SPORTS

  /  

April 15, 2003

Cincinnati's big red machine needs repairs

At least they have Bernie the Brewer in Milwaukee. Those people are used to losing and loving it. They bring bratwursts and beer mugs and kitschy cheese-related tchotchkes. They host the All-Star game and talk about Bud Selig. In Cincinnati, they just made a new arts center. I think crime might also be down.

When Ken Griffey Jr. laid out for Paul Bako?s arcing fly ball 10 days ago, everything appeared to be in order. This was the old Ken Griffey Jr., who has the most natural swing in major league baseball, Captain Everything Griffey Jr., taking off for another one of his spectacular outfield grabs. There was close competition with the Cubs because these were two of the teams set to make their playoff runs this year. And then, of course, it didn?t work out. The ball bounced to the wall and the Cubs blew the game open. Griffey landed heavily on the ground and rolled over. Adam Dunn backed up the play, threw the ball in, and stood over his teammate, trying to see what was wrong.

A lot of people have been trying to do that lately, with Griffey on the shelf for at least six weeks now and the Reds already foundering in the cellar of the National League Central. It wasn?t supposed to have worked quite like this. The Reds were supposed to be a lot scarier.

Ryan Dempster came over from Florida to shore up the starting rotation. Juan Encarnación?s departure meant everyone could finally stop holding their breath and just watch Dunn, Griffey, and super-rookie Austin Kearns do what they came to do. With Dempster, veteran Paul Wilson, and the darling of Saigon, Mr. Danny Graves, the Reds were supposed to be a dark horse to win this division. The Astros and Cubs could have growing pains, and the Cardinals are just passé. Maybe this was the year.

Somebody built this team a new ballpark, which is supposed to be beautiful. Great American Ballpark, which hosted its first game this spring, was spared the modern problem of naming rights when the Reds agreed to terms with Great America Insurance. And the whole idea took off. On opening day, there were chants of ?U-S-A! U-S-A!?

Manager Bob Boone said, ?There?s something about apple pie and baseball that?s very patriotic in this country....When you see the adulation and the American flags today, knowing we?re at war?it gets me every time.? I?m refraining from editorializing on this point. Give me a moment.

Back to the Reds, the darlings of Cincinnati, America?s city, just shy of the cutoff for top 50 most populous cities in the U.S. The Reds have been losing. The Reds are in last place. The Reds are tied with the Brewers.

But they?re likeable and talented: Kearns is, by all accounts, leading the majors in home runs. Dunn is supposed to be just as good, if not better. Barry Larkin is still a class act, and when he decides it?s time to retire there will be Brandon Larson, who is supposed to be just as good as Larkin ever was. There?s Sean Casey, there?s Aaron Boone. It?s really a pretty complete team, the kind that bunts, steals bases and gets its big innings every once in a while. These teams play well together, and occasionally find themselves in contention very late in the season.

Last place? Team ERA of 5.64?

The Reds made themselves a little history on Sunday when they allowed the Phillies to score 13 runs in the fourth inning. Sixteen hitters came to the plate. The pitching duo of Dempster and Scott Sullivan gave up six hits and seven walks. The only intentional walk was to light-hitting Ricky Ledee, to bring up Phillies pitcher Randy Wolf, who summarily singled home a run. Then the Phillies batted around and Ledee hit a three-run homer when they pitched to him.

We know that these conditions don?t necessarily last that long. The Reds have more hope now than the Bengals have had at any point since Icky Woods stopped doing his touchdown dance. Dunn should start hitting soon and is certainly good for a few gargantuan home runs every month, and Dempster?s ERA will come down as the memories of Sunday?s debacle fade. But unless and until those good things happen, the new Contemporary Arts Center is going to be getting more business than usual.