On Sunday night, before a national audience, the Bengals season became clear: Either this team is going to participation-trophy its way in, or last season was a fluke and this city is doomed to another thirty years in the hinterlands.
There is no shame in sliding into the Super Bowl through the side fence, by being the girl the guy asks to dance because he feels sorry for her, only to find that she’s charmed him right into a marriage proposal. This was how the Bengals conducted their Super Bowl march last season. It happens. But probably not again. They see Cincinnati coming this time.
There are still joyous moments to come, to be sure, but confess: If there’s to be a road to a winning season, it’s not smooth, and it’s certainly not wide.
I doubt anyone is watching this team refuse to win against the Steelers in a missed field goal contest with more horror than the offices in Great American Ball Park. The only reason Cincinnatians aren’t pounding on the windows along Joe Nuxhall Way is that our parched search for respect in the sports world– inspire any fear, any consideration at all– has been quenched.
That’s why we weren’t devastated and flinging ourselves off the Purple People Bridge when the Super Bowl was lost. We were stunned to be there at all. We would have been satisfied with the Wild Card win. The tears that flowed after the AFC Championship were not so pure as the initial, overwhelming reaction of simply seeing a Bengals helmet on the postseason play boards.
Perhaps as a backup, our soccer team (we have a soccer team, remember?) has hoisted itself up by its weird European bootstraps and sneaked its way into the weird European playoffs. Like its American football counterparts, it found footholds in its own years of futility: Nobody saw FC coming.
The literary analyst in me wants to see a pattern in this, that since no one will see the Reds coming, the MLB will suddenly right itself. The ownership sweep its arms open, go on a free agency spending spree, and open its arm until its people, allowing backpacks and diaper bags larger than 16″x16″x8″ into the stadium.
But we all know how likely that is. The Bengals were willing to sell out its very founder, its namesake, in order to pay for the golden quarterback and the fleet-footed wide receiver and all the other first-class accoutrements necessary for putting their helmet graphic into the playoffs graphic. There’s no sign, no suggestion at all that the Reds are willing to do the same. This team is relentless in its pursuit of mediocrity and embarrassment. And so there are no bigger Bengals fans than the people running the Reds.
So what would the city’s attitude towards this team be if there were no golden quarterback, no AFC Championship hats? The shrugging we see now? Likely not. This is a baseball town and our baseball team is mortifying. All the Joey Votto social media posts of baby hippos in all of cyberspace cannot redeem it. Why have we continued in our patience?
Because we are happily distracted by the orange and black confetti, the penalty kicks that went our way, and the baby hippo. The combined attendance for an entire three-game series at the end of the season would fill perhaps half of the Bengals stadium.
So pointedly Going Elsewhere has not worked. Ignoring social media accounts has not worked, or a fan-funded billboard to call for a new owner, or the determination to see the same movie multiple times rather than the pitiful story unfolding on the basepaths. Nothing is going to work until the people in charge of putting this baseball club in a position to win decide to actually put this baseball club into a position to win. And so we’ve given up.
Maybe that’s why Cincinnatians are throwing our hands up and going to minor league hockey games. We’re letting the ownership get away with it, but if the Bengals offensive line continues to bend and then break, if the FC lets up one inch, casual baseball fans are going to remember about the baseball humiliation doled out on the daily.
This cannot go on forever. I don’t know what the end game will look like, but chances are… not a World Series trophy.