[This great report was filed by loyal Nation member Sam Howard, who attended the East Tour stop of the Reds Caravan last night in Athens. Thanks Sam! If any of the rest of you attend a caravan stop and want to file a report and/or pictures, please send them to redlegnation2014@gmail.com.]

The last (and only other time) I made it to a Reds Caravan stop was in the winter of 2008.* I was 13 years old, fresh out of my Little League days playing second base. Meeting Brandon Phillips just after his 30/30 season made for the best day of my year.

I didn’t have any idea what I would say to my pre-pubescent hero. But despite some lengthy preparation, all I could muster was “thanks for the autograph,” while flashing a ridiculously goofy grin to match his own.

Fast-forward seven years — and a fair share of heartache and disillusionment — and I knew exactly what I would say at my second Reds Caravan Thursday night in Athens, Ohio.

Something along these lines: “My question’s for Walt. With the recent acquisition of Marlon Byrd, what makes you think he can be as productive as he was in 2013, as opposed to the second half of 2014?”

A friend later told me it was the most awkward couple seconds of the roughly 20 minutes of crowd Q&A.

Walt initially joked, “That’s what my scouts are for,” before offering a more lengthy explanation. Of Byrd’s 2013 production level, Walt said, there’s “no question he’ll come back.”

He added that Byrd “drives in runs and plays good defense” in addition to playing hard. He chalked up Byrd’s 2014 decline to struggling “team performance” over in Philadelphia.

Obviously that answer leaves a lot to be desired, but I’m not sure if I would’ve been entirely welcomed back at the microphone for a follow-up.

I tried to wrap my head around Walt’s answer during the next question for the Reds GM, which was essentially the same as mine, but about Jason Marquis. Walt told a crowd of at least a couple hundred that he expects the 36-year-old hurler to “compete for a spot in the rotation.”

Well, there you have it.

Cynicism aside, the Caravan itself didn’t disappoint. It’s brilliant marketing for the club, and I saw a good deal of Southeast Ohioans who brought back balls and posters from last year’s stop to get a few more autographs. It’s always a good time around other Reds fans.

The crowd favorite was easily Thom Brennaman, an Ohio University alumnus.

Pointing to a college-aged man’s OU sweatshirt, Thom called the young fan “a Rhodes Scholar, no doubt,” which led to abrupt applause from the crowd. The “scholar” asked Thom for his favorite Athens bar on the town’s famous Uptown drag.

“All of them,” Thom joked. More applause. Thom specified that he prefers the C.I. (which really isn’t all that great). More applause. The guy can do no wrong in this county.

(Two years ago word got around on OU’s campus that Brandon Phillips hit the bars with students the night of the caravan’s Athens stop, but I haven’t gotten that confirmed.)

A few other observations unrelated to alcohol consumption:

  • Eric Davis said that Billy Hamilton could steal 100 bases in 2015, but his tone didn’t sound that convincing.
  • Walt sent medical staffers to Texas to see Jay Bruce and Toronto to see Joey Votto, both of whom he expects to be “100 percent by Spring Training.” Votto will be in Cincinnati in the next week or so for more tests, but Walt said the “knee is strong.”
  • Sam LeCure thinks the bullpen will bounce back with a chip on their shoulders. He attributed a lot of their struggles last year to health problems.
  • Everyone, including many in the crowd, are high on Kyle Waldrop, who I hadn’t really heard much about previously. Thom told fans that he has “no doubt he’ll be in Reds outfield for many years to come.”

Obviously, those statements and proclamations should be interpreted cautiously, and I can’t help but feel stiffed by Walt’s answer to my Marlon Byrd question. But Reds Caravan 2015 still got me excited for the promise of a new season and hopeful that those exceedingly optimistic outlooks are grounded in truth.

So congratulations, Reds front office, you ultimately win. You’re successfully holding me over until Spring Training. Seven years has replaced my awe with cynicism, but the love is certainly still there.

*Footnote: I still have Wayne Krivsky’s autograph on a baseball, which is the baseball equivalent to getting your girlfriend’s name tattooed on your arm before she dumps you the next month.