To paraphrase one of the worst leads in sports writing history, since it contains a grain of truth, the hardest part of describing the Reds is finding the right words.
Last week, as the Reds reached a new low by letting the Colorado Rockies sweep three games from them, Reds President John Allen made a surprise visit to the clubhouse in Denver, where he's said to have spoken with manager Dave Miley and outfielder Junior Griffey Jr. Allen later broadcast the message that Reds ownership cares.
"We're not sitting there twiddling our thumbs saying, 'Oh me, oh my, what are we going to do?' " Allen told reporters. "We do care. We're involved. It's not getting done right now."
One doesn't know whether to hand Reds officials a towel to soak up their misery or a blindfold to put them out of it. It's tempting to hand them a gun so they could just shoot themselves or somebody else, but they'd probably miss.
One doesn't know whether to blame Reds management for this year's debacle or to just hang it on the true culprits in uniform, pitchers Paul Wilson and Eric Milton, who were supposed to guide their teammates within sight of victory 40 percent of the time and instead have pitched no better than some of the dish rags center stage at Great American Ball Park in the past couple years, immortals like Jimmy Haynes, Ryan Dempster and Joey Hamilton. No veteran pitcher the Reds have acquired in at least the past 20 years has stunk up the joint like Milton.
Or blame it on karma, because the Reds have terrible karma, vindictive karma, as if they owe a debt to final justice for slights of the past few years — the delay in opening the ball park, the midseason massacres of 2000 and 2003 in which they trashed marginal contenders by slashing nickels off their payroll, the bellicosity of their fans and their tortured partings with Barry Larkin and Danny Graves.
But management made a true good-faith effort to improve their ball club last winter with smart acquisitions of established players who simply haven't performed to the levels their careers have predicted they would. It's easy to pop up after the fact and ridicule the Milton signing, about as easy as it's been to knock the Griffey acquisition. In neither case does the criticism demonstrate even a particle of acumen. In both cases, the Reds have simply been unlucky.
And that's just the way it goes sometimes, especially when it comes to starting pitchers. But not usually. Much more often than not in the past 20 years, the Reds have received what they should have expected when bringing in veteran pitchers. Just click through the names — Bill Gullickson, Tim Belcher, John Smiley, Dave Burba, Greg Swindell, Juan Guzman and David Wells. None of them gave the Reds Cy Young seasons or even career highs, but all of them came in reasonably close to bubble gum card forecasts.
Now and again, the Reds have brought in a starter from another organization or the scrap heap and either developed him at the big league level or rehabilitated him into a big winner — Jose Rijo (inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame last weekend), Danny Jackson (lost 18 for Kansas City in 1987 and won 23 for the Reds in 1988 before arm trouble killed a promising career), Pete Schourek (won 18 for the Reds in 1995) and Pete Harnish (won 30 for the Reds in 1998-99).
But the Reds also have, a few times, come out with less than expected in the bargain. The Reds' problem right now isn't simply that Milton is such a disappointing investment in veteran pitching on an historical scale, but that the Reds haven't made any such investment in an historically long time. The last would be Neagle, entering the 1999 season. So Reds fans were more excited than usual over the Milton signing, as an event of its kind was so long in coming.
Now a club that should have broken a streak of four consecutive losing seasons, even challenging for a wild card playoff berth, is fighting over the NL Central basement with the Houston Astros, lagging behind perennial small-market weaklings like Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. Even those of us who have held out for the long view and the high road regarding this baseball club are forced to realize this outfit is a disaster. And, yeah, it smarts when the knee-jerks get it right.
If nothing else, it's the mark of a terrible ball club. The Reds needed to rally in the past month, but they couldn't win enough against the other losing clubs. The Reds managed to win two of three last weekend from Baltimore, but it remains to be seen if they're really going to become that ball club.
So how to describe the Reds? The first word coming to mind is "pathetic," which usually is a fun stand-in for "dismal." Is "pathetic" the right word?
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (m-w.com) gives the following definitions for pathetic: 1) having a capacity to move one to either compassionate or contemptuous pity; 2) marked by sorrow or melancholy: sad.
Well, not quite. No one pities the Reds, either compassionately or contemptuously. But the Reds certainly are "weak."
They're just matter-of-factly bad — unstable, unsound and insecure, though not because of old age or crippling illness so much as weakness, feebleness and decrepitness. And they are worn out and broken down, but not due to long use or old age so much as frailty, fragility and infirmity.
Perhaps, though, we should have begun with "dismal." Following are the Merriam-Webster definitions: 1) obsolete: disastrous, dreadful; 2) showing or causing gloom or depression; 3) lacking merit: particularly bad.
The Reds certainly aren't obsolete, but this season certainly is. Otherwise, perfect. Not the Reds — but the word "dismal" as their description. Problem solved. Dismal.