Our voyage through multiple layers of meaning continues this week with the storied Cincinnati Redleg franchise. The last sixty iterations of the Reds are somewhat lackluster from a comedy standpoint: never terrible, sometimes excellent, generally consistent. Sure, they have Dusty Baker as a manager, but he has Bronson Arroyo’s elbow to bend back and forth like a Stretch Armstrong doll, so there’s no harm done. The Big Red Machine seemed to destroy the league slowly, inexorably, and humorlessly. There isn’t even a joke in Bill Bray.
There’s an unfortunate drawback for dealing with the older ballclubs: names didn’t appear on the backs of jerseys until 1960, when Bill Veeck was busy ruining the game. The Reds didn’t get on board until 1964. This eliminates some golden opportunities for historically-minded jokesters: there’s no showing off one’s literary chops by throwing on some Coke-bottle glasses and some Jim Brosnan gear, nor can one effectively rock the Dummy Hoy. It’s particularly tragic that there’s no Christy Mathewson jersey, because the combination of unwise trade, twilight appearance, and wonderful old-fashioned bagginess would make it pretty much unstoppable. Alas.
Still, a poor craftsman blames the tools of his ancestors. And so, undaunted, we proceed:
1966 Milt Pappas: The list could never start anywhere else. Pappas was the key piece of the worst trade in Cincinnati history (or second – see Mathewson, above) when an over-the-hill 30 year-old Frank Robinson was sent to the Baltimore Orioles in the offseason. Robinson went on to win the Triple Crown in 1966, and Milt Pappas went on to be Milt Pappas: winning a dozen or so games a year, posting a FIP in the low to mid threes, and complaining about everything from umpires to lower back pain to anyone within earshot. Necessary for wearing this jersey: limb flailing.
1975 Gary Nolan: Obviously, one of these jerseys has to commemorate the Big Red Machine. Unfortunately, pinning down a single name from the era is no easy task. The hitters are all so famous that there’s little to work with, though you could easily defend Cesar Geronimo. Ken Griffey, Sr. would be an excellent choice if not for the fact that most people would assume you’re wearing some kind of Junior throwback. And there’s the mighty Doug Flynn, but he belongs with Texas, not here. So instead of the feared hitters we’ll go with Gary Nolan, who broke into the majors at eighteen and, by 1975 as a twenty-seven year old, had already been forced to remake himself as a finesse specialist. Nolan could be considered an underrated element of the Machine: his finest years coincided with the team’s, and when he was finished, so were the Reds.
1990 Rob Dibble: Jose Rijo was the team’s best player, but the ringleader of the Nasty Boys was easily the encapsulation of the 1990 World Series championship team. Dibble himself is a bundle of contradictions; he lost his position as analyst for the Washington Nationals when complaining about Stephen Strasburg’s unwillingness to pitch through pain. This came despite the fact that Dibble’s own career fell apart due to arm injuries. Also, the sound of Dibble’s name supplies a nice contrast to his attitude. Best worn by: angry drunks, angry sober people.
1991 Chris Sabo: This may be a sentimental choice, but to me the heart and soul of the post-Rose Reds lies in this begoggled and yet oddly dignified man. Ultimately, the question is this: should we judge a man by what happened or by what should have happened? Sabo was essentially a five-win player before his cranky back spelled his doom; the man stole 46 bases his rookie season. He squinted like a true leader. I want to believe that Chris Sabo was on his way to changing the world, or at least the field of optometry, but we’ll never know. It’s hard to go wrong with this one, but if you happen to own your own pair of Rec-Specs or sport a crew cut, I don’t think you have any choice.
2005 Eric Milton: The aughts are perhaps Cincinnati’s only truly miserable era in recent history, finishing below .500 nine consecutive years under Boones, Bakers and Knights. And if there’s anything that typifies the decade, it’s the team’s difficulty adjusting to the cozy confines of the Great American Ballpark. Nowhere was this more evident than with the signing of Eric Milton, who in 2004 had gone 14-6 with, as it turns out, a 30.1% GB rate. This little detail caused Milton’s fluky 1.93 HR/9 rate in 2004 to become a perfectly reasonable 1.93 HR/9 rate in 2005, and Milton was quickly pegged as a complete bust even before injuries derailed his career.
2007 Josh Hamilton: It’s hard to foist too much blame on former GM Wayne Krivsky for dealing the enigmatic, injury-prone Hamilton to Texas. The 2007 Reds, after all, saw a fifth of their games started by Matt Belisle. At the same time, the level of winning in the win-win trade for Edinson Volquez continues to grow; in terms of WAR, Hamilton has accrued 16.3 the past four years, while the foundering Volquez has netted 5.2. Even if Volquez manages to turn it around, the jersey retains value; after all, that the team obtained Hamilton in the first place was a masterful stroke, pried from Cubs GM Jim Hendry for the always nebulous “cash considerations”.
1956 Ted Kluszewski: An obvious exception to the “no name on the back of the jersey” rule.
Honorable mentions: 1965 Joe Nuxhall, 1982 Paul Householder, 1990 Todd Benzinger, 1997 Pete Rose, Jr. (if only he wore a different number!), 1998 Paul Konerko, 2005 Danny Graves, 2011 Dontrelle Willis