Football is becoming deader to me: Everything comes down to one game. The champion of the world comes down to who is better on that particular, brief, highly overblown, hideously overcommercialized night. Have some respect for baseball and hockey, in which we expect our champions to emerge–dusty and bloodied from nasty hotel rooms and Uber rides– from the grind of the season itself. The teams are playing against the game itself as much as they are their opponents.
This becomes discomfortingly true in the expanded, interleague era, in which the Reds play the division rival Cardinals here in June and then… uh, in August I guess. Which team is better? Well, the Reds, obviously, but that’s only by mere virtue of not being the stupid Cardinals.
If you asked me my prediction of the Reds’ season performance in March, I’d have no idea how to put a number on it. Now I can. The Reds will be .500, because their lives are an endless circle of WLWLWLWLWLWLWLWLWLWLWLWL. W. If you’d told us this team would be .500 in November, would that have been enough? Is improvement enough? Or is it win all or don’t bother? Or with teams as lovable and singular as this one, are we simply enjoying them for what they are, understanding they’ll disintegrate in September and return to us in March with a mere few recognizable names in place? Would anything different happen next spring if they take home the World Series trophy?
Nestled between .500 and the trophy are the realities of timing and circumstances. Now even before I made very little money writing about baseball, I made very little money writing about Thoroughbred racing. I love it for the same reasons I love baseball: The progression of it is embedded in the history of America, the colors and movement of it are stunning, there’s a winner and a loser every single time. But the thing is settled in seconds; there aren’t nine innings of adjustments and a few series of three-race matchups to get it right. This is especially true in the Kentucky Derby, which is more of a stampede than a straight-up horse race. (If you’re still WTFing over this year’s finish, I wrote about it here.) Many will say the best horse didn’t win the biggest race of the year, the single one even non-horse people watch. And in a broken world with highly tuned replay cameras, that happens sometimes.
It happened to the Reds. The 1981 season took place within my lifetime, but in an era in which my primary concerns were Topps sticker books and plastic ice cream helmets. If I could comprehend how that season ended, I was probably angry, and when I re-learned it as an adult, I was mad all over again. These remnants of the Big Red Machines were surely the best team in the National Leauge that year, and yet due to a quirk of math they sat out the postseason.
Would you have been happy with .500 then? The best team didn’t win. Nor were they anywhere near the trophy.
All we can do is aim for improvement, I suppose; .500 this season, perhaps the Wild Card race the next. We are an impatient species. But that’s what keeps us straining for the finish line.