“People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” —Rogers Hornsby, former St. Louis Cardinals second baseman and Cincinnati Reds manager
That quote fits the passive approach by the Reds’ front office in preparation for the upcoming season, but it certainly wasn’t the case with the annual Cincinnati Reds Caravan. This offseason, the caravan—replete with Reds players past and present, managers, and broadcasters—traveled 3,000 miles over four days, making 17 stops in five states to chat and interact with Redleg nation.
With the ever-increasing number of questions surrounding the club entering 2014, the caravan came to save the day, the Reds version of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, devoid of elephants, but with plenty of spring training travel packages and Q&A sessions to suit your fancy. Reds players serve as cheerleaders, posing for pictures and signing autographs while nearby booths hawk ticket packages, hoping to capitalize on a fan’s immediate excitement over receiving a Billy Hamilton signed baseball or asking Jay Bruce what he likes on his pancakes. Plus, Mr. Red executing a perfect cartwheel! (Which is tough; that gigantic head can easily displace one’s center of gravity.)
But the caravan truly is a key aspect of the ball club’s interaction with fans and the far-reaching community, particularly this year. After failing to re-sign centerfielder Shin-Soo Choo and (most likely) letting pitcher Bronson Arroyo walk, the offseason didn’t have the pizzazz many were hoping to see after the team’s early playoff exit last October. Aside from promoting new skipper Bryan Price after parting ways with Dusty Baker, the biggest acquisition was probably utility backup Skip Schumaker. (Either that, or avoiding arbitration with Aroldis Chapman.) And while Schumaker may turn out to be a great asset, he isn’t the type of player that sells tickets and jerseys; don’t plan on any Skip Shumaker bobble-head nights. The lack of excitement over who has come and gone doesn’t help to distract fans from the numerous questions surrounding the returning roster, either. How well will Billy Hamilton perform as the full-time centerfield? Can Joey Votto drive in more runs? How will Brandon Phillips respond after being actively shopped this offseason? Can Ryan Ludwick return to 2012 form?
The Reds are coming off consecutive disappointing playoff appearances the last two seasons and in desperate need of some postseason success. But being hamstrung in a small market often renders splashy offseason moves impossible, especially after a few years of retaining core guys like Votto, Bruce, and Phillips. As a result, the team is forced to build from within, all while squiring those homegrown kids around on a traveling convoy.
Baseball, like anything else, is a business, and the fans want—need—to be entertained. With fair but not spectacular attendance numbers the last few seasons, the front office is constantly searching for ways to bring fans to the stadium. Caravan stops and Reds Fest can go a long way in the minds of supporters come April. The question now is, can the squad put on as good a show at Great American Ball Park as they did on the road this offseason?