Two years ago this month, I wrote about what I saw as a lost generation of Cincinnati Reds fans: There are 30-year-olds who don’t remember the last time the Reds won a playoff series. To the average twentysomething wearing blue and orange, singing and tossing smoke bombs in The Bailey at FC Cincinnati games, the wire-to-wire 1990 Reds are ancient history. The Big Red Machine is something Grandpa rambles on about during holiday dinners. For the younger fans baseball needs to engage in order to grow, the Reds are just that team down by the river that’s suffered through losing seasons in 17 of the last 22 years. …
But I have never seen this fan base as apathetic as it is now, because that’s the fan base the Reds have cultivated by being mostly awful for an entire generation. If the Reds don’t put a winner on the field—and soon—there may not be quite as many fans left and, before you know it, we’ll be describing downtown celebrations in blue and orange terms (or orange and black, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).
For half a decade, the Reds have been attempting to rebuild the team on the field. Rebuilding the fractured relationship with their fan base may be a much taller order.
As I sat in my living room this week watching the Reds embarrass themselves (and their fans) in a 16-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that dropped Cincinnati six games below .500 with only 24 games left to play, I shook my head sadly. A once-promising season was slipping away again, and I couldn’t help but ponder what it’s doing to the psyche of this fan base.
After all, I know what I’m feeling, and I’m usually the most positive guy in the room when it comes to this club. Yet it’s been two years since I wrote the words above, and what’s happened in the interim? Continued inept play on the field, baffling management from the dugout, and a lot more losing.
The more things change, as they say, the more they stay the same. So who’s to blame for this fiasco?
To be fair, the front office has actually made a number of moves in the last couple of years in an attempt to field an improved team. They made splashes on the free agent market and swung trades that, in theory, improved the roster. It hasn’t worked yet, but let’s concede that some effort has been expended toward the goal of putting a winning team on the field. (Insert “I tried, and therefore no one should criticize me” gif here.)
Of course, Cincinnati’s payroll this year—despite the off-season spending—is still below league average. As we continue to wait for Reds ownership to deliver on the promises they made upon taking control of the club, we may want to ponder whether having the 17th-highest payroll in the game constitutes an actual attempt to win a championship.
But I digress. The fact is that this Reds front office, who I do believe are capable, has been far more active than most management teams in the last three decades of this franchise’s history. Last year, they made a number of trades that had most observers expecting at least a .500 club. Instead, Cincinnati began the season 1-8 and was never truly competitive as the Reds limped to an 87-loss season.
This year, you know what the expectations were from observers around the baseball world. (You know, because I told you!) And while there’s still time to turn things around in 2020, especially since we’re going to have an expanded playoff system, the Reds have been nearly impossible to watch for the entire season thanks to bad defense, bad baserunning, bad hitting, and bad relief pitching.
The fact of the matter is that the Reds roster is improved over last year, but those players simply haven’t performed. So they take a lion’s share of the blame. And, at some point, we have to ask questions about manager David Bell, who has presided over two of the most disappointing Reds teams in recent years. Those teams came into each of his seasons at the helm with certain levels of expectation, yet Bell’s teams have never once been competitive.
Who’s to blame? Does it matter? It’s now been seven years since the Reds played meaningful baseball in September. Unless they catch fire soon, it’ll be seven full years of my life watching a team that, let’s be honest, has often not been very much fun to watch.
All the concerns I voiced two years ago still apply. Events of 2020, however, might have conspired to make it even more difficult for the Reds to recapture that lost generation of potential fans.
For more than three months, as the country struggled through a global pandemic, baseball was not a regular part of our lives as it’s been every other spring and summer in memory. People found other things to do with their time, without Reds baseball to distract them. If I’m being honest, I didn’t really miss the nightly grind of watching bad baseball. I watched more movies, I read books, and I spent time with my family.
You aren’t likely to find very many fans who are more hardcore than yours truly. If I shrugged my shoulders at the Reds’ absence, what was the casual fan doing? Can the franchise get those potential fans back into the fold?
Further, we’re experiencing a season with no fans at Great American Ball Park. The stadium experience was the only thing the Reds have gotten right over the last few years. Is it possible that the bond between the team and the fans is cracking a little more each day that no one gets to hang out at GABP? Think about your first time at a big league game, and then think about the kids who didn’t get to make that inaugural trip this summer, with all the excitement that comes along with it.
That’s not the Reds’ fault, obviously, but what exactly has the franchise done in the last 30 years to convince those fans to come back out? What have the Reds done in the last seven years to grow the fan base? From my perch, I see nothing but constant losing and constant disappointment.
It’s quite possible that winning would cure everything, of course. There is still time for the Reds to sneak into this expanded postseason. If that happens, the Reds might still be the team that excited me so much during spring training, and it’s not inconceivable that they could make real noise in the playoffs. That might be enough to generate some enthusiasm for the 2021 season.
But absent a late-season run and playoff excitement this year, what reason will there be to look forward to next year? Until the Reds convince us that they’re serious about winning by, you know, actually putting a winning team on the field, I fear the fan base will continue to get more and more apathetic.
After all, if we’ve learned anything this year, we’ve learned this truth: There are better things to do with your time than suffer along with a team that’s just going to break your heart in the end.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.