The Way We Were

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With last month’s trades of Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, Cincinnati’s “window of competitiveness” has now officially closed. If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, that window actually closed at the end of last season, but with GM Walt Jocketty engaged in a “reboot,” Reds fans are now looking to the next chapter in this franchise’s history.

Count me among the fans who were okay with Jocketty’s plan for 2015, which basically came down to this: Let’s hope everyone can stay healthy. No, that’s not really a plan, and it backfired horribly when Homer Bailey and Devin Mesoraco sustained season-ending injuries almost immediately. But I’m a fan, and I want to hope for the best, so I was willing to squint and try to see a playoff team from this club’s Opening Day roster.

We can’t fool ourselves any longer. The window closed at the end of 2014, and I’m sure we’ll have plenty of conversations in the coming months about how the Reds are choosing to rebuild—ummm, excuse me: reboot—the franchise. That conversation can wait. I want to reminisce for a moment about the fun we’ve had over the last few years.

Over the last five years, the Redlegs won 90 or more games three times; actually, it was three times in four years (2010, 2012, 2013). The last time the Reds won 90+ games in three out of four seasons? You guessed it: the Big Red Machine of the 1970s collected more than 90 wins in eight of ten seasons from 1970-1979 (and won 88 in another year).

Now, I’m perfectly willing to make some crazy claims in print, but even I am not going to try to make the case that the 2010-2013 Reds are worthy of comparison to one of the greatest dynasties in sports history. The Big Red Machine is an outlier in almost every way.

Let’s not include the 1970s Reds in this trip back down memory lane. If we leave out the Big Red Machine, only the 1961-1964 Reds fit this (admittedly rudimentary) criteria. Those Reds will no doubt be familiar to the more seasoned persons among you, as they won the National League pennant in 1961, before falling to the powerhouse Yankees in the World Series. They followed up that season with third-, fifth-, and second-place finishes in seasons in which Cincinnati won 98, 86, and 92 games, respectively.

Think about that: excluding the Big Red Machine, only twice in the history of this storied franchise have we seen a Reds team win 90 or more games in three of four seasons. One of those was the recent run by this club. Does that surprise you?

Okay, I’ll concede. I’m being a little unfair. First of all, we can’t just exclude the 1970s Reds. Those teams played and they were good and they set a high standard for all future Cincinnati baseball clubs. Also, before 1962, it was a little more difficult to win 90 games in a season. That was the season that Major League Baseball changed the schedule to 162 games; before, teams only played 154 games in each season. So there were eight more games. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that no Reds teams prior to the early 1960s had ever put together such a sustained run of success.

Let’s look at it a different way, then. A 90-win season equates to a .556 winning percentage. Let’s go back to the turn of the last century and see how many Reds teams were able to win at that rate or better over an extended period.

If we change the criteria thusly, the Reds from 1939-1941 (really, to 1944) make the cut, as they rightly should. That was one of the best runs in Cincinnati baseball history. In 1939, the Reds went 97-57 and lost the World Series to, again, the New York Yankees. The following season, Cincinnati won 100 games and defeated the Detroit Tigers in a thrilling seven-game series to pick up the franchise’s second championship.

The next four seasons saw the Reds win 88, 76, 87, and 89 games, but they were unable to make it to postseason play in any of those years. Either way, that’s a good run.

There is one other mini-era that almost qualifies under the rules I’ve laid out, and it’s certainly worth mentioning. As you might suspect, I’m talking about 1919 to 1923. Those Reds, including the 1919 World Series championship club, won at a .556 clip or better in three of five seasons (which is exactly what the recent club did, if we include 2014 in the “window” we are discussing).

Again, I’m not making the claim that the recently successful Reds clubs are better than any of these teams. I’m only saying that the 2010-2014 Reds compare favorably, in some ways, to some of the greatest teams in Reds history, and we should remember them fondly for that.

I know, we all continue to be frustrated that the Reds weren’t able to win a single playoff series during that time. But we shouldn’t downgrade this club too much, just because the playoffs are a crapshoot. They still provided us plenty of memories along the way.

That 2010 Reds team will always be one of my favorite clubs. Remember how they were swept out in Seattle in mid-June to drop to 37-33, and we all thought the sky was falling? I’m not sure there’s ever been a more enjoyable run of baseball in my lifetime (outside of October 1990) than the ensuing stretch, when the Reds won 11 of their next 14 to climb to first place. That was the moment when we began to realize that this Reds team was different.

Then, in August, Brandon Phillips made some descriptive (and completely, undeniably accurate) comments about the Cardinals, which precipitated a little bench-clearing excitement, but St. Louis swept the Reds to drop Cincinnati back to second place. Well, the Reds promptly won their next seven games to take a 4.5 game lead in the division. Okay, on second thought, maybe that was the most enjoyable run in my lifetime.

Remember Aroldis Chapman’s electric debut? Remember an MVP performance by Joey Votto and a 17-win season by Bronson Arroyo?

I was there when Jay Bruce hit that first-pitch home run to clinch the division title, and I’ll never forget it. I was in the park a couple of weeks later when the Reds played in their first playoff game in fifteen years. No, they didn’t win, but that was a fun team. Isn’t that why we watch baseball? For the enjoyment of following a team that’s in the hunt?

And it wasn’t just 2010. The following season was disappointing (79-83, 3rd place), but the 2012 Reds were even better than the 2010 division champs. They won 97 games and finished in first place by nine games over the second-place Cardinals. They were the first team in baseball to clinch a playoff spot, and there’s an argument to be made that they were the best team in either league. The Reds were the first team in baseball to win 80 games, and no Cincinnati team since 1976 had reached 80 wins faster.

On Mother’s Day, Joey Votto hit three homers, including a walk-off grand slam against the Nationals. Homer Bailey pitched a September no-hitter against Pittsburgh. Jay Bruce hit 34 homers with 99 RBI. Johnny Cueto was brilliant (19-9, 2.78 ERA), and Aroldis Chapman was nearly unhittable (1.51 ERA, 38 saves, 122 strikeouts in 71.2 innings). All that was fun, wasn’t it?

Yes, the Reds choked away a 2-0 lead in the Division Series to the eventual champion San Francisco, but the playoffs are a crapshoot, remember?

The next season was frustrating, in the sense that we expected more. The Reds did win 90 games, but faltered down the stretch and lost a wild card game that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, and ultimately cost manager Dusty Baker his job. But it completed a stretch where the Reds made post-season play three times in four years. The Reds have only qualified for the post-season 15 times* in the entire history of the club, so at least we got to experience something that most Reds fans over the years haven’t been able to enjoy.

*To be fair, until they split up the leagues into divisions and watered down the playoffs, there were far fewer playoff spots available for Reds teams. Still, only the Big Red Machine played in the post-season more often than the 2010-2014 Reds.

Where am I going with this too-long “in memoriam” tribute to the 2010-2014 Reds? Nowhere, I guess. I’m just a little sad that the window is now officially closed, and the Reds may not be in a position to contend in the near future. It was a really fun run, and I think every Reds fan should recognize what we got in this deal. It’s exceptionally rare for the Reds to have a competitive club for 4-5 years. These Reds teams did a lot of things well, had some great personalities, and we got to see some of the best individual performances we’ll ever see (I’m thinking here of Votto in 2010 and Cueto in 2014).

No, they didn’t get things done in the playoffs. Whatever. It was a very good run, and I enjoyed almost every single minute of it. I just wish it weren’t over.

Chad Dotson is a Nuxhall Way contributor. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

 

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