Another October, another year for me to find a secondary team.
Though I picked the Giants to win it all this year, I just can't help but root for the Reds - the unlikeliest of this year's playoff teams.
I have a friend who is a Reds fan, and I will be living somewhat vicariously through him this week.
Here's his take on the excitement of this year's playoffs...especially coming off years of disappointment.
After the 1992 season, the Reds were looking for a new manager. They were coming off a good three year ride with Lou Piniella, who decided he wasn't interested in working for Marge Schott anymore and walked away. They had Davey Johnson and Tony Perez in the organization already, but Ray Knight was interested in the job. Knight seemed to lobby publicly for the job. In a Cincinnati Enquirer article, he stated that his lack of managing experience was not a problem, because he had managed in his head every baseball game he had ever been a part of. I'm not kidding; he really said that. Perez, who also had no managing experience got the nod, but he was quickly fired after 44 games, and Johnson was brought in. But Marge Schott took a liking to Ray Knight. She liked his wife, Nancy Lopez, too. So Knight was made bench coach and, while I don't know for sure since I'm just a fan, it sure seemed like Knight spent the next two years working his way further into Schott's good graces so he could eventually get the job. After two excellent seasons at the helm (first place finish in the 1994 strike year and a 1995 trip to the NLCS), Johnson was simply ignored; it was reported he did not even receive a telephone call to explain why he was not offered a contract extension. Schott wanted Knight to be her manager. While Knight lasted less than two years at the helm, his ascent marked the beginning of 15 years of near futility for this team. For fifteen years, it has felt to Reds fans like we have been bouncing around inside the mediocre head of the insufferable Ray Knight.
Sure there have been highlights here and there. The Reds surprised everyone and won 96 games in 1999, before losing to the Mets and Al Leiter in the extra game to determine the NL Wild Card. By then, Trader Jack McKeon was manager. He engineered another winning season for the club in 2000, but then he too was essentially ignored. It seemed that management thought he was too old, and Bob Boone was waiting in the wings to coach his sons. Rumors also swirled that Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey, Jr. did not like playing for him. And here lies a key point of divergence in the Reds' lost decade and a half. McKeon went on to win the World Series with the Marlins a few years later. The Reds suffocated under Griffey's endless injuries and the 3-year, $27 million contract the club awarded to Larkin in the twilight of his career. I admit I was as excited as anyone to have Griffey come home to Cincinnati in 2000, but within another year or two it became clear that the Reds were unwilling or unable to pay for a solid team around him and the aging Larkin. All the hope and promise of the 1999 season was squandered.
I have not been to a Reds game in Cincinnati since that 1999 playoff against the Mets. I moved to Boston that winter, and even during my few visits town during the season (I usually only go for Christmas), the franchise was just too mediocre and lifeless for me to want to invest my time or energy. Nothing promising ever worked out. Carl Linder, the man who bought the team when Schott was forced to sell, was a spendthrift. The city built Great American Ballpark, but the Reds couldn't sell it out. After living through the era of Marge Schott and the disappointment of Griffey's tenure with the club it just seemed like too much to care most of the time. Apparently I'm not the only one who felt that way, because it seems pretty clear these days that Cincinnati is no longer a baseball town. These days it's a football town, and when a franchise like the Bengals is able to inspire more unwavering loyalty and hope from Cincinnatians than the Reds, well that's really saying something. I look at the support that some other smaller markets give their baseball teams, especially St. Louis, and I'm envious.
But things are certainly starting to change. The Reds' new ownership used to own part of the Cardinals franchise. They brought in Walt Jocketty, and he's brought in a handful of veterans of recent success in St. Louis. At the same time, the Reds have reinvested in a farm system that was ravaged by the Schott years, and we have a talented core of young players. They weren't expected to really succeed until next year, but the fun has started a year early. Sometimes I find this team reminiscent of the 1991 Braves, who added a handful of veterans (Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Lonnie Smith) to a group of young players and found themselves in the World Series. But I don't want to get my hopes up.
The Reds face the Phillies this week, and the Phillies are a better, more experienced team. The Reds have played poorly against teams with winning records this year, and, frankly, I'm not expecting them to make it very far. I hope I'm wrong. But even if I'm right, for the first time in forever I see better days ahead. These Reds still might be a year or two away, that is if management is willing to spend to keep them together (Votto is up for arbitration this off season. They need to step up and sign him long term).
For now, as a Reds fan after 15 years a nearly total mind-numbing mediocrity, I'm just happy to be here talking about the Reds in October at all.