CINCINNATI–A couple of hours before the Cincinnati Reds took the field at Great American Ball Park for their season opener against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim the other day, manager Dusty Baker was asked what he thought about all of the pre-season prognosicators picking his team to not only win the National League Central Division, but possibly become a World Series team in 2013.
The Reds won the division title and won 97 games last year. They came out of spring training looking every bit as tough and no one was questioning the raves about the Reds’ chances to do something special this year. Their roster was definitely built for it. Baker, who has also managed the San Francisco Giants and the Chicago Cubs, and began his Major League playing career as an outfielder for the Atlanta Braves in 1968, was not one of the people who was going to say things shaped up just ducky. He has been around for too long and too much reality has interfered with supposed dream seasons.
“It doesn’t matter,” Baker said of the feel-good prediction festival. “No. 1, I don’t read it. You’ve got to play on the field. You don’t play based on what the experts say. It’s a different year.”
The Reds had a great regular season in 2012, earned a bye past the wild-card threats, and then lost a playoff series in five games to the Series-winning Giants after leading two games to zero.
All-Star outfielder Jay Bruce said Monday that he has put the disappointment on the shelf and thinks the team has, too.
“We didn’t do what we had to do,” Bruce said. “We learned from it and put it behind us. In baseball you have to have a short memory. Expectations can’t be any higher.”
Bruce’s teammate Brandon Phillips did not completely agree with his assessment. The second baseman said he has not put the playoff loss behind him at all. In fact, in the days leading up to the season opener Phillips was tweeting out to Reds fans almost in apologetic fashion for losing to the Giants last fall.
“I think we owe it to the city to bring a championship back to Cincinnati,” Phillips said. “We should have went further than we did (in the playoffs). It still hurts me.”
It probably still hurts Baker, as well. He has accomplished everything he wanted to do in the sport, including making an All-Star team and winning a championship as a player. He has reached the World Series as a manager, but not won it. He ended last season with some scary health problems and although he is svelter and well now he is also in his 60s and probably is not going to be managing a whole bunch more years.
When it comes to in-season talk Baker is the ultimate one-game-at-a-time guy. It’s boring, but he really works hard to prevent himself from thinking too far ahead. He understands that not only is it a long, 162-game season, but that things can change in an eyeblink. It only took until the third inning of the first game of the season for that adage to be proven true.
Left-fielder Ryan Ludwick, a very important bat in the order, was rounding second and heading into third and chose to slide head-first into the bag, arms out-stretched. Ludwick’s hand caught in the dirt and he tore cartilage in his right shoulder. After he was declared safe at third everyone in the park kind of wondered why he called time out and began wandering off the base. Nobody on the Reds bench had a clue anything was wrong until Ludwick signaled for assistance.
Baker took one look at Ludwick and he saw bad news heading his way.
“You hate to see a guy coming off the field holding his arm like that,” Baker said.
Rudwick tore cartilage and after consulting with doctors he is expected to be out for three months. This is a serious loss for the Reds. They were built just right to win, but they don’t have the depth to take care of this predicament very easily. Chris Heisey came into the game to replace Ludwick and he is the game-by-game solution for now, but he doesn’t have nearly as much power as Ludwick and on this team he was better suited to be the fourth outfielder and pinch-hit.
Cincinnati has one of the most electrifying players in their chain in young outfielder Billy Hamilton, who set a minor-league base-stealing record last year with 155. But the front office does not believe Hamilton is ready for Major League pitching. The recent history of teams gambling on prospects at a young age has been swell if you look at Mike Trout of the Angels and Bryce Harper of the Nationals last year. But rushing guys to the big leagues includes risk and often fails.
You can’t know until you try, though. Hamilton should play in Louisville for a month and see what he does in AAA. Then if he really is playing terrific ball, bring him up and take a shot.
Right now, though, it looks as if Baker was correct not to believe everything sports reporters write.