Of all the unbelievable places I’ve lived or typed from, this is the most shocking, the most unexpected, and truly the most perilous: First place in the National League Central.
From the heavens has come a gift, and it has no single name. First place, like last place, seldom does.
On Monday night, the 700 WLW broadcast team reminded listeners that when they woke up in the morning, the team would be here, given the portentous direction of the Brewers’ game; and indeed, when the sun came up, Milwaukee found itself in a most peculiar position– looking up at the Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds have won more games than this at the same point in the season, but now that we’ve strung together a bunch at once, we’re hysterical. We’re afraid to breathe, lest we jinx it. Every pitch is Game 7 of the World Series, even though we’re playing the last-place Rockies from a completely different division. “Nobody move,” I typed to my friends. “If we stay quiet, maybe the universe won’t notice we’re here, and allow us to keep this.”
But of course it’s impossible to not-move; WLW’s Lance McAlister reported on Monday that he was possibly hyperventilating. People at the ballpark were holding their phones up to record the final out. When the camera swept the lower decks, there were areas that were actually covered in people instead of row after row of empty seats. It’s June.
Team Brood X
A crowd of fans at least four deep were clustered about the cameras in the televised post-game show. It was 67 degrees and the men were using their shirts as rally flags. They chanted Elly De La Cruz’s name when he did nothing more but show up on the studio monitors. By the end of the segment, the Reds Community Fund telethon was sold out of Joey Votto Russian dolls, and Jim Day was left with nothing to hawk.
These people had handmade signs. They were hanging from the rafters. They closed down the Porkopolis Stand. This is… this is playoff behavior. We’re all Brood X cicadas, wildly flying from branch to sidewalk to garden hose before the world ends and we don’t get to experience this life again for another 17 years.
The B Plot
And this is without even mentioning the B plot, if you can believe it’s a B plot: The return of Joey Votto. He posted videos of himself having chess-centric adventures over the winter, and then he went quiet, and then he was suddenly in Louisville, being a Bat and thanking people as though he’d just won an Academy Award for Best Portrayal of a Canadian in a Midwestern City.
“Almost there,” a fan posted as Votto began depositing baseballs on the right-field roof in Louisville. Well, he was all the way there, as it happens, and surprised everyone except himself.
Votto posted an outrageously styled series of photos and videos on Father’s Day, all kinds of slow-motion and close-ups and dragging a bat behind him. The Mars-red suit, the dramatic music, the bubblegum and the bolo tie– wasn’t this a bit… I don’t know… much? Just how badly was this going to age? If he ended the night with his face in the dirt (he did wind up there at one point, but not because he’d twisted his body around with a comically missed swing), how on Earth was Votto going to walk this back?
Perhaps the most people expected from Votto was to drag himself with a modicum of dignity to perhaps first base, maybe second. At this point in the adventure, there was Much Discussion about The Vibe.
Winning seemed to be happening here; would introducing the 39-year-old into a clubhouse of bouncing-off-the-basepaths rookies disrupt The Vibe? We were all hemp-addled hippies terrified that Votto’s aura was going to mis-entangle with someone else’s spiritual energy and throw the clubhouse sage bundles and crystal light therapy beds out of whack.
Meanwhile The Vibe was wearing the home run Viking helmet while the whole crowd chanted his name. Joey Votto had not disrupted The Vibe. Joey Votto was The Vibe. In the long stretch of injury and slog, everyone, including me, forgot about the unique atomic weight that is Element Joey Votto. He didn’t need our pity. He needed an at-bat.
I forgot to tune into Monday’s game at the first pitch– to be honest, I could not bring myself to pay attention, and had not closely followed an entire inning of a single game since last summer, and that was because I wanted to make sure I herded a nephew in place for the Friday Night Fireworks.
Now, at about 8 in the evening, as I unloaded the dishwasher, the fireworks down the street tugged once more at the hem of my skirt. It was a proclamation, an announcement, and I stood with a dinner plate in hand and knew exactly what had happened. I knew. I knew it. “That’s Joey,” I realized, and for the first time in how-long began flipping through channels trying to find the Reds game, to see the replay of Joey Votto’s home run in this, his first game back.
By the time I found online footage, Votto was in a curtain call, the fur-trimmed cape of victory billowing out behind him like an ancient deity, his deeds written in smoke and sparkling gunpowder. The very same people ready to help him and his walker to the Depends section at Kroger’s couldn’t wait to see what miraculous deed he would bestow upon them in the next bat-around. They weren’t just happy about what Votto did, but that it happened to Votto.
Votto is the hinge of all this delirium because… because… and here’s the quiet part we’re really not saying out loud, because of wanting to stay very, very still and everything— what’s within the edge of the realm of possibility now is maybe… perhaps… just possibly… sending Joey Votto into the sunset with a rather distinctive ring on his right hand.
Isn’t that what everyone was always saying, that it was such a shame he was buried with the Reds, that a man so clearly of Hall of Fame caliber should end such a long and illustrious career without a championship to his name? What if… and this is just conjecture here, mind you, but what if….
Last year at this point in the season, the Cincinnati Reds were twenty-one games under .500.
They had 26 wins and 47 losses.
Joey Votto, playing with a shredded shoulder, was at the halfway point of what would be the worst season of his career, and we all turned to one another during the Bengals off-season and murmured that perhaps we’d seen him bat for the last time as a Red, possibly forever.
They are now 38-35 and all alone in first place.
A Little Bit of Chicken Fried
I wish my mother could have seen this day. I wish my father could have seen this day. I wish Ray Liotta could have seen this day. Then again, they’re all in a position to yell at the front office from the beyond, and that, I think, moves projects such as this along much faster than we can on our own.
Two weeks ago, people were expressing surprise that there actually seemed to be a crowd at Great American, and with the eventual reminder that a Zac Brown Band concert and fireworks show followed the final out, everyone nodded. Well, that explained it; if there was something other than Reds baseball happening at the ballpark, perhaps there was a reason to go there. Two weeks!
Now I find myself in the astounding position of feeling sorry for an opposing team; last night the Rockies looked like… well, they looked like us until quite recently. The ball fumbling in the glove, the glossy, defeated look in the eye.
Votto went 0-4 in Game 2 of the World Series of Brood X. But never mind, the De La Cruz Baserunning Spectacular and Medicine Show had rolled into town.
We feel astonishment, not necessarily at all the winning, but because we’re actually giving a crap about this team, and frankly that is going to take some getting used to. We are remembering what it is to high-five strangers on a summer afternoon.
Yet many of us are certain that somewhere… somehow… the actual loss-exhausted Reds are lurking beneath this sparkling veneer of a first place team. How deep is the top layer? We don’t want to know.
It’s the worst and best dating relationship of our lives. They try to lose and then they don’t. The bullpen teeters on the brink of collapse and then it doesn’t. A lead of four runs is not enough, but they’ll sink themselves down five and then score six in the bottom of the ninth. If you don’t have a King’s Island season pass, you don’t need one. The most terrifying thrill ride in the land is the diamond at Great American Ball Park.
The Pain We Choose
It’s not just enjoyment. It’s disbelief. It is what we never dared hope for and got anyway. What we dreamed of, long-shot wise, was a lineup that would simply stop embarrassing us; what we got was a whole teamful worthy of gift certificates as Stars of the Game. Since we’re all quite convinced that this is going to end, and end quickly, we are splashing about in the pool of feeling not-sorry for ourselves before adult swim takes over.
“I gotta be at work tomorrow at 6AM and I don’t care,” a south-driving fan from Louisville told McAlister last night as the clock crept towards midnight. So be it. This man knew the payoff was worth this sort of pain. The pain that we choose is far more bearable than the suffocating anguish of constant defeat pressed upon us, and, given what this city has suffered in the past three decades, we are more than willing to carry on if it’s a bit much.