Perhaps it’s Delino DeShields we should be talking to this week. The current 1B coach of the Cincinnati Reds might well be one of the best reference points in the entire organization when it comes to October baseball and this club’s recent - err, semi-recent history.
Delino DeShields played in over 1600 games in his career, and never once did so in a Reds uniform. And that’s kind of the point here.
While never a Reds player, the 51 year old speedster did go up against them quite often, as he spent 11 years of his career in the National League. That included a 1995 season spent as the mostly regular 2B for the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that scraped its way into the NL playoffs in manager Tommy Lasorda’s last full season in charge.
At some point around 11:30 PM local time on October 6th of that year, DeShields stood by the fence in the 3B dugout of Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, watching mostly helpless as his club stared at a 10-1 deficit in the Top of the 9th inning. Singles by Roberto Kelly and Dave Hansen to open the frame gave the club some life even with Reds closer Jeff Brantley on the mound, hoping they could turn the lineup over and get to thumpers Mike Piazza and Eric Karros and maybe, just maybe, spring a miracle.
Just 10 pitches later, though, Piazza lined out to CF Darren Lewis for the game’s final out, one that saw the Reds get to celebrate a quick three-game sweep of the Dodgers in the National League Division Series, and do so on their home turf. For DeShields, who’d been on that 1994 Montreal Expos team a year before who was robbed of a shot at glory, it was his first career trip to the playoffs, and it ended with him getting to watch his opponent, the Reds, celebrate right in front of him.
If it feels as if I spent entirely too much time, and went into too much detail about that particular moment, good. That was the point. It’s been almost exactly 25 years since that moment, and that’s the last time the Cincinnati Reds won a playoff series. Three-month old Nick Senzel was burning through a handful of diapers a day, Jose Garcia and Tyler Stephenson had yet to even be conceived, and 22 year old David Bell had just wrapped his rookie season that week with a listless St. Louis Cardinals club.
DeShields, for the record, singled off Reds reliever Michael Jackson in the Top of the 8th in Game 3, his final PA of the series. He would play in only one more postseason series in his career, and never again get a postseason hit. It’s enough to wonder if current Delino would have some sage advice in the moment for young Delino, in retrospect, about the Reds celebration after the final out that day given where he is, and for which team he represents right now.
The Cincinnati Reds, of course, haven’t had much to celebrate since then. We fondly remember a 1999 team that never actually made the playoffs because we’ve been so starved of success on which to rest. The 2010 regular season was such a shot in the arm that I don’t think too many of us even spend time lamenting just how quickly that club dissolved under the bright lights of that postseason, and the 2013 club was gone just as quickly as they got there. In reality, we’re stuck wondering what if on just the 2012 Reds, the only other club aside from ‘95 to actually win a postseason game since the 1990 World Series champs.
(It’s worth pointing out, I think, that while I’ve painted a somewhat bucolic scene for that ‘95 NLDS, the Reds were promptly swept aside by the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS that year, a four-game trouncing that makes even the success of the NLDS that year seem a bit sour. Such is life for even the shining moments as a Cincinnati sports fan most times.)
The point here is not to dunk on the Reds. Most of the eyes that actually read this will do so knowing most of this by heart already, and are still Cincinnati Reds fans, in part, because of that struggle, those frustrations. We know it takes looking at the pinstriped vests they wore that year to see any highlights of postseason success, them donned by the likes of Ron Gant and David Wells and Benito Santiago. Names we think of from a completely different generation.
The point here is to suggest we enjoy this, whatever it is. The Cincinnati Reds, the 2020 Cincinnati Reds, are a game over .500 with a trio of games left to play, and while that doesn’t begin to stack up with even the most average season in franchise history, the game is different this time around. Expanded playoffs might not mean nearly as much as the smaller playoffs of years past, but we don’t even have memory of those smaller playoff scenarios. We barely have memory of playing games that might sniff importance on September 25th of most every year.
The fact is, these Reds are playing meaningful baseball games, and are doing so for the right to play even more. They’re doing so while playing their best ball of the year, doing so for the chance to be one of the 16 teams who can still bring home a damn trophy. And finally, as Reds fans, we’re getting to legitimately root for that opportunity.
This is not begging for a participation trophy. This is merely meant to point out that 7 years, 8 years, 10 years, 21 years, 25 years, 30 years is a long, long time in baseball history, with thousands and thousands of games logged in that time. If you’ve watched the Reds in that time, that’s thousands and thousands of games that were largely meaningless in the flags fly forever grand scheme.
This weekend’s games are not meaningless, finally. If they navigate them well enough, next week’s games will not be meaningless, finally.
Take it from someone who’s tried like hell to throw my emotions behind this club as often as I’ve had the chance, and enjoy this. Enjoy every pitch, every bad call, every pinch-hitter. Enjoy putting yourself in Bell’s shoes for the decisions he makes, and why. Enjoy the nervous sweats you get in your pits, take stock of where you pace in your living room when there are baserunners on.
There’s a chance this might be just the start of an opportunity to do this more often when the annual calendars flip to October, but as has been seared into our memories for decades, there are zero guarantees that’ll be the case. So, enjoy the living hell out of this while this ride’s tank is full and tires have treads.