Cincinnati has become accustomed to playoff-caliber professional sports franchises. There was a time in my life I never thought I would be able to write that. But now, the Bengals have made the playoffs three consecutive years, and the Reds have qualified for October baseball three of the last four seasons.
Sadly, my hometown has learned nothing but hard lessons during that time.
The Bengals lost to the San Diego Chargers at home during the AFC Wild Card round Jan 5, extending their playoff win drought to 23 years. The Reds haven’t advanced in the MLB playoffs since 1995. Sure, they teased the fans in 2012 when they were up 2-0 in a best-of-five series with the San Francisco Giants. My heart still aches from the three straight losses — all at home — that followed.
When the first signs of a playoff game going bad start to show, a noxious solution of fear and doubt creeps up the spine of every player, coach and fan like an all-encompassing ooze from the murky depths of the Ohio River. Die-hard fans begin to succumb to the dark side, muttering to their friends about how they should have seen it coming. It’s a facade presented by teams that consistently give birth to hope before tripping on the umbilical cord, falling and smothering it.
This year, I can’t let that happen. Opening Day at Great American Ball Park is only three short days away, and I am trying my best not to let my love of everything Reds blind my expectations.
Cincinnati still has its core group of winners together. The franchise faces, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips, are All-Stars with experience and impressive offensive numbers. The starting rotation could still be one of the best in the National League if Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and the promising young southpaw Tony Cingrani all stay healthy.
A key component of the lineup this season will be leadoff man center fielder Billy Hamilton, who is replacing Shin-Soo Choo, now with the Rangers. Hamilton is a talented prospect with amazing speed that can change any game at any time, but has yet to go through the rigors of extended time in the majors. He had 13 stolen bases in 13 games with the Reds at the tail-end of 2013, and was only caught stealing once. At that rate, if he plays in 131 of the 162 games this season, he will break Rickey Henderson’s modern-era record for most stolen bases in a season. Henderson’s 130 steals have stood since 1982.
Hamilton and the rest of the club won’t have an easy start to 2014. In the first month of the regular season, they face St. Louis six times and Pittsburgh seven times. Both of those teams made the divisional round of the playoffs last year. Most experts project the Cardinals to win the division, and the Pirates are expected to battle with Cincinnati all season for a wild card spot.
Injuries only add to the tough April schedule. Videos of relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman being struck in the face by a line drive during a spring training game March 15 will make me cringe until June, but hopefully he will be able to pitch again by mid-May. Chapman, along with pitchers Latos, Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton, will start the season on the disabled list.
The Reds are still a good team, but have yet to prove if they can be great. New pieces like Hamilton and manager Bryan Price could make or break this club. Much like Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, former Reds manager Dusty Baker took a lot of criticism for decision making and game adjustments, especially during playoff games. Much unlike Bengals owner Mike Brown, Reds president Bob Castellini made a leadership change. I’m excited to see how Price handles the lineup and situational matchups.
Speculation and “sabermetrics” are a huge part of baseball, but nothing matters until the ump calls “Play ball!” So we’ll just have to wait and see.
When the Reds take the diamond at 4:10 p.m. on March 31 for opening day, I’ll be sitting on my couch in eager anticipation. Even with graduation, a job search and midterms hanging over my head, I honestly cannot imagine a better way to spend three hours than watching the Redlegs begin their 2014 campaign.
Because you can tell me they’re past their prime. You can point to the superior salaries and sustained success of teams like the Dodgers or the Cardinals. You can call me crazy or baseball boring for all I care. I’m still going to watch the whole game. And the next game, and the next game — because for some reason, I still believe this team can break the bad streak and win a playoff series in 2014.
Even if I’m wrong, at least I’m not a Cleveland fan.
For ’tis better to have made the playoffs and lost than to not make the playoffs at all … right?