“It doesn’t seem like they [the Reds] are going in the tank, like the Houston Astros, but it doesn’t feel like they’re going ALLLLLLLLL INNNNN, does it?”        —Mo Egger

All in.Poker-Chip-All-In

They are the two magic words that sometimes sound as if they should be shouted while waving one of J.K Rowling’s magic wands—pointed with stern purpose—directly at The Team Who Shall Not Be Named residing upstream in the standings on the Mississippi River.

But as the oft-repeated comic book phrase goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.” We muggles should at least know the definition and consequences of this “spell,” lest we inadvertently—as if, having made the mistake of holding the wand by the wrong end—smote ourselves with our own flawed reasoning and fanatic desires.

We’ve heard the incantation in all it’s past, present and future glory, from invoking it to attach meaning to a particular trade (e.g., “the Reds went “ALL IN” last year with the acquisition of Choo”)—to insisting that the front office told the fan base it was “ALL IN,”—to declaring how the organization should proceed now.

We are a fan base desperately in need of an accurate definition of the “ALL IN” meme, one that can be useful in understanding how the club is being run, unpacking the purpose behind moves made and NOT made. It might even give us a way of fairly evaluating the success or failure of those efforts while helping us correctly read the signposts ahead that point toward the future. Clarity is a good thing, assuming it’s your thing.

The poker term “ALL IN” has become a seductively overused phase in the sports lexicon of late, full of the testosterone that fuels the InterWebs these days. The poker player that goes ALL IN is in the moment. With all of his chips pushed to the center of the table, by definition, ALL IN means future play is solely dependent upon the results of the current hand. Right here and right now. Lose—and there is no next hand.  No tomorrow. Get up and leave the table. Thanks for playing. Tip your waitress on the way out.

Were the Reds “ALL IN” last year? Hardly.

To hear the local media tell it, though—absolutely. At various times and by various people—beat writers, talk radio, the blogosphere—all proclaimed the Cincinnati Reds “ALL IN.” Is it any wonder that many fans have bought into this tired and misdirected narrative?

Admit it, loyal fan. Most of you secretly want to see this team go “ALL IN.” Even if you won’t say it out loud, in your heart-of-hearts, you want the men upstairs rolling the dice. Put it all on nineteen. Make something happen. Now. For some, “ALL IN” has been a spell to be fallen into, a hypnotic trance that leads of dreams of daring trades, national recognition, striking fear in NL Central adversaries—if only the cowards/tightwads/misanthropes at the top will pull the trigger. And for the folks who insist they were promised something more, “ALL IN” has become a cudgel to bludgeon management for broken promises or past misdeeds, real and imagined.

Dear fan, whatever you have heard or read about the Reds’ commitment to being “ALL IN,” understand that their definition is most definitely different than than the above definition. The politics of the fan/front office relationship don’t allow for answering “no” to the question of being “ALL IN.” For ownership and management, “ALL IN” equates to being “committed” to the success of the team in the eyes of the fan—nothing more. It has no time constraints attached to it, no expiration date stamped on it. It’s not about now. It’s about always. There’s a big difference.

Don’t believe me?

In August, shortly after a two game sweep of the A’s, Paul Daugherty had this to say about Castellini and the notion of “ALL IN.”

“You want to know the guy signing the checks is as All In as you are … We have called this an All In summer. It’s not a term Castellini appreciates. He says every year is All In.”

If we can get past the semantics, it’s pretty easy to see that to the front office, “ALL IN” means a commitment to sustainability, to being right there in the hunt every year. That very commitment eschews the fan definition of “ALL IN,” because the fan definition means risking all for one shot, whether that means spending money that won’t be available to keep your top starters next year—or trading away prospects that were meant to be counted on in seasons to come. It’s playing for today and today only. It means World Series or bust. Either way, you get up and leave the table at the end.

That’s never been the plan as spoken by this owner or this GM:

“Being a small market, we have to rely on our scouting and player development,” general manager Walt Jocketty said. “We supplement it through trades and free agency. I feel we’ve been able to change the mindset. We’re building to contend every year.”     —Walt Jocketty, Baseball America, December 2012

You keep hearing that the Reds don’t have a plan, even as the people at the top have repeatedly spoken plainly and without equivocation. Do you not hear? It has never revolved around pushing chips into the center of the table:

“We have no plans to sell the team, so I plan on being engaged with the Reds for a very long time. Hopefully we can bring back the winning tradition and make it sustainable, so God willing, I plan on doing it a very long time.”  —Phil Castellini, Cincy Magazine, February 2014

Sustainability? Do you not hear?

You are told by some the Reds have the money; they simply won’t spend;  you keep hearing the whispers that money is being held back, going into pockets perhaps:

“Jeff Wyler recalled Castellini recruiting him to buy a share of the team. It wouldn’t be a for-profit venture. ‘We are the custodians of the crown jewel of Cincinnati,’ Wyler recalled Castellini telling him. ‘We’re going to restore pride to Cincinnati and its baseball team. If you’re expecting an annual return, you can forget it.’”    —Paul Daugherty, Cincinnati Enquirer, January 2013

“ALL IN” is not in this regime’s DNA. You may want to think  the enormous contracts given to Votto and Phillips suggest otherwise, but according to John Fay, the owner said at the time:

What we are doing will not be to the financial detriment to our team in the future.

Sustainability. Future. Do you not hear?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the Reds to go “ALL IN.” Maybe 40 years ago when a single series won the pennant and punched your World Series ticket. The game has changed. More teams make the post-season. Not only has the additional Wild Card team increased the odds of getting in and potentially getting hot, the other side of the coin says new rules have ensured that even the best laid plans can go to ruin, making every post-season a crapshoot. Even if you think it’s your year, even if you believe one last move will make the difference, put you over the top, more teams mean a bigger minefield, longer odds. Now, more than ever, you just want to get there every year, not spend years building a team only to throw it all away for the better part of the next decade chasing an elusive jackpot.

The “ALL IN” meme and its companion “CLOSING WINDOW,” have sent many heading for their panic room. We’re being told this is the last chance for the Reds. The notion that Jocketty has underestimated the worth of players like Choo, Philips or Bailey or even Sizemore—and has therefore misplayed his hand—strikes a false note.

A long term Bailey signing has been on the Reds’ radar screen for a long time. He hasn’t heretofore signed because he has always been willing to hold his cards and wait. The Reds’ leverage is that at any moment Bailey, like any other pitcher, could get hurt. But, Homer—as we know—doesn’t think like just any major league baseball player. Homer has, to some extent, been more than ready to go “ALL IN” betting on his arm’s health. That’s his leverage. He’s been using it for some time. Had Homer’s last two seasons not built upon each other, his strikeouts and walks improving in each, his velocity improving, leverage would have shifted to the Reds. But, it didn’t. Advantage Bailey. Had Bailey suffered any time on the DL in 2013, for even slightest of reasons, leverage would have shifted to the Reds. But, it didn’t. Advantage Bailey. The surprising Tim Lincecum deal, and certainly the Kershaw contract has had the effect lifting all boats, including Bailey’s, making any potential contract situation fluid, not something the Reds’ front office fumbled. All of Baseball—not just Walt Jocketty—sat on the sidelines waiting for events like the Tanaka signing to set the market for other players.

Emotion has clouded the judgment on what to do with Phillips. Jayson Stark reported weeks ago that every GM who spoke with the Reds got the impression that it was ownership, not Jocketty that was pushing to move Phillips. It’s unlikely Jocketty misjudged anything about dealing Brandon Phillips.

As to the matter of Grady Sizemore, Cincinnati fans are free to assume that it was simply a matter of pinching shut the change purse if they wish, but they should know that a Boston blog points to a comfort level Sizemore had with not only his old Cleveland Indians trainer and manager, but a local sports medicine physical therapist, who the Sox hired as a consultant in early 2012, and who now is their Coordinator of Sports Medicine. It was Dan Dyrek, the man who got a wounded Larry Bird healthy enough to compete in the 1992 Olympics, who ultimately wooed Sizemore away from the Reds to the Red Sox. The Reds didn’t lose Sizemore because they were cheap or misjudged the cost of doing business, they most likely lost him due to a series of prior relationships and unfortunate circumstance.

The lack of offense last season has robbed focus from all pitching and defense that won the Reds 90 games last season. The howls that this is a THIRD PLACE team are belied by the fact that only a lost final week of the season kept the Reds from posting perhaps as many as 94 wins. It rebuts the notion the team MUST make some dramatic move or fall to afterthought status in the NL Central in 2014. You want something big. “ALL IN” big. The front office wants to be in the hunt every year.

Time for a new narrative: sustainability.

Leave “ALL IN” to the gamblers and fools.