An Affable Postseason
I’ve done the math for you because that’s just the kind of guy I am.
That’s us, the percentage of baseball fans homeless; at low ebb. Our teams eliminated, we’re left foraging for humble considerations, something — anything — to cheer for. There is no “root root root for the home team.” Home team is gone until spring training beckons. We need a rooting interest.
Even as I live in New York, I cannot bring myself to pull for the Yankees — Baseball’s Wall Street. Everything about the franchise is an overstuffed turducken of greatness and grandiosity, best captured by the cloying retirement of #2, which threatened to become a never-ending pasta bowl of east coast adulation. Everything, from the Stadium down to the pinstripes reeks of nothing so much as cold commerce. So, that’s off the table.
Magic Johnson’s Dodgers and their MLB-leading $242M payroll are off limits, as well. If the long line of Brinks trucks entering and leaving Chavez Ravine doesn’t bruise your small market sensibilities as it does mine, history should. Long before the St. Louis Cardinals became the smug and hated rival of the Cincinnati Reds, there was the original Evil Empire led by Ron Cey and a Ken doll by the name of Steve Garvey. The old National League West division belonged to the Reds. Hollywood’s team was always trying to elbow their way into the 1970s chapter of baseball’s history book. Thank god there was machinery enough to road grade them to the back of the cul de sac on Rodeo Drive where they belong.
The Astros are The Little Engine That Could of this postseason. After years of losing, they are proving the veracity of the long, steady, stay-the-course rebuild. Bless You Boys Nation is surely rooting for favorite son Justin Verlander to get to a World Series. Sports Illustrated crowned them 2017 champions on the cover of their magazine years ago. Good for them. So, this bandwagon seems full already. I’m looking elsewhere.
The Cubs? Do we really need to go there?
The Nationals are a non-starter. I still can’t bring myself to forgive Dusty for the way he mismanaged the 2012 postseason. I know it’s fashionable to latch onto the rehabilitation of Baker’s image in light of the Nats’ yearly regular season excellence, but it’s just too soon. I’m a bitter fan. I hold grudges. I admit it. And with my hair visibly thinning, mocking me every morning in the bathroom mirror, I’m sick of seeing the luxurious mane of Bryce Harper celebrated vis-à-vis my Twitter timeline GIFs. Plus, all those clowns up on Capitol Hill are likely rooting for them. Like hell I’ll join that tribe.
Wait. The Tribe.
It’s not that I don’t know the Cleveland Indians. I mean, I know their brilliant tactician’s nickname is Tito. The irony of a progressive manager plying his wares at a place named “Progressive Field” is not lost on me. And, yeah, I know it will always be “The Jake” to the die hards. I wasn’t born yesterday. Still, there’s so much I don’t know about these Indians. I mean, sure, I followed their postseason run last year, marveling at Andrew Miller and the way Francona used him. And I read Jeff Passan’s The Arm, so I know a little bit about the strange and wondrous development of Trevor Bauer. Nevertheless, the rest of the club remains a mystery. To me, Lindor means chocolate. Carlos Santana plays “Black Magic Woman,” not first base.
But I sure know Jay Allen Bruce.
“Jay’s considered the ultimate prospect. He was №1 and all that. I really wasn’t considered a prospect at his level. Jay’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders. He’s got a big responsibility. I really can’t compare him and I because we’re three years different. He’s coming up at 21 years old. I came up at 23. It’s two different players. I think he’s going to come up and play well but he has a lot to learn just like us all.” — Joey Votto
All of the conflicted feelings we Cincinnati fans have had about Jay Bruce were summed up in Votto’s quote. It was Jay who was projected to be the superstar; Joey the complimentary all star. But, Robin became Batman, leaving Bruce — who could never live up to unreasonable expectations — always playing catchup.
Votto taught us to love process. On Base Percentage and Not Making Outs became our new flags, flying high. Yet, deep inside all of us exists a love affair with baseballs that go boom. Our parallel strands of hardball DNA — Home Run and RBI — make up the genome at the heart of the sports fan genetic code. The cortex speaks to us. Be honest. It’s not just chicks who dig the long ball. Analytical Joey may have our heads. Affable Jay always had our hearts.
Seasons unwound, filled with inconsistency accompanied by fan frustration. Each year, it seemed April Jay would give way to May Jay, and on and on and on throughout each summer, the tepid starts followed by a raw exit velocity fusillade of baseballs wrecking the moondeck seats. Even some in the media would turn on him, wondering aloud if “Jay Bruce will ever get it.” Feast or famine though, he was always Affable Jay, earnest and approachable, as honest as his home runs were long.
Rebuilds ultimately demand hard choices. The approaching end of Bruce’s contract and the need to get younger and cheaper made Bruce’s time in Cincinnati a foregone conclusion. It’s sad that the last memory of the former Silver Slugger was that of a player perceived to be in decline, one who would bring little in return at the trade deadline.
Living in New York, I wasted no time in pursuit of my friend. Seeing that familiar swing at Citi Field in Metropolitan pinstripes was tough to swallow. Hearing the fan next to me bellowing “Bruuuuuuuuuuuuce” after a home run — then assuring me she wasn’t booing him — was priceless in its own way.
The irony for the Mets is that the player once labeled “$13M of garbage” for the sin of slumping to a poor finish following the trade to Queens is the same player many Mets onlookers are longing wistfully at, hoping he returns via free agency.
Bruce’s untimely decline began after a meniscus tear in 2014. The Reds were a M*A*S*H unit in triage early in the season, so Bruce — team player that he always is — attempted to play with a compromised knee before giving in to surgery. He came back in a ridiculously short 19 days — of course — and paid for that decision, watching his production crater. And although he was healthy in 2015, his opposite field power didn’t return, a sign that playing on a bum knee led to some lingering poor swing mechanics.
A look at Bruce’s spray charts suggest he’s found his game again.
The opposite field damage is back. His 2017 OPS+ and wRC+ are 115 and 118, respectively. He’s once again the player we remember: dangerous and fun to watch if he is on your side.
When these playoffs began, various pundit reviews of this series against the Yankees ignored him, as if he was a non-factor. Of course, all Jay has done so far is turn the series on its ear, placing himself front and center on this October stage.
For the longest time, Jay Bruce seemed to be playing in a headwind. Now, the wind seems to be at his back.
That is more than enough of a reason to grab hold of the sail carrying this Indians team through treacherous postseason waters. This could be a fun October for Reds fans after all.