and made his first all-star team. Then, he lost about the whole 2015 season to injury. I was really hopeful that he would come back and make a big splash with the club.
Then, I was interested in all of the young pitching prospects. The organization has high hopes for Raisel Iglesias, Anthony DeShiafani, Michael Lorenzen, and Brandon Finnegan.
And how has it all turned out? Well, it has been interesting to say the least. The team hasn’t been a good one by a long shot. They found the cellar of the five-team NL Central soon enough and made themselves comfortable.
So, the overall team play performance didn’t begin in any fashion that could have been viewed as interesting; they were picked to be one of the three or four worst teams out of the 30 that play MLB, and they quickly showed they were up to the task of meeting those projections.
Nor was the news on Mesoraco. Shoulder (non-throwing arm) surgery ended his season even more quickly than the 2015 campaign ended, and he has been a non-factor. In fact, he hasn’t hit one home run since those 25 he hit in ’14.
Concerning the young pitching talent. Well, two of those four mentioned began the season on the DL, and the one of those who didn’t, Iglesias, showed early on that he didn’t yet have the stuff he needed to be a starter.He has, however, proved to be exceptional as a multi-inning reliever. He has pitched 21.1 innings of relief over 1o outings (nine of those going more than an inning) with a 0.44 ERA. We’ll take that.
Finnegan, who has also played the whole season, has kept his job in the starting rotation, but his numbers to date don’t make him out to be an ace. As of now, he is 6-8 with a 4.68 ERA. He was only 22 when the season started, however, and those are not terrible numbers for a pitcher who is still relatively a kid, when it comes to the game.
The other two of those missed good parts of the season, but have come along and made positive contributions, DeShiafani especially. At 6-0, he has had eight quality starts out of the ten he has made, his ERA stands at 2.93, and his strikeout to walk ratio has bettered to 4-1, when it stood in the neighborhood of 3-1 the previous year, his first full year in the bigs.
Lorenzen hasn’t made quite that much of an impact, but he has been a positive piece nonetheless. He has a 2.79 ERA in 12 outings, and he has struck out 21 batters in 19.1 innings. At 24, all of those are promising stats. Plus, he has given up three home runs. No, it’s not necessarily good for a pitcher to give up three dingers in fewer than 20 innings, but, again, he’s 24. Younger guys give up more homers, and if he can play with an ERA in the neighborhood of three with the dingers, then it stands to reason that that could be even lower as he matures and gets those more in line.
So, of the guys I was interested in watching, that’s all of them, save for Votto. And then there’s Joseph. Ol’ Joey is one place where the season gets really interesting.
First off, let me say this: I love Joey Votto. He’s a pure hitter, and I love pure hitters. I loved watching Rod Carew hit, and Joe Morgan. I loved watching Dave Parker hit and Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs and Kirby Puckett and George Brett and Alan Trammell and Don Mattingly and John Kruk and Mark Grace, dudes who could just spray a field and let you know just as soon as a ball left their bats, “That’s a hit.” Joey Votto is that kind of hitter.
I also love hitters because they inspire me as a writer. Some writing theorist said that it’s OK to stop, just as long as you don’t quit. Then, on the baseball side of things is this simple truism: “Hitters hit.” Yes, it’s usually said when a hitter in question seems to be doing everything but hitting, in order to point out that all athletes go through slumps, but the pure ones snap out of it. And it’s true; hitters are going to hit. Every slump that every true hitter has ever had has been followed by a bunch more hitting.
Thus, we get the parallel to a writer who isn’t writing. It’s OK to stop, just as long as you don’t quit. The slumping hitter is like the blocked or procrastinating writer; as a true hitter, he hasn’t quit; rather, he has just stopped for a while. Thinking of this has helped me during those times that I’ve gone stagnant, as I’ve really worked on breaking into the paid writer’s profession. I sweat it less since I can tell myself that if I’m really true to it, and meant to do it, I’ll get back to it. I’ll hit.
I love Joey Votto, also, because he won an MVP award, making him only the second Red to do so since I was 11. (Barry Larkin won one in ’95. I love that dude, too.) And he’s a hitter, and hitters hit.
Except he didn’t. He didn’t hit much at all. His futility came even sooner than the team’s did, and it went on long enough to make some of us faithful ones wonder if he might be suffering from an undiagnosed injury. “Hitters hit,” I kept telling my brothers, Steve especially, but as the slump continued, you just had to wonder.
On my birthday, May 27, almost two full months into the season, Joey was batting a horrific .206. At 54 games–a third of the way through the season–he had only jumped it up to .222. And I gotta tell you, I was getting a bit concerned; hitters hit, but he wasn’t. If it was an injury, it was one thing, but if a hitter had stopped hitting, then it stood to deliver a blow to my very confidence structure.
But then, the predictable thing happened; Joey started to hit. That’s what hitters do. It was inconceivable to think that he had a slump that lasted as far into the season as it did, but that’s what happened. I don’t know exactly when his bat woke up, but it did. The last quarter of a season or so I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a pure reminder that hitters do hit, and if they’re not, they will.
By the time the season’s halfway point came around, Joey had raised his average to .249 and his OBP to .378 (all those walks).After yesterday’s action, game #104, his average was up to .285, and his OBP stands at a league high .419. The ascent has been almost non-stop, and he’ll take a 15 game hitting streak into tomorrow’s action.
There has been one story line that I didn’t foresee developing this year, and that has been the return of Jay Bruce. People in the know might point out that Jay Bruce hadn’t gone anywhere; he’d had full seasons each year since 2010 (his lowest number of games played during that span being 137), but over the previous two seasons the Reds hadn’t seen the production they hoped for out of their right fielder. After having at least 30 home runs, 97 runs batted in, and a .252 or better avg from 2011-13, his totals had dropped off the previous two seasons. He has posted averages of .217 and .226, respectively, and has delivered no better than 26 homers and 87 RBI.
And just when it looked might he wind up his years with the Reds in weak-sister fashion–the Reds would have almost definitely passed on the chance to pick up his option for the ’17 season–we get the Jay Bruce of those earlier years. As of today, he is batting .270, and he already has 25 HR and 80 RBI (the RBI good for tops in the NL).
But, it’s like I said, chances are that the Reds wouldn’t pick up his option year–despite the return to productivity–which means that he’s pretty expendable on a rebuilding team that has about zero chance of making the playoffs. Being that today is the trade deadline, Jay has probably played his last game in a Reds’ uniform.
Being that the team is rebuilding–and there are actual prospects to signify that–that there is little chance that they’ll do anything this year, and that they probably wouldn’t keep him around for next season, I don’t guess it bothers me much on the grand scheme if they let him go. Still, for me, for now, he has been one of the interesting aspects that I’ve taken from this losing season. I had no idea that Jay Bruce was going to be of any interest to me at all this year, and here he is carrying averages in the .260s, leading the league in RBI, and on pace to hit about 45 home runs.
Yeah, he’ll leave; he’ll be gone tomorrow, and part of me will be sad to watch him go.
Now, if you’re still hanging with me–and I can’t imagine there are many who are–you may be wondering what any of this has to do with anything, especially from a guy who doesn’t lose any sleep when his sports teams lose. Well, it really doesn’t have much to do with whether or not a sports team wins or loses; what it has to do with is this: These players, and how they have fared, as well as the possibility that this organization might be in the middle of a successful rebuilding, have been interesting enough for me to have begun an e-mail conversation with my two brothers, Steve, who still lives in West Virginia, and Tim, who has found his way to North Carolina.
It may have begun three months ago, but there isn’t a week that doesn’t go by without us talking about this in some way. Yes, I’m the one who’s keeping up with the progress of the team, so I’m the one who is doing most of the talking, but they’re both talking back. It doesn’t matter if this is our hometown team 0r not, nor does it matter that none of us is the kind of guy who eats, breathes, and sleeps according to how well a bunch of millionaires we don’t know play a game; what matters is that we’re talking to each other.
It could be anything, it just happens to be baseball. Somehow it matters, if only because it always reminds us that hitters hit. That gives me faith, so I can keep coming back to this page, so I can keep getting my swings in.
God bless you. Thanks for reading.