The least pleasurable to consider is the Reds, who truly have the toughest assignment of the three teams and need everything to go just right unless or until the farm system generates a new contender. But that's a long process, during which the club could fade into irrelevance. After five straight losing seasons, that process is well under way.
So, it's cheering when the club takes a crack at it, which the Reds did last year by signing Eric Milton, Ramon Ortiz, Joe Randa and a slew of relievers. Everyone knew the Reds could score. They pushed their payroll past $60 million and could have expected a better pitching staff. And the Reds actually lowered their ERA to 5.15 from 5.19, but no thanks to Milton's 6.47 and Ortiz' 5.36. Paul Wilson didn't last very long, either, before going to the disabled list. The Reds were dead.
Because it didn't work, the Reds don't receive enough credit for it, but they tried. They didn't break the bank, they didn't sacrifice prospects, but they paid a little money for veteran pitching. Their best pitchers might not be the best, but they could pitch with the threes, fours and fives in the league and their hitting could nudge them into the wide-open playoffs.
Then Milton, Wilson and Ortiz, three key pieces to the plan, three pitchers with track records, all went belly-up. So the Reds finished with 73 wins, 17 wins short of a playoff berth. How different would the season have been if the Reds received 17 more good starts between Milton, Wilson and Ortiz? What if they did 25 more good starts? The bubble gum card says they have those starts. Where were they?
On top of all that, the Reds went off to a bad start, facing a premier pitcher seemingly at every turn. Then the roof caved in before the end of May. Many promises were made on behalf of the Reds, who knew they had a chance. None of them came true.
An emotional situation ensued, and the front office lost its composure. Mild-mannered general manager Dan O'Brien went postal and heads rolled as fast as the guillotine could cut them loose. By midseason, O'Brien lopped off second baseman D'Angelo Jiminez, relief ace Danny Graves, manager Dave Miley and pitching coach Don Gullett.
The Houston Astros actually started a little worse than the Reds, but the Astros responded in the opposite, holding themselves together and leaving the carnage to the imaginations of their fans. In the end, their fans were a lot happier, when the Astros rallied to their first World Series.
The Reds season took on a desperate air of bloodletting, which has continued into the winter with the trade of Sean Casey to Pittsburgh and the decision to let Ortiz go free agent. New ownership is taking over soon, but Bob Castellini has his work cut out. Unless he decides to take that crack now and then, we'll be waiting for prospects, hoping to keep enough together at once to make a run by themselves.
The extent to which college basketball truly is the Cult of the Coach hit pretty hard around UC this summer, when the university and Huggins agreed to terminate their relationship. It seemed like UC President Nancy Zimpher really just wanted it done with, so the Bearcats went to the Big East this year without the man who put them there.
Huggins obviously left the basketball program a lot better than he found it, and some of his staunch supporters who predicted the end of the world didn't give him enough credit. That group might, incidentally, include the poll voters, who refused to rank the Bearcats through Christmas.
But the RPI duplications see a pretty good team in the Bearcats, placing them in the top five for power rating and strength of schedule. At 9-2, the Bearcats took tough losses early against Memphis and Dayton. Memphis is ranked fourth by the Associated Press and the Bearcats later beat Dayton last week in Las Vegas.
Now, their first run through the Big East comes calling, with the big game against Xavier set for Jan. 19. This schedule will be a grind like UC has never seen. And the Bearcats are going in there with nine players, an interim head coach and one assistant less than allowed.
Interim coach Andy Kennedy is holding it together through every kind of adversity. A senior, James White, calls with 18 points per game and freshman guard Devin Downey is chipping in 15. We don't know if Kennedy has the Huggins touch with a team backed up against the wall. But we know this team is backed up against the wall. And seems to understand what that means. Charge.
Now the Bengals, the season's warm cup of cocoa. You'd think it were Valentine's Day instead of Christmas, because the Bengals are making their fans fall in love again, especially since that special moment in Pittsburgh, and their title clinching in Detroit made their imperfections so trifling.
Which shows how naive and unaccustomed we are. If the Bengals should so little as kneel to a desperate Kansas City team then bow out in the first round of the playoffs, we'll still be happy about the season, and that isn't good news for a team going to the playoffs.
In the time it took to toast their AFC North title, the Bengals cooked up a home field loss to Buffalo, which had lost five straight. The loss removed the Bengals' chance for the second seed, which would have spared them a wildcard game.
We really shouldn't carp if the Bengals should withstand a loss and still be in the playoffs, but it makes one all the more hopeful that the Bengals will come out with a sharp game in Kansas City, where this really will be a playoff game for the Chiefs.
There's something to be said for going to the playoffs even if you don't win, but that idea lost much of its charm with the loss to Buffalo. The Bengals need to ratify themselves again. It would be nice, anyway.