Happy Baseball New Year

In 1999, I made a bet and a vow.

The bet happened first. I took a job that year just outside the shadow of New York, and a strange occurrence happened: I made friends with Mets fans. I am not particularly outgoing or gregarious, to be sure, but being friends with a Mets fan was so unusual because up to that point in my life, I had never met one before, despite living half my childhood within two hours of Shea Stadium.

One of these friends became a daily lunch partner, traveling each noon to the corner deli, where we could read the New York tabloid papers, and argue about baseball. This was the rare year where both teams were good, and we each reveled in our respective team's success. We carried our fanhood to the company softball team: I in my bright red wishbone C hat, and he with the interlocking NY. As the team's first baseman, Jeff earned the nickname "Mex," while I played shortstop and became known as Pokey.

This was the era of emergent pop sabermetrics, especially personified in the online writings of Rob Neyer. The power of the Pythagorean theorem was a frequent topic in those columns, and I remember calculating an expected winning percentage for both the Reds and the Mets at the All-Star break, and used the difference therein to convince myself that the Reds were destined for postseason qualification, and the Mets were not.

The terms of the bet were simple. If the Reds won more games and/or advanced further in the playoffs, Jeff would buy a Reds hat to wear during the following year's softball games. Naturally, the converse would apply should the Mets succeed.

You all know how that turned out, and most of you have already, by force of instinct, spat on the ground and cursed the wretched name of Al Leiter. Honoring the bet the following year was plenty painful; not so much because of the headwear bigamy, or because it represented lost opportunity, or even because my ball field nickname changed from Pokey to Rey-Rey. Rather, wearing the hat became more tribute than due payment, and I wore the hat without complaint, since I was playing softball while my friend lay dying in a hospital bed, his body withered from a rare form of stomach cancer. It's the kind of life lesson that somehow makes baseball fandom simultaneously more and less important. Of course it's not life or death; that's part of why we love it so much.

Like I said before, I made a vow in 1999 as well. Technically, I made two. I vowed lifelong partnership to my bride that year, but that didn't come until November, nor did it have anything to do with baseball. The baseball vow came a month earlier, when another friend invited me to attend one of the Mets' playoff games with him.

There was no spite or malice in the invitation. He knew my love for the sport, and he knew baseball heartbreak. Al Leiter or no, this was playoff baseball in a great atmosphere. Naturally, I would want to go.

There's part of me-a cool, detached part I don't like to talk about at dinner parties-that wonders why we fans place so much emphasis on the postseason. The playoffs are an arbitrary construct designed to make team owners lots of money, and the results of said games are barely a function of team quality. Then buoyant rationality kicks in, and the point becomes clear: indulgence and exclusivity. There are more games to watch or attend, and if you want to watch baseball in October, the options are limited to games featuring playoff teams. In other words, my team is currently on TV and yours isn't. This appeals to the inner nine-year-old in all of us that drives so much of our fandom in the first place.

The vow, therefore, was that my first in-person playoff experience would involve the Reds. The unspoken promise was that I would attend the very next Reds playoff game. With vow attached, this was now sacrosanct and, best of all, was very certainly just around the corner. I turned down the invitation to the Mets game.

The corner, as we all know, turned out to be much further away than it looked on the map. The Griffey decade of dominance simply wasn't, and the fecklessness of team management became the perpetual storyline.

****

In the various stages of grief, acceptance comes at the end. My acceptance came as a declaration: I'm not going to listen to Marty anymore.

After all, the Reds had been too bad for too long. Too many failed prospects, too many transparently stupid transactions, too many five-year plans. And, it naturally followed, too much cynicism and negativity from Mr. Brennaman to justify continuing an internet radio subscription I barely had time to use.

It wasn't a divorce, it was an evolution. Maybe it was maturity; maybe it was a hardened view of a game that once consumed nearly every thought. Maybe I heard the radio cynic's voice crackle over the airwaves and heard too much of my own voice instead. I'd still follow the team daily, "watch" the online gamecasts when possible, travel to a game or two, tune in every time the Reds showed up on my TV screen, write about the team a few times, but no more Marty. After all, I'm getting older.

****

My two sons, separated in age by nearly 4 ½ years, both came to cherish the grand game of baseball in 2010. My oldest, born three months prior to Boston's unlikely championship in 2004, had never taken to the game. There have always been too many things to do and discover to just sit and watch.

The spring, however, brought his first t-ball experiences. With his old man serving as coach, the kid learned the indescribable feeling of lacing a base hit up the middle, of making a play with the glove.

With his eyes newly opened, my son's indifference thawed. By season's end, he was gripped by the World Series, proclaiming his four favorite teams to be the Red Sox, Reds, Giants, and Rangers: a son of New England, a son of a fanatic, and a patron of the fruits of victory.

My youngest has been an easier sell. He was not quite 22 months old when he awoke one morning to find a new television set mounted in the living room. Instinctively, he hugged me and said one word: "Baseball."

****

Through the confluences of the secondary ticket market, an elongated weekend meant to celebrate a 15th century Spaniard adventurer, and the federal interstate highway system, I was there. It's a great feeling to make good on an old vow, mostly left for dead. It's an even better feeling to cheer loudly with 42,000 of your closest friends, screaming in unison together.

The experiences were so surreal, because of how damned unlikely it all was. Outgoing pedestrians wearing Carson Palmer jerseys exchanged high fives with the incoming second wave as they passed each other on a purple bridge. A throng of ticket-holders, jamming the front concourse, chanted enthusiastically while waiting to be patted down and admitted entrance. Tailgaters. White towels being waved. A nearly full upper deck, still some thirty minutes before the first pitch.

I'm guessing most fans of my generation who have spent any significant time in Cincinnati have: A) heard the city referenced as a "great baseball town"; and B) have puzzled over the reference. It's hard to be a great baseball town without containing some great baseball from time to time. My grandfather slept outside a ticket window so he could see Walters, McCormick, and Lombardi in person. My dad attended many of the great events of the early 70's. They conspired together to buy a TV set for the hospital room where I spent my first few hours on this planet, so that we could all watch Don Gullet beat the Yankees in game 1 of the 1976 Classic.

All these years later, I was able to witness and breathe a taste of what they grew up a part of. That my father and brother and I were able to attend this one together will be a lasting memory. Seeing the city of my DNA cheer on its favorite sons will be another. The player introductions before the game began were a chance for the fans to say thank you for winning, for restoring our passion for the sport, for being a welcome respite from the past mediocre decade. I lost my voice before the PA announcer finished introducing the reserves.

****

Different cultures have different calendars. You've likely heard mention of the Chinese New Year, of Rosh Hashanah, of Dick Clark. We, the shared culture of Redleg Base Ball, celebrate New Year's today. It is Pitchers and Catchers Day. Our High Holiday is still six weeks away, but today starts the countdown.

Baseball New Year's is always a time for hope and optimism. Pitchers and Catchers Day, 2011 is doubly special because for the first time in a long time, we close the book on a good year. All baseball years contain memories of some sort, but the memories blend together. I remember certain Ken Griffey blasts, but could not begin to guess the years in which they happened. Individually, they were all of limited significance. I will, however, remember Brandon Phillips trucking the catcher, and Jay Bruce rounding the bases, and 105 mph fastballs, and Joey Votto making the throw from his knees, and the phrase "17th round pick out of Messiah College" making its MLB debut, and I will remember the year in which they happened. In short, I will remember 2010, specifically and enjoyably.

Perhaps some year in the future, potentially soon, we will collectively complain about not seeing enough success; maybe the team will have won the division three consecutive seasons without advancing past one round of the playoff tree. We are fickle and greedy by nature, and we are constantly striving for more. Should all this happen before long, we will point to 2010 as the year the thirst kicked in. Now, officially, the Year of Finally Breaking Through is past. Happy New Year.

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