I’ve been a Cincinnati Reds fan for as long as I’ve been a sentient being. I remember getting my adjustable foam hat signed by Marge Schott — or, technically, signed by “Schottzie II.” I remember struggling to understand the Houston Astros’ accent colors, their bright orange stripes set off by the brighter green Astroturf at Riverfront Stadium. I remember watching Barry Larkin hit the home run that gave him a 30-30 season.
What I don’t remember, though, are the good times. That’s because there haven’t been many for Reds fans my age (26). The closest I can come is 1999, when I sat next to my dad in what was now Cinergy Field, in right field, in the red seats, in the stadium’s next to the last row, and watched Al Leiter and the Mets two-hit the home team to win a one-game wild-card playoff.
So, yeah, not a lot of good times from the late 1990s and the 2000s. That’s why I’m so excited for tonight, when the Reds kick off a seven-game home stand against the St. Louis Cardinals — a home stand that actually means something, since the Reds won their division last year and have a chance to do so again, and a home stand I’ll be attending in full while I work on a story on the Reds and their fans. In fact, I’m writing this from the Great American Ball Park press box. On my walk over, I saw Joey Votto pulling into the stadium’s parking garage in his jet black Lamborghini. When I made it to the press box, Hal McCoy introduced himself, then, very graciously, pointed out that I was sitting in the scouts’ section. By the time I got resituated, it had started raining — it hit the river first, roiling the water, then the field (they barely got the tarp on, had to weight it down with golf carts), and now it’s beating against the press box’s glass windows and, from the sound of it, leaking through the ceiling.
* * *
Who cares about the weather, though, so long as it lets up by 7:10? On this blog, I plan to post a few random thoughts and extra scenes throughout the week. For now, and for some perspective, I’ll resurrect a particularly painful memory. It comes from a couple months after that one-game playoff, when the Reds, fresh off their 96-win season, traded for Ken Griffey, Jr. The team gave Griffey a $112.5 million contract — almost twice what Carl Lindner had paid for his controlling share of the team the year before — and prepared for a dynasty. You think I’m exaggerating? Check out the first few paragraphs from Tim Sullivan’s Cincinnati Enquirer column, something he wrote right at the honeymoon’s start.
Ken Griffey Jr. changes everything. He makes the beer colder. He makes the girls prettier. He makes the Cincinnati Reds synonymous with style and grace.
He makes baseball bigger. He makes Cincinnati matter. Eighteen years to the day after Dick Wagner finished dismantling the Big Red Machine — trading George Foster to the New York Mets because no ballplayer was worth $2 million a year — Junior Griffey came home Thursday night and ended Cincinnati’s small-market era.
From here on out, the home team operates on a higher plane — culturally, financially and orbitally. Griffey’s supersonic swing — the most lethal uppercut since Rock ’em-Sock ’em Robots — gives the Reds their strongest power source since Foster left town in 1982. His command of center field conjures the best days of Eric Davis, without all the injuries.
“You look at Junior,” Reds first baseman Sean Casey said Thursday, “and you’re kind of in awe.”
No player since Willie Mays has blended baseball’s basic skills in a more breathtaking package than Ken Griffey Jr. No player since Pete Rose has tugged so tenaciously at Cincinnati’s heartstrings. Not since Babe Ruth left Boston for New York 80 years ago has a baseball transaction carried such obvious clout.
“Feb. 10, 2000,” Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said. “That date will go down in Reds history.”
For media overkill, shameless grandstanding and claustrophobia, Thursday’s trade announcement may be unsurpassed in the annals of horsehide. Politicians lined up for the photo opportunity as if Carl Lindner were dispensing campaign contributions instead of baseball cards of himself.
Such is the star power of Ken Griffey Jr. At 30 years old, he is at the peak of his form, and on a pace to make mockery of the home run records. And he’s all ours through 2008. Pinch yourself if you please.