Thursday, September 23, 2021

Losing Is Theft

I pulled a Capitals shirt over my head today, an Ovechkin shirsey I bought eight or nine years ago one warm May day when the sun was shining as brightly as the Caps playoff chances. I was meeting up at Lou's City Bar to watch a Caps playoff game after work and needed something appropriate for the day. The red has since faded somewhat, and the number 8 under the name of the greatest goal scorer in hockey history has cracked, but the shirt represents a team that has been to the playoffs all but once in the last fourteen seasons, winning the division in ten of those years and one glorious championship.

This is not a post about hockey. It's about fandom and winning and ownership and how losing is theft.

The Capitals had a good run in the late 90s/early 00s, going to the Stanley Cup final in 1998 when I was a junior in college in SW Ohio and knew little about the NHL. Ted Leonisis took over as owner in 1999 and went to the playoffs three times before a three season period of not qualifying.

Then he said enough.

He scored big in drafting Alexander Ovechkin #1, and he knew this was a player to build a franchise around. He rebranded the team, going back to the red, white, and blue and frankly awesome logo of earlier years. He signed Team USA hero and All American Boy T.J. Oshie and surrounded Ovi with good or great players, concocting creative (and sometimes criticized) ways to dance with the NHL salary cap. He filled needs when they became apparent. This was an owner who wanted to win.

Ted Leonsis is why I know what winning feels like.

Oh sure, it helps to have the greatest goal scorer of all time on your team, but you have to have a front office willing to assemble a supporting cast. The Cincinnati Reds Baseball Club, est. 1869, having been blessed with one of the greatest hitters of all-time, does not have such a front office to support him. Joseph Daniel Votto, winner of the 2010 MVP, owner of a career slash line of .302/.417/.520, top ten all-time 1B in WAR, 328 career homers (including 33 in his age 37 season) is the kind of player you're supposed to build a franchise around. When I think back over the last decade and try to recall his teammates, I often struggle to put names to positions because their achievements have been so forgettable, or they were underperforming fan favorites like Scooter Gennett. I think back to the times I was actually excited about signings -  getting Aroldis Chapman was akin to a coup, for example. So, too, was hiring Kyle Boddy, whose frustration with Reds ownership led to his resignation last week. Castellanos was a great signing but we all knew it was two years and no more, because El Cheapo remains at the helm. Castellanos is the exact kind of supporting cast one needs to win. But a winning baseball team needs not a handful of capable guys, but more than 25 players because of inevitable injuries. Herein lies the problem.

The Reds have a lot of great players, many of them #1 draft picks or top prospects, but when you replace All Star starter Jesse Winker with Aristides Aquino, and any good shortstop with Kyle Farmer, you're basically making yourself the Pirates. No one could have predicted Suarez falling off the proverbial cliff, but here's where a capable front office steps in. If one of your key guys is not performing, you go out and get a replacement. That's what Ted Leonsis has done. He's filled holes with the likes of Shattenkirk or Hagelin or any number of quality players that are available at the time the need arises. They haven't always worked out, but that's sports.

Contrast that with the Reds, who had glaring bullpen holes before the season began that were never addressed. Ole Bobo was content to keep running out the same failing arms as the division waa slipping away, then let the trade deadline pass with negligible upgrades. When injuries piled up, he was fine with running out players who have no business on an MLB roster in a pennant race.

It's been 31 years since the Reds won a World Series. THIRTY-ONE YEARS. Even Bob was young then. I remember when we passed the twenty year mark and I thought it'd be embarassing if we reached thirty years. That was back when the future was bright. It seems like a lifetime ago.

In recent years, I've been able to watch the Washington Nationas win baseball games and a World Series, a team whose ballpark I can walk to. This city, who lost one baseball team to racism and another to capitalism, a city blamed for the political decisions made by people you send from your states, a city with no congressional representation, deserved that World Series more than any other city out there. I went to a division series game and my first NLCS game that year. The city was electric; it was so much fun.

But it wasn't the Reds.

Nearly a month ago, the Reds were in control of a wild card spot, but I stopped watching. They had begun their freefall, and I no longer had the patience for it. Me, a fifth generation Reds fan who saw her first game at age 1, me who used to plan gatherings of Reds fans in DC to watch or attend games, who watched nearly every Reds game since getting an MLB.TV subscription in 2004, who scrambled to listen to Homer Bailey's MLB debut on a scratchy transistor radio from my DC porch when the power went out, who saw Cueto and Bruce's MLB debuts in Cincinnati and who once melted my car battery to see Votto and Bruce play in Richmond.

I used to love the lore of the past, the mythological status of Redlegs greats, the stories of the Big Red Machine and fantasies of a World Series of the '76 Reds vs the '27 Yankees. Once I did a GABp tour and nearly annoyed the tourguide because I knew all the answers to his Reds history questions. I even celebrated Obama's 2008 victory at Reds historian Greg Rhodes's house. And I bought 2019 Opening Day tickets because I wanted to be a part of the 150th anniversary season.

But Reds past successes have become a tired cliché. Those victories have long passed, and clinging to the glories of yesteryear aren't enough anymore. Joe is dead. Pete is a disgrace. Johnny's record is broken. Our team history matters, but it belongs to museums, not marketing.

Bob cries poverty because he didn't make an additional $80 million in profits last year. No matter how much the wealthhoarders try to own them, the truth is that baseball teams belong to those who give their souls to them, and perennial losing is theft. While it is inexplicable that we devote such vast quantities of spiritual energy to a game, the heart wants what it wants. This is the essence of being. Our fandom unites us in ways that border on mysticism. Most of us understand what it means to feel "electricity" in the air when we're at a game, and I'm sure if neuroscientists monitored our brains during these moments, they'd find endorphin levels that mirror drug use or prayer. We may even meet the qualification for addiction.

I guess it's time for rehab.

You see, I have learned what winning is supposed to be, and I learned it from a sport I wasn't born into. I should have put a Reds shirt on this morning, excited for October baseball. Instead, I gleefully don the name of a Russian on my back, ready for this weekend's first pre-season hockey game.

If you've lost me, Bob, you've also lost a heckuva lot more diehards who quit in silence.

I know people say, oh, you'll be back next March. But you know what? I never watched or listened to a single Spring Training game this past March, and I never felt less enthusiasm for Opening Day. I can't imagine getting excited for another bad season next year.

The heart wants what it wants. And mine doesn't want this.