If forced to sell pieces at the trade deadline, the Reds may be on the verge of a championship abyss.
History fades and opportunities pass.
When Great American Ball Park was constructed at the beginning of a new millennium its large structure and small dimensions represented hope all across Reds country. The addition of the city’s chosen son Ken Griffey Jr. only further ignited the hopes and passions of a fanbase.
My Dad used to tell me around 2004 and 2005 how the Reds were different than the Bengals. They had history, championships, and a feverishly dedicated fanbase. The Reds current ownership group certainly takes pride in outperforming the Bengals.
Since the Castellini’s purchased the Reds in 2006 which team has been more impressive is up for debate. Due to the nature of Major League Baseball’s salary and television structure, the Reds will assume tons of future financial risk if this year’s team were to flame out.
Meaning the 2021 Reds might be the most talent the franchise has at its disposal for about 5 years. Unless there are some minor league miracles, 2015-2025 would be the worst 10-year stretch in franchise history.
A precarious position for an already maligned ownership group.
A Franchise Rivalry
In January 2018 while I was covering the Reds for WATH in Athens, OH all the radio affiliates gathered for a dinner at GABP. Nick Krall, Dick Williams, and Phil Castellini took questions; and I asked if they felt pressured to be the team to break Cincinnati’s playoff curse. Pointing across to where Paul Brown Stadium sat Castellini sarcastically said “Well I’m not really sure what they’re doing over there,” which drew a laugh from the crowd and myself.
The Bengals had just pump-faked the firing of Marvin Lewis and decided to bring back the hated coach for one final year. While the statement wasn’t controversial, it gave off the same aura my father spoke of; the Reds are different. The Reds will figure this out and be a winning organization again.
Krall and Williams hinted that day at big-spending to come in future years. Castellini spoke about how they’ve saved money for a free agent splurge and that a run was coming. The Reds desperately needed this juice in 2018 as they were in the midst of an attendance plunge never before seen at GABP.
Well, the splurge came. The big swings came and they just happened to time it with the start of a once-in-a-century pandemic. A team full of free agents wasn’t given the proper 162 games to gel and an attendance plunge turned into an attendance nightmare. This was supposed to be the light at the end of the darkest five years in Reds’ history. Instead, it ended with the most soul-sucking 22 playoff innings imaginable, and not a single fan passing through the gates of Great American Ball Park.
Who can break the ‘Curse of Bo Jackson?’
Now with the Bengals saved by Joe Burrow, it appears the Reds may be primed to be officially pushed off the mantle as the city’s most competent team. Which, I would guess is not something the Reds ownership group is comfortable with. I know that both teams will always speak of partnerships, and neither team loses too much if the other one succeeds. But in a city that forked over millions of dollars for two stadiums that have never seen a playoff win. Let’s just say the competition is real to break the infamous ‘Curse of Bo Jackson.’
A sleeping giant of a fan base exists throughout northern Kentucky and central Ohio. Dedicated fans who buy merchandise, hang signs in their lawns and cheer louder than most. Whichever team can finally find a way to just advance in the playoffs will leap in popularity. Remember the FC Cincinnati US Open Cup run? Imagine that, but an AFC Championship – or an NLCS.
The NFL saved the Bengals by the nature of its league. Every team can run into a Joe Burrow and have an opportunity for championships handed to you. Its salary cap structures allow the Bengals to compete for free agents and re-sign big stars. The NFL’s TV deals mean the Bengals are less reliant on yearly attendance.
The Reds have to save themselves. They need butts in the seats, and since the firing of Dusty Baker and the trading off of every good player imaginable, the fanbase has been muted. The goodwill of the Nasty Boys has worn thin. The victories of ’75 and ’76 seem more like myths than memories. Most fans north of Dayton would rather stop to see the Dragons at Fifth Third Field for cheaper beer and similar quality of baseball than finish the drive and be disappointed by a losing product.
I even heard of some Reds fans bailing during the Indians 2016 playoff run, that’s how damaged Red pride has been.
So, is there hope?
The Final Swing
The 2021 Cincinnati Reds are all that stands between a franchise and a losing abyss it has never seen before. A combination of productive bats, interesting bullpen arms, and veteran starters gives the team a .500 feel. Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo’s potential gives them a playoff ceiling; and the numerous question marks in the NL Central gives them a path.
If this team can win enough one-run games, keep its health, and outlast the rest of the .500ish clubs in the Central they could be in a position to jump-start the franchise with home playoff games. Games that will be full of big-game starved, vaccinated fans. Games that could be remembered forever in the city of Cincinnati.
I don’t know if this Reds team has that in them. Or if the baseball gods will allow some of the blessings gifted to other franchises to grace Cincinnati. I’m not sure if pessimism will fade away for one fall full of thrilling baseball.
Reds pride could use some mending; and that’s what the rest of the 2021 season is all about.