A friend of mine is compiling a list of baseball season previews, and this was mine on the Reds...he couldn't use it, no doubt because it is way, way too long. But I don't know what else to do with it, so here you go. Be warned, though: it's a little twitterpated.
THE CINCINNATI REDS
There are days when I wish I could say that I grew up a Yankees fan (certainly, an accident of birthright makes Yankee fandom more forgivable to some), but I didn’t. I grew into a Yankees fan. I moved to New Jersey in 1996 and to New York City in 2002, and given enough time, thought, and circumstance, I made the very reasonable decision to become one. Fate played a role, no doubt, but I like to give myself a certain amount of credit for this. As I moved past teen angst and into stability, past lofty dreams and into reality, I made an informed choice to support a team that works hard, plays the game (both on the field and in the accounting department), and gives me a reasonable expectation that they will provide a return proportionate to my investment. The fact that they haven’t returned much of anything since I became a fan is unfortunate and kind of bizarre, but I still feel that I’ve played my odds as well as I could have, and most of the time they play beautiful enough baseball that I can fully enjoy my choice while biding my time until the ship comes in.
But I was born a Reds fan. It’s been at least 20 years since any reasonable adult has chosen to become a Reds fan. My heart sings for the half-dozen little kids in Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky who fall into 21st-century Reds fandom because it’s all they know, but my heart breaks for them too. My Reds fandom was a birthright, but it was, at least, a privilege rather than a curse. Right behind me, there was a legendary team, one which had so fired up Cincinnati that I was the beneficiary of grown, reasonable people falling all over themselves to teach little ones like me about things like the sacred art of bunting. Right in front of me, there was my very own team to worship, a hodgepodge of players possessed not of astronomical or long-lasting talent, but who all managed to hit the top of the talent bell curve at the same time. No one on the 1990 World Champion Reds will ever be in the Hall of Fame. It was not a perfect team. But it was perfect enough for a kid. I didn’t know that Eric Davis’s career paled in comparison to his potential due to his propensity for injury; I only knew that when he wasn’t hurt he was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I didn’t know that Marge Schott was insane; I only knew that she had a big slobbery dog (and if anything could compete with baseball for my youthful affection, it was big slobbery dogs). I didn’t know that my childhood Reds were not the greatest team ever. They were the greatest team I knew. That team won a World Series. It was the kind of validation that the poor young Reds fans of today have never known and are unlikely to know any time in the near future.
In the same way that you can never truly leave your family, no matter how insane they may be, no matter how many years of therapy they may cost you, you can never truly leave your first baseball team. I am a Yankees fan, and I am as proud of that team on a daily basis as I am of myself for embracing such a metafiesta of a baseball team. But the Reds continually haunt my dreams and yank me back to my roots; they lure me with illusions of a .500 penant race, they slap a mustache back on Mr. Red to trick me into thinking that this could be a legitimate team again. I don’t need a therapist to tell me exactly what is wrong with my relationship with the Reds. Over the past couple of decades, I have grown up. The Reds haven’t. They are not disappointed by the fact that salaries in baseball continue to increase; they’re downright indignant about it. Their fans moan when tickets increase to a whopping six dollars apiece, then grumble about the state of the team when prices are slashed to three dollars. The broadcasters gripe about the Adam Dunn’s lack of hustle, even as he regularly places as one of the top two or three contributors to the team by any viable statistic.
For several years now, I’ve felt that the clueless factor of the Reds has been severely underestimated by the baseball world. This millennia's Reds are arguably the most clueless team ever. They’re not clueless with kitsch, like the Royals; they’re not clueless with excuses, like Tampa Bay; they’re not clueless with a hilariously misguided Greek owner, like the Orioles. The Reds are clueless in the purest sense of the word: with no qualifiers. And it’s because the Reds are the Peter Pan of major league baseball, holding dear to a world that has long since disappeared, refusing to adjust to a world that is already passing them. A spoiled child, blessed with too much too early, is bound to be blind to the superlative qualities of those surrounding him, and he’s going to be surprised if his every move doesn’t pan out to perfection. He’ll spend all of his money on a shiny new pitcher named Eric Milton without considering that the pitcher is, in fact, not very good at baseball. He’ll trade half the team’s starting position players for a handful of marginal relief pitchers, then pout when it turns out that one of them had a cortisone shot weeks before the trade. He’ll build a beautiful new park, impressing himself with its sheer beauty (and he’s right -- on this count, at least, his accomplishments have been underrated), and then he’ll act surprised when one out of every five people squeaks a home run past its miniature outfield walls. And don’t even mention to him the fact that the gorgeous ballpark, to this day, sits in the middle of a mudpit. What do you want from me?!, he’ll scream as he pounds his fists on the floor. I’m only four years old!!!
And yet I cannot leave this team behind with my childhood. Not because they tempt me with a showy pitcher or a sparkling ballpark, but because they tease me with the promise of a fulfilling adulthood. In the past couple of years, this team has shown its first signs of being fed up with the lack of freedom that its sheltered existence has previously afforded it. The Cincinnati Reds have a new owner, a new manager, and a new general manager, all within the last two years. They’ve made their fair share of questionable moves, to be sure, but they’ve at least displayed a healthy skepticism toward authority and tradition. They’ve managed to throw together possibly the best 1-2 starting pitching tandem in the National League. They’ve paid some heed to defense -- a word that I don’t think I’ve seen in action on the Reds’ field since Mike Cameron. They’ve taken a chance on a big, bad drug addict named Josh Hamilton, the kind of guy who’d likely be turned out of half the bars in Cincinnati just because he has tattoos inked into about three-quarters of his skin. He’s spent the last several years subletting a corner of Hell, and he’s tearing up spring training as if he never stopped playing baseball for a day. Josh Hamilton has an awfully long way to go, both on the field and off, but it’s been hard for baseball fans not to get excited about him. For Reds fans, though, this goes beyond even Lifetime Movie of the Week potential. This is a kid who’s on the brink of taking responsibility for himself, of building a life for himself and for the people who love him, of taking the talent he was given at birth and turning it into something that has a chance to survive beyond Neverland. It’s not an accident that Josh Hamilton ended up on the most clueless team in baseball. He’s growing up, just as this team is. They might both fall on their faces. Or they might weather the growing pains ok after all.
Last week, Josh Hamilton told reporters the story of how he and his wife stopped to eat at Dairy Queen after one of his games, “and I still had my uniform on... and it almost felt like I was back in Legion ball. When I got home, I took my uniform off and I just looked and it and was kind of awestruck that I was wearing it again...I can't describe how good it feels to be back out here and be around my teammates and be on the field and pat my glove before pitches and be out here in the sunshine.”
Well, that’s youth, I guess. Take away the naiveté, the petulance, the temptations and the tantrums, and all that’s left is joy.