Two other National League franchises, in Washington and Houston, might help us gauge this botched baseball season in Cincinnati, for they best illustrate the wild card race, which the Reds figured to join by breaking a little better than even.
Under the direction of former Reds General Manager Jim Bowden, the Washington Nationals have turned baseball's return to the nation's capital into a story of fond memories, and it's not even the All-Star break. The Nats finished June 47-31 with a 4 1/2 game lead on the Atlanta Braves, the NL East Champs for Life.
You can tell the Nationals are a Bowden club just by noting the lengthy volume of player statistics, counting 20 pitchers and 43 different hitters through July 1. Among the hitters, only Jose Guillen (16 homers, 45 RBI, .302 average), Nick Johnson (8, 42, .320) and Ryan Church (7, 28, .325) raise even a suspicion. Ace starter Livian Hernandez (12-2, 3.32 ERA) is the only man in their rotation who guarantees victory, though closer Chad Cordero (0.87 ERA, 28 saves) can finish a game for anyone.
Offensively, the Nationals are among the worst NL clubs at extra-base hitting and run scoring, and they're the worst at hitting home runs. They're in the middle of the league at striking out and walking.
But the season in Washington, specifically the month of June, is quite special. On May 28, the Nationals were 24-25, a national curiosity but not a national phenomenon.
On July 1, following a blazing run of 24-6, the Nationals commanded a nice lead in the NL East. During that streak, they played exciting baseball with 14 wins in 15 one-run games.
Now hold that thought and take a look at the Houston Astros, who just took three of four from the Reds at Great American Ball Park. On May 24, the Astros were even worse than the Reds, 15-30, compared with 17-28 for the local nine. The Reds were 12 games out of first place while the Astros sat in the NL Central basement, 14 games down.
Each club struggled in a different way, the Astros by not hitting and the Reds mostly by not pitching. And Astros fans weren't happy, either.
But unlike the weak-kneed Reds, who tried placating fans by walking their players down the plank, the Astros stuck to their professional judgment and did nothing. A bit of humor might be made by comparing the Astros' response with the Reds' falling sky performance, by which they offed their second baseman, relief ace, manager and pitching coach, but the details of Houston's few transactions would bore the reader.
What shouldn't bore the reader is that the Astros refused to pander, understanding it would turn a small problem into a big problem. The Reds put their small problem on a pedestal and smashed it into a catastrophe.
So the Astros gathered themselves and, even with aging Jeff Bagwell going on the disabled list, put together a couple wins here, a couple wins there, nothing longer than a five-game winning streak but all adding up to a season back on the track. From May 24 through July 1, the Astros were 21-11.
A lot of people thought the Astros might not be as good as the Reds this year. The Astros lost Jeff Kent, Carlos Beltran and Wade Miller during the winter. The Reds gained Eric Milton, Ramon Ortiz and Joe Randa. The Reds should have at least closed the gap.
The new Houston general manager, Tim Purpura, took 30 lashes on the public relations whipping post, though more sensitive types allowed that the timing of his promotion from farm director to replace the departed Gerry Hunsicker placed him at a disadvantage. Meanwhile, Reds General Manager Dan O'Brien, another former Houston farm director, appeared to have won the confidence of his new organization.
But once they rolled out the balls, we've seen where the savvy lies. The baseball season is a long affair, and you just can't lose your cool over 45 games. The Astros kept their cool and now work from the fringe of the wild card race, 6 1/2 games back of Atlanta through July 1.
If Reds management worked with just a tiny bit of discipline, maybe if they turned off the radio and tuned out the angry talk shows so they could make sober decisions, this season still could have been meaningful, because the NL wild card race will produce one very fortunate playoff contestant. Even with the Braves leading the way through July 1, they were only on pace for 88 wins. And the chance of an even slower wild card race looms.
Remember when we thought the Reds could win 85 and knock on the wild card's door? As the All-Star break approaches, it looks like 85 wins will knock on that door -- but the Reds won't be doing the knocking.
It's not that Danny Graves, D'Angelo Jiminez, Dave Miley and Don Gullett were going to save the season in Cincinnati. But lopping them off hasn't improved the situation. Furthermore, it unsettles a clubhouse and defeats progress when the death carriage makes frequent pick-ups, especially when nothing comes in return for people who've been valuable. A competent operation makes a trade -- be it for future considerations, a player to be named later, something, however abstract -- so the remaining players won't think management holds them worthless.
It's the responsibility of a baseball club's front office to buffer the clubhouse from extraneous commotion so the players can concentrate on baseball. At his best with the Reds, Bowden mastered that part of the job, keeping the smelly stuff from running down hill, perhaps at some personal cost.
Under O'Brien, Carl Lindner and John Allen, the Reds couldn't look more different. Their edifice resembles an outhouse, with the uniformed people living in the basement -- which is probably where they'll finish.