The new book This is Your Brain on Sports by Sports Illustrated Executive Editor L. Jon Wertheim and Tufts University psychologist Sam Sommers is a collection of entertaining essays that look at the roles that neuroscience, human psychology, and cognitive tendencies play in sports. Midway through the book—nestled between chapters dedicated to the merits of participation trophies and the importance of rivalries—is a chapter that gives an odd bit of hope to Reds fans everywhere. More on that later. But first…
My Reds fandom reached its nadir last Opening Day.
It had been a gorgeous day right up until the first pitch was thrown. Sunshine and mid-60s. Perfect baseball weather. And then the storm clouds rolled in with a cold, steady rain that soaked me to the bone and made the red ink on my scorecard run. The symbolism was like something out of a William Faulkner novel except even ol’ Billy Faulks would have thought it was a little too heavy-handed.
On his 100th pitch of the game, Johnny Cueto induced a routine groundball to end the 7th. Johnny had been magnificent as usual – 7 IP, 10 Ks, 0 Rs, and only 4 hits – and the Reds clung to a 2-0 lead against their division rivals. I won’t go into the gory details because my guess is that if you’re still reading this you remember them all too well. For some inexplicable reason, Bryan Price brought in Kevin Gregg to pitch in the top of the 8th. And, as all 43,633 Reds fans in attendance could have predicted, the Pirates tattooed everything Gregg lobbed towards the plate.
My ire grew with each batter that Gregg was allowed to face. And finally, when Andrew McCutchen did what Andrew McCutchen does against mediocre pitching, something inside me broke. Decades of frustration and crushed dreams came boiling up. As Bryan Price slowly made his way from the dugout to the mound to take the ball from Gregg, I made my way for the exit.
To put that into perspective, I’ve been to hundreds of baseball games and have only left twice – both against my wishes. Once at a Marlins/Astros game in Florida in 1993 that had gone into its fourth rain delay (my high school speech and debate coach had to drag me out kicking and screaming) and once at a Reds/Indians game in 2009 when a Joey Votto home run so traumatized my two year old daughter that my wife made us leave. But this time it was solely my decision. No outside force was making me go. I was done. A lifetime of devotion destroyed by 12 mediocre fastballs, 4 horrendous splits, and 1 abysmal slider courtesy of Kevin Gregg.
Unfortunately, the Reds Rally Pack blocked the exits. As I approached – eyes on the ground, Reds hat pulled low on my forehead – one of the men in the Pack approached me. “Dude! Hey duuuuuuuuuuude!” I looked up. Our eyes locked. And then this manchild said two words that changed my baseball life forever.
It was like he was throwing down a gauntlet. A Gandalf the, ahem, Red slamming his staff into the bridge and telling the Balrog, “You shall not pass!”
He waved the free cheese in front of my face as if to say, “Go ahead. Abandon your team. Give up on nearly 40 years of loving the Reds. And while you’re at it, enjoy this delicious stick of processed cheesestuff from Sargento.” Time slowed down. The cheesestuff became a metronome, tick-tocking back and forth in front of me at a ridiculously slow 28 BPM. I stared at the cheese for what must have felt like an eternity to the poor Reds Rally Pack manchild who, presumably, was hopped up on eighteen Mountain Dew Kickstarts. He started to get worried.
“Hey man?” he said, almost delicately. “Free cheese?” I looked at him and smiled.
Back to the book…
Chapter 12 in This is Your Brain on Sports is entitled “Why Rooting for the Mets is Like Building That IKEA Desk” and it uses Arkelstorps and Fjalkinges to introduce a concept called effort justification. Effort justification is the idea “that when people make sacrifices to pursue a goal, the effort exerted is often validated by elevating the attractiveness of the goal. In other words, we often come to love that which we suffer to achieve.” The authors compare it to a Harvard Business School study that showed that people inflate the value they put on products they make themselves. The fine folks at Harvard call this over-valuing “The Ikea Effect.”
The Reds are our Ikea. Baseball is the ultimate effort sport for a fan. You live and die with your team for 162 games over six months. (If you’re an idiot like me you even sweat the meaningless spring training games.) We pour ourselves into every game, every inning, every pitch. We analyze (and over-analyze) every lineup iteration, pitching change, and defensive shift. We eat, sleep, and breathe baseball. We sacrifice time and money and we fill our brains with useless knowledge like Chris Stynes’ OBP in 2000 (.386) or Ted Power’s ERA in 1984 (2.82). Most of us wouldn’t want it any other way.
Unfortunately, we haven’t had a whole heck of a lot of validation round these parts. We just came out of the most successful era of Reds baseball since the Big Red Machine and we have nothing to show for it. Three playoff series and zero wins. The last time the Reds won a playoff series was on October 6th, 1995 – the same night that The X-Files episode “D.P.O.” first aired. It was about a kid who could kill people with lighting and I bet ol’ Billy Faulks could have made a pretty nice metaphor out of that. Alas, I am no Billy Faulks. All I’ve got is a bad segue about lightning not having struck in Cincinnati for a long time.
13 teams have waited longer than the Reds for a World Series win. Six teams have waited longer for a World Series appearance. But guess how many teams have waited longer than the Reds for a simple playoff series win?
None. No team has had to wait as long. And it’s not really that close.
A couple of caveats: Technically the Nationals have never won a playoff series as the Nationals but their franchise hasn’t won a playoff series since 1981. (And frankly, I still choose to disregard the entire 1981 season because the Reds weren’t allowed in the playoffs despite having the best record in baseball). Also, I gave the Pirates credit for their wild card victory in 2013. You know what? I disregard that entire season too.
So there we are – all alone at the very end like the last kid picked in dodgeball in gym class. The Royals took the Padres and the Mets rolled their eyes and muttered, “Fine…I’ll take the Reds. Hey Reds, you’re in right. Try not to mess anything up.”
Wait a second. This is just depressing. Why on earth did you say there was an odd bit of hope in this chapter?
Ah. Because the payoff is going to be amazing. Wertheim and Sommers wrote that, “when you root for a perennial runner-up and it finally wins, the experience is suffused with joy and importance. If and when the long-suffering team wins big, all that effort is really justified.”
And that’s why I didn’t take the free cheese. Instead, I thanked the Reds Rally Pack manchild, made a 90º turn, and walked over to the SRO area between home and first just in time to see Todd Frazier crush a three run homer to deep left. GAB went bonkers and I just pulled out my scorecard and filled in the diamond in the 8th inning next to Frazier’s name. Okay, that’s a lie. I went bonkers, too. I also might have hugged a complete stranger. The payoff that day was amazing. The long drive to Cincinnati. The rain. Kevin Gregg. It was totally worth it.
Our day will come. It won’t be this year and it more than likely won’t be next year. But it will come. Fans all across the Midwest – in all the nooks and crannies that WLW can reach on a clear night – will celebrate. There will be a parade in downtown Cincinnati. We will celebrate in Fountain Square. We’ll all spend way too much money on World Champion t-shirts and hats. And we’ll all shed a few tears. It will be better than we imagined, better than we ever thought it could possibly be. We’ll say it is better than 1990 or 1976 or 19…well, no…not 1975! But it will be better than 1000 Todd Frazier Opening Day home runs! It will be worth all the effort. It will even be better than free cheese.
And that’s what fandom is all about. Go Reds.