As a fan of a similarly hued National League Central team — a team I'm watching play at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter this very second — no team in the division scares me as much as the Reds do. Everything about them is personally threatening.
The resourceful and extremely motivated leader-in-exile. General manager Walt Jocketty, still angry about being unceremonious booted by the organization he resuscitated and brought a championship to. Jocketty was encouraged to leave by a change in the Cardinals' strategic emphasis, toward the farm system and advanced statistics, away from waiting for other teams to panic and do something stupid at the trading deadline. He's still bothered that Tony LaRussa didn't leave with him, too. Jocketty wants to take down the Cardinals more than he wants to do anything.
The dunderheaded but formidable manager. The oft-maligned Dusty Baker loves nothing more than setting fire to young pitchers' arms and handing 700 plate appearances to short fast men who come to the plate with the bat upside down. But Baker has a funny habit of sticking around in spite of himself — the man has reached a World Series and two NLCS with two different teams after all — and has the distinct advantage of driving LaRussa absolutely crazy. The hatred Baker and Don Tony have for each other is palpable and consistently entertaining; Reds-Cardinals series inevitably end up with batters pointing their helmets and pitchers and the managers growling at each other from opposite dugouts, two middle-aged men whose stomachs hang over their uniform belts, playing tough guy. It's grand theater.
The sleeping city desperate for a revival. Cincinnati and St. Louis are more similar cities than is often noted. A baseball tradition unrivalled by any city other than New York or Boston. An urban sensibility that's both more cosmopolitan and more backwoods that anyone on either side of the extreme is willing to admit. A downtown area that's far lovelier than people realize and vastly underutilized. The impossibility of grabbing a bit to eat past 9:30 p.m. without having to find a casino. A simmering history of racial divisiveness. The color red. The difference is that, baseball-wise, Cincinnati has been dormant as St. Louis has been ascendant; the Reds are long, long overdue. I've spent many, many evenings in Cincinnati, and that town is rabid to care about its Reds again. If they get hot and are close in September, that place will froth into a frenzy. It will carry them.
Oh, yes, the players. The Reds always seems to have one or two studs on the farm — "studs on the farm" is a trademarked phrase and is not to be used without written consent of the Baseball Writers Association Of America — who never end up becoming what dreams had held, but these days they seem likely to break that spell by sheer volume. I mean, look at these guys: Yonder Alonso, Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, Aroldis Chapman, Johnny Cueto, Drew Stubbs, Edinson Volquez (currently injured), Joey Votto. All of those guys are Major League ready or close to it, and all are 26 years old or younger. Not of all of them will be stars. But all of them could be, and there isn't a team in baseball who wouldn't take any of them in an Irish second. The Reds get to keep each of them, as they develop and approach their peak right now. The Reds have upside and length.
The Chicago Cubs have missed their window and are about to begin a long, slow beautiful slide back to where they belonged all along. The Brewers can't ever make all their pieces work at the same time. The Pirates are slowly crawling back to sea level but have years left to go. The Astros are a joke. No, it's the Reds: The Reds seem uniquely positioned to humiliate the beloved Cardinals and stop a second mini-NL Central dynasty before it begins. It's worse, too, because no team would enjoy it more. There is righteous revenge and furious anger to those who seek to destroy my brothers. That's the team that keeps me up nights. That's the team that could turn this all wrong for us. It's the Reds, man. It's the Reds. I'm terrified of them.
You know what's the only thing that makes me feel better about all this? I say this about the Reds every year.