On a yearly basis, baseball fans are obsessed with winning the World Series. Or with getting back to the playoffs as a stepping stone to winning the World Series. Or with having a winning season so that in a year or two they can maybe go back to the playoffs and then maybe win the World Series. These are the things our day to day conversations, as fans, revolve around.
But that is not why we are fans. Not those of us who really love the game. There are thirty teams. You can expect, on average, to see your team win the World Series once every 30 years (every 29 years if you take the Cubs out of the equation). Yet the Cubs, in this instance, are illustrative. They have fans everywhere. Aggravating fans to be sure, but fans. Why? The Cubs are a good story.
In May of 2009, my wife and I went to Cincinnati for a couple of games. Our first child would be born soon and it was our last trip as a childless couple. The Reds had scuffled to start the year, but lately they’d been coming on. They handled St. Louis easily the first day we were there, a very satisfying 8-3 win. But that’s not the game I really remember. I remember the next day. I remember the game they lost.
It was a back and forth game and tense all the way through – the Reds and Cardinals already didn’t like each other. The Cards scored one in the first, the Reds tied it in the second. The Cards scored three more in the third, the Reds scored two and then tied it with another run in the fourth. They never led, though, and by the bottom of the ninth, they were down 7-5. Hairston went long to make it 7-6 and then, a few batters later, with two outs, no less. The Reds sent Micah Owings – a pitcher – to pinch hit. I can still remember it. I can still see it. There was a full count and Owings got a hold of one and the crowd held its breath. It was hit hard and deep,Ã‚Â but you couldn’t tell if it had enough. It just snuck over the wall in left-center. The game was tied. At that moment, it felt certain. The Reds would win the game. They would take first soon and go on to the playoffs. This was a good team.
It didn’t happen that way. The Reds lost in 10. A few days later, they did touch first place for a day, but that was all they would see of it that year. Owings’ homer was, in many ways, the high point of a lost season. And I remember it. I remember because I was there, but also because it is a good story.
This year, a big part of the story is going to be whether or not the Reds can make the playoffs and maybe even win the World Series. That’s going to be a fun story to watch and be a part of, but there’s another story as well.
Joey Votto is going to be a Red for the rest of his career. This is the story we have been handed and it has the potential to be a good story. Think about Albert Pujols. He left St. Louis and went to Anaheim and his story is changed. The world will not remember him as fondly as if he had remained a Cardinal. In Anaheim, he will decline, and they will probably not be tolerant because they did not get the early years and so are not as willing to forgive the vast outlay of money.
I don’t know what will happen with Joey Votto. He will probably be a great player for a few years, then a good player, then an average player. It won’t be surprising if he’s a liability for a year or two at the end of that deal. He might get hurt, like Griffey, and everything could turn bad, and that would not be an especially nice story to experience.
But it might go well. The Reds might win a World Series or two. In 17 or 18 years, my family might be making a pilgrimage to Cooperstown so our kids can see the player they grew up watching go into the hall of fame. My daughter will probably be in college then, my son just graduating from high school. They have a chance now to feel about Votto the way some of us feel about Larkin. That kind of pure affection is something you only get in childhood and when you think back on it, it transcends the other stuff. Because you can’t win every year. But, if you stick around, and pay attention and get a little lucky, you can end up with a good story.
Happy baseball season, everybody.
Author’s note: I’ve been doing these opening day posts about the larger meaning and importance of baseball for a few years, but they’ve been on my personal blog. If you’re interested, you can find previous posts here and here.