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Embrace the trudge

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An Opening Day essay

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

This past August, I found myself unemployed. You would think that, after spending the last 18 years in school and finishing a summer in which I worked nearly 60 hours a week, not to mention 12 credit hours of online classes to finish college, I would find the idea of having zero obligations for the first time in my life to be an exciting thought. And I sort of did, at first. The four hour drive across the state to visit my girlfriend required next to no advanced planning on my part (it took some on hers because she worked three jobs at the time, like a NERD). If there was a football or baseball game that I wanted to see, I had the freedom to watch it. And I could let my sleep patterns go to complete shit with no consequences. I had the free time of a Trump child.

But man, I wanted a job. Over the summer, I’d really gotten used to the idea of someone looking at me all wide-eyed asking if I’d accomplished some task, and the idea of responding “YES I DID” like a big proud boy if I had, or being summarily and properly shamed if I hadn’t. It made me feel like I had my shit together, or at least like someone *expected* me to have my shit together, which was sometimes good enough.

I wanted someone to pay me to write, and at first, it appeared I might not have much of a problem. I landed two job interviews in my first week of sending applications out, and even though nothing came of those interviews, it felt like a good sign of things to come. Something good is about to happen, I thought. It has to.

I didn’t hear from anyone else for two months.

Now, my unemployment situation wasn’t nearly as dire as most people’s. I had no family to support, no rent check to clear, no gambling debts that needed settled. My parents, being the loving, supportive people they are, had no problem keeping me fed and my laundry clean.

But it wore on me. It created this self-imposed isolation where I did nothing but think about what I had to do to get a job. I checked postings obsessively, sent emails, wrote letters, asked advice from people who had much better things to do than entertain long messages from me. If a day passed by in which nothing happened that could directly lead to me getting a job, well, that day might as well have not even happened.

Time, in that circumstance, seemed to barely move. The days moved like a hiker who’s trying to climb a mountain with a bunch of heavy shit on his back. Step by step, feet shuffling forward just fast enough to keep from falling backward.

Trudging.

I was frustrated constantly — at employers who were slow to respond to job applications (or straight up didn’t), at my own shortcomings as a writer, at years of horrifying anxiety that turned networking and making connections that could help with these job searches into a living hell. But mostly, I was frustrated with time. I knew that I was 22 years old and had a college degree. Someone was eventually going to pay me to do something for them. I just wished that I could skip ahead to whatever time that was. Skip the worrying and the uncertainty. The empty space between what I was and what I was going to be.

***

Today is Opening Day, the first day of Year 5 of the Cincinnati Reds’ rebuild. It’s safe to say that many of us hoped it would go quicker than this.

Remember when they called it a reboot? Or was it a retool? A remix? A rewiring? A reconfiguration?

Whatever they called it, it was a rebuild, and an uncannily timed one at that.

The last three World Series championships have been won by teams who underwent strategic, aggressive rebuilds. When implemented correctly, the plan has proven to be a successful one, one that has become increasingly easy to sell to a fanbase. Look at the window those teams have created for themselves, the front office says. That could be us!

Problem is, the 2018 Reds don’t much look like the Astros or Cubs or Royals of yesteryear, the ones most smart people knew were sleeping giants before they ever started to actually threaten the playoffs.

This rebuild has been slow. Trades have been made too late and failed to bring the kind of sparkly blue chip prospects that get the Keith Laws of the world to inch toward the edge of their seats a bit. The drafts of the team’s last contending years have failed to produce much of anything in the way of big league talent. And then, of course, there are the injuries that have turned the pitching staffs of the last two seasons into a M*A*S*H infirmary.

Reds fans wanted this rebuild to go quicker, and I’m as guilty as anyone for, just like when I was unemployed, wanting to skip ahead to the future. Skip to when the prospects have fully bloomed and are shining night in and night out, to when the team has maybe even made a free agent splash. A time when the Reds win.

I’m here today to say unto all of you: To hell with that.

First off, have you been paying attention to the world lately? The future ain’t happening, people. Telling me to get excited for a Hunter Greene debut in 2021 is like telling me to get excited about doing all of my traveling via flying sex robots in the year 2200. There’s no chance I’m alive to see that.

No, I’ll take my 2018 baseball and be happy with it. The very worst thing that could happen in the 2018 season is that it looks like the 2017 season. And do you know what? The 2017 season ruled. Yeah, the Reds lost a lot more games than they won. But Scooter Gennett also hit four home runs in a game. Luis Castillo sliced eyeballs. Joey Votto made his biggest step yet toward the Hall of Fame. The team had six players hit at least 24 homers, for Christ’s sake. That’s a lot of dingers, man. That’s a lot of balls in the seats to be bored with.

I liked 2016 and 2015 too. And 2014 and 2011, for that matter. I have fun memories of all those seasons, and almost none of them have anything to do with the Reds winning games. The 2010 and 2012 seasons were objectively more fun, yes. But that doesn’t mean the years since have been a waste of time. They all happened.

Baseball, like unemployment or hospital stays or, Jesus Christ, presidential administrations, is a trudge. You move one game at a time, one foot in front of the other, shuffling up that damn baseball mountain precisely as fast as that baseball mountain decides you can move, and not a smidge faster.

Has the Reds rebuild felt that slow, that far behind what other rebuilds have managed to accomplish? Think about the Braves, also in Year 5 of their rebuild. They have the best prospect in baseball, yes, but the talent on their Major League club takes a significant drop-off once you get past their franchise first baseman. Does that sound familiar?

Think about the Phillies and Padres, both trudging into Year 8 of their respective rebuilds. The Padres have a damn fine farm system and the Phillies spent some coin this offseason, but do you see anyone predicting them to win their divisions this season, or even next year for that matter?

And do you think that trudge ends once the team is good? If you do, I’d like to introduce you to the Dodgers, utterly limitless in talent, financial resources and front office intelligence, entering their 30th season since their last title. They’ve won their division five years in a row, and came just one game shy of winning the World Series in October. Today, they have to start the trudge all over again.

Or what about the Indians, who missed out on a championship for a 69th straight season last year? It was a nice season, sure, with arguably the greatest pitching staff ever assembled and a 22-game win streak thrown on at the very end. But they finished it having played just as many outs of World Series baseball as the Reds did. Like everyone else, they have to start the trudge all over again today.

The point is that success is never owed or guaranteed. I will go to my grave believing the 2012 Reds were the best team in baseball, and they didn’t win a playoff series. The team that did win the title that year was a San Francisco Giants team that won 88 games that season. The next good Reds team might sneak into a Wild Card round and win the World Series, or it might win five straight division titles only to end each of those seasons in disappointment.

Every season is a trudge, and that’s the way it’s meant to be. Through the weeds of loss, the thorns of injury and the mud of missed draft picks, we all trudge. Even though we can’t see the top of the mountain, even though we know that slips and slides are eminent, we all trudge.

The Reds will play the Nationals today (or tomorrow, or whenever, screw you mother nature), a team that knows those slides as well as anyone. They are a team that have been a World Series favorite for years, yet they’ve not won so much as a single playoff series. The last time they were on the field in a game that counted, they had a lead in an elimination game against the defending world champion Cubs, and brought in their ace — the one the Reds will face today — who is one of the two or three very best pitchers on earth. He gave up four runs in one inning and lost the game, because baseball is senseless violence that neither rewards nor tolerates the audacity to dream.

They begin their trudge today, just like the Reds, just like the other 28 teams in baseball, because it is the only option they have. It is the only option any of us have. We’ll make our way through 162 games of baseball this season, God willing. But we do a disservice to ourselves to do it with one eye pointed toward an uncertain future. Two eyes on the baseball of the present, win or lose, is always the better option.