CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati deserves this. We deserve the Reds running away with the National League Central. We deserve Joey Votto on the cover of Sports Illustrated. We deserve Aroldis Chapman throwing 104 mph, a Cuban Missile Crisis for NL hitters.
Yeah, I said we.
|Aroldis Chapman has the fine baseball fans in Cincinnati in a tizzy. (AP)|
But I've been here long enough to know, to see, Cincinnati's suffering. Adam Dunn hitting 40 home runs but striking out 195 times. Austin Kearns doing the strikeouts, not doing the homers. Aaron Harang winning 16 games one year, losing 17 the next. Felipe Lopez to Juan Castro to Scott Hatteberg.
Cincinnati endured that.
Cincinnati deserves this.
Cincinnati deserves it double, if you take into account the Bengals of Mike Brown. Just this week the Bengals cut loose two injured players, Antonio Bryant and Rashad Jeanty, who had been misdiagnosed by the Bengals medical staff. Bryant's knee was damaged goods before the Bengals gave him $8 million guaranteed. Jeanty's ankle was messed up during the playoff loss to the Jets. The Bengals' doctors missed both. That's what happens when Mike Brown is in charge -- bad players like Andre Smith get drafted and thrown millions of dollars; injured players get thrown millions more. When Mike Brown buys fruit, he probably picks the apple with the worm.
As for the Reds? The worm has turned, my friends. The Reds are going to win this season, and they're going to win next season, and they're going to win for a lot of years. Doesn't matter that ESPN Radio star Colin Cowherd called the team "frauds" a few weeks ago. Cowherd was wrong, dead wrong, but it's hard to blame him that much. The Reds are almost never on national television. They don't get much attention from anyone outside of the 513 area code. Well, not until recently.
But like I said, things are changing around here. And this town deserves it. Fans aren't coming to the ballpark in masses, but that's not a fair measuring stick. Less than 20,000 fans showed up Tuesday or Wednesday, but the Reds' crowd of 19,218 on Tuesday was the seventh-biggest turnout of the 15 MLB games that night -- and on the season the Reds are outdrawing the NL West-leading Padres. The economy sucks everywhere, but the weather is better in San Diego. Cincinnati does what it can to support this team. It always has.
So I'm telling you, Cincinnati deserves a legitimate Triple Crown challenger in Votto, who entered the final month of the season leading the National League in batting (.327) and RBI (97) and third in home runs (32, three HR out of first). Votto is just 26 years old. He ain't going anywhere.
Neither are Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs. They're two-thirds of the Reds outfield for the next several years, and they're 23 and 25, respectively. All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips is 29. The starting rotation is loaded with young studs like Mike Leake (22), Travis Wood (23) and Johnny Cueto (24). After tearing through the minor leagues in two seasons, 2008 first-round pick Yonder Alonso on Wednesday became the 10th Red to make his major-league debut this season.
It's a different Reds team than the older, beer-bellied softball teams of recent years. Those Reds were Ken Griffey and Adam Dunn lounging on the clubhouse's leather couches, hitting home runs, misplaying balls in the outfield and thinking they had it all figured out, when all they knew how to do was lose.
The new Reds play defense and ignore the couches. They bounce around the clubhouse, mingling with each other and ducking the schoolboy shenanigans of Leake, a scruffy sort who looks like he made it to the ballpark after playing hooky in high school, probably by riding his skateboard out of there. I watched Leake in the Reds' clubhouse for 20 seconds before the game Wednesday, and in those 20 seconds he slapped the naked ass of Reds executive and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan and playfully goosed a (dressed) teammate with a bat handle.
This team is having fun. This town is having fun. About time, in both areas.
"I've been a Reds fan a long time," said Morgan, a former second baseman who played for the Reds from 1972-79, "and you're right -- this town does deserve this. They've had some lean years, but this is a great baseball town, and I'm happy for them. I'm happy for the players, too."
The Reds are at or near the top of the National League in offensive categories like hitting, home runs and RBI, and they lead the NL in defensive categories like fielding percentage and fewest errors. And every day, it seems, another great player shows up.
Wood made his major-league debut on July 1, gave up two hits in seven innings and then in his third career start took a perfect game into the ninth. A few days later Edinson Volquez returned from his drug suspension/arm surgery, giving the Reds the midseason addition of a former 17-game winner. Volquez has struggled to regain his form, so the Reds sent him to the minors and replaced him with the former staff ace, Harang.
On Tuesday it was Chapman coming up from Triple-A, needing just eight pitches -- four of them hitting 100 to 102 mph -- to pitch a perfect inning and create a buzz that Reds manager Dusty Baker hadn't felt in 20 years.
"The last time I was involved with something like that was Fernando-mania," said Baker, an outfielder on the 1981 Dodgers when Fernando Valenzuela won Rookie of the Year and Cy Young. "And Fernando wasn't throwing 100. He just won."
So do the Reds. After being swept at home Aug. 9-11 by St. Louis to fall a game behind in the NL Central, the Reds have won 14 of 18 to take an eight-game lead. The Reds didn't fall apart. The Reds weren't frauds -- the Cardinals were.
The Cardinals have lost five straight, and 13 of 16, most recently Wednesday afternoon at Houston. That game was on TV in the Reds' clubhouse, but the Reds were more interested in U.S. Open tennis on another TV. Leake was smacking people on the butt. Setup man Arthur Rhodes was stalking the clubhouse with a bat, slamming it onto chairs. Chapman was shouting in Spanish to closer Francisco Cordero, who was shouting back to Chapman in Spanish, and then telling me in English, "He throws 105, man. One-oh-five. That makes 93 look like a changeup."
A few hours later Chapman hit 103 mph. He threw two diving sliders that by comparison looked 70 mph, were really 89 mph and were utterly unhittable. All of that came during another perfect inning in relief, his second in two appearances. That was the top of the seventh. The Reds rallied in the bottom of the seventh for six runs and a 6-1 lead, making a winner of Chapman. And a winner of the Reds.
At 19-8 they had the best August in baseball, and now they are 1-0 in September. The Reds are 23 games above .500 for the first time since 1999. They have an eight-game division lead for the first time since 1995.
They just might win a World Series for the first time since 1990.
Either way, the pursuit will be fun to watch. It is fun to watch. Some day it will be your turn, Kansas City. Some day it will be you, Houston. And you, Milwaukee. Sorry, Pittsburgh. Not sure it will ever be you.
But now it is Cincinnati's turn. It is Cincinnati's time. And make no mistake: Cincinnati deserves this.