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 it 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.

 

18 Responses

  1. Klugo

    Not a big fan of the ol’ “we’re better than our record” narrative. Or “we shoulda won, but…”.
    Yes, the best team does not always win, but over 162 games? The pudding is thick.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I lean that way as well. There’s always the element of luck, but after a while…

  2. Scott C

    I am with you Mary Beth, I am so over pro football, still watch a little college football. Pro basketball has not been worth watching sine the GOAT retired. Which is why baseball is the greatest game ever. 162 games (I wouldn’t mind if they cut it back to 154) over 6 months and the playoff series not playoff games. And while the best team doesn’t always win, yes I was angry in 1981, but with that one exception the best teams generally are in it at the end. Go baseball. Go Reds!

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I backed away from the Bengals when half the team started getting arrested, backed the rest of the way after the Pittsburgh game when there were zero consequences for essentially beating ourselves, and took off running from the NFL entirely a couple years ago when it was pissing me off more than anything.

      I’m an idealist, so while college football was keyed into a big part of my identity for some time, I now understand what an absolute open sewer it is. Just get a minor leauge already, NFL.

  3. Eric

    “…Nestled between .500 and the trophy are the realities of timing and circumstances.

    …and all I can hear, then, is Morgan Freeman’s voice, saying, “Geology is the study of pressure and time…”

    Looking at it that, way, the Louisville native in me recognizes the differences between horse racing and baseball. Timing and circumstances…pressure and time. A horse race, decided in two minutes…less time — higher pressure. A 162-game baseball season, though…at any one moment, it’s hard to feel the pressure, even when you know it’s there.

    But yeah, your senses get deadened, after a while…after the constant drumbeat of WLWLWLW…actually, this season it’s been more like WLLLLLLLLWLWLWLW….where I’m constantly looking at the record and subtracting the 1-8 start to get a feel for how they’re actually doing.

    It’d be nice to make more money.
    It’d be nice to make more money writing.
    It’d be nice to make more money writing…about baseball!

    I yield the balance of my time on a Friday.

    • Eric

      …and would someone please fix my HTML tag? Thankyaverymuch!

      …and if you all didn’t go read MBE’s column on the Derby and the Preakness that she linked above, y’all are cheating yourselves (bless yer hearts) on a Friday.

      So there.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I thank the distinguished gentleman from Louisville for his remarks. Well said. That 8 loss streak is just killer. No way to do anything about it, and they’re not winning enough to recover from the damage.

    • MARK MOORE

      Brilliant use of that Freeman line! +5000

      And we all read it in his voice.

  4. Mason Red

    Unfortunately the Reds seem perfectly content with WLWLW ect ect. There will be no moves made to possibly change it to WWLWLWWL ect ect. The Reds would be happy to hover around 500,keep the fans interested and at the end of the season…if they finish around 500….say the team is improving so stay the course. Remarkably many fans,including here,seem to accept it all as being “part of the plan”.

    • Eric

      “…but even though we finished the season at 5-11, we won the last three games, so the team is obviously moving in the right direction headed into the offseason.”

      –Mike Brown, most Januarys, right before he pays himself a great-big-ol’ GM bonus and heads back into the bunker to think about how he can squeeze even more money out of Hamilton County

      So yeah, I see what you’re saying, but whereas I kicked the Harvard Attorney and his Merry Band of Nepotism to the curb many years ago (GO PACK GO!) this brand of front-office movement has a slightly different feel for me. I’m nowhere near giving up on the Reds.

      That also may go back to the fundamental difference between football and baseball that MBE started out discussing above.

    • greenmtred

      They might not be happy to hover around .500–the players almost certainly wouldn’t be–but a near consensus, pre-season, thought that’s where their talent would take them. They’ve improved, and worst-to-first is rare. And the season has a way to go, so things may change, but the issue to me is what they do with the roster prior to the trade deadline and in the off-season.

  5. MARK MOORE

    1981 debacle and Pooping Birds in one article. It’s been a helluva week with MBE!

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I do try to bring a touch of elegance to the proceedings.

  6. greenmtred

    And, by the way, Mary Beth, really stellar work. Your writing is a pleasure to read. I still have the newspaper clipping of the 1981 Reds conundrum tacked to the wall, along with the clipping of Rose’s record-setting hit (bathroom wall, but compromises needed to be made). The thing about baseball fans is that most of us are probably secretly certain that the best teams (however you determine that) really don’t always win.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Many thanks 🙂 come see my horseracing article on Blonde Champagne, where I also make little sense.

  7. VaRedsFan

    I still have my 1981 Topps Stickers album…do you?

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Long gone, a victim of multiple moves. Also I wasn’t exactly rolling in cash at the age of 4, so doubt it was very complete.