The Big Blue Machine

Whenever I read anything by Joe Posnanski, I find myself in an exquisite kind of despair.

At the same time that I delight in and chew upon every word, I find myself exposed as a fraud for ever attempting to write.  Somehow, I suspect my experience would depress Joe.  He communicates himself in such a warm and inviting way that I am certain his aim is to invite all of us into the conversation, excluding no one.  The problem is not Joe’s writing, but my pride.  I hate knowing that I’m not the best, and reading Posnanski always reminds me that I lack the greatness of spirit and simple raw talent to ever write as well as he does.  Lessons in humility occur more frequently as I hit middle age, but Posnanski is such an adept teacher that I willing go back to him to discover new ways in which I can’t measure up. 

Don’t be mislead: I’m not complaining. I’m thankful.

That’s a long winded way of saying that I recently finished The Machine.  This piece this morning will serve as a review of sorts of the book, but more importantly gives me an excuse to talk about the Colts. 

The Machine is the story of the 1975 Reds, one of the great iconic teams in baseball history.  The book itself pours off the page.    It does not matter if you are a fan of the Reds or not, or even if you like baseball, The Machine is a beautiful book.  The words so clean and effortless that you glide from page to page.  It captures poignant moments of humanity hidden within a talented but perennially underachieving team: the Reds of the early 70s (more on that in a moment). Posnanski spent hours with the principles of the 1975 team, particularly Pete Rose, and used that time to help us gain an understanding of who they were as men.

Posnanski shares the complex relationship between Johnny Bench and Rose, revealing that despite their sometimes jealous and rocky coexistence, that it was Johnny standing on top of the dugout stairs, bat in hand, daring a mob of Mets fans to lay a hand on Rose.  He talks about the pain, physical and emotional, of Gary Nolan.  Once a young pitcher of unequaled potential, he battled his body, management, and the fans to shake the most damning label you can get in sports…soft.  He recounts the moment when Sparky Anderson learned of his father’s death and how he reconciled with his son.

He humanizes the giants I never saw play but grew up revering.  He introduces us to the real Pete Rose, the real Morgan, the real Perez, the real Sparky.  They are all men destined to become bronze statues and plaques struggling with their own insecurities and flaws, decades before their imperfections would be washed away by bronze.  The Machine touched me deeply.  I hate that my son is four years old, because I can’t imagine how I’ll manage to wait 10 years before I can talk to him about it. 

What struck me before about the Reds of the 1970s is that while they now stand as one of the great dynasties in history, The Big Red Machine, at the time they were dogged for failing to live up to their talent.  The Reds lost in the 1970 and 1972 World Series. In 1973 they lost in the playoffs.  In ’74 they finished second in the NL West.  Sparky Anderson, now universally acclaimed as one of the great managers ever, feared constantly for his job.  Tony Perez lived in constant terror of being traded.  Pete Rose was forced to take a pay cut.  Johnny Bench was booed at Riverfront stadium.

The 1975 Reds blew Game Six of the World Series (Game Six must always be capitalized) and with just 10 outs to go in the seventh game they trailed by three runs.  Same old Reds.  They were chokers.  They were a great regular season team who just weren’t built for the postseason.  No matter how many division titles they won, they were failures.  Anderson would be fired.  Perez was sure to be shipped out.  For all their MVP awards (Rose, Bench and Morgan had four between them), they couldn’t come up with the big hit or the key play when they needed it.  

And then Tony Perez hit a home run that traveled all the way to Cooperstown and in an instant the entire narrative of the Reds changed forever.

Colts fans, surely you see where this is going.  As much as I gasped when I read that Anderson might have been fired or that Bench was booed, I know from experience that it was true.  I wasn’t there in 1975.  I wasn’t anywhere.  But I know how fans are about legends in the making.  I know that someday I will tell tales of glory of the Indianapolis Colts, and that my kids will marvel that anyone ever called Manning a choker or that fans were restless and disheartened by a team that ‘underachieved’. 

The Colts are built in such a way that any given year could be our 1975 or 1976.  I think so much of the disappointment of 2009 is because for 14 weeks, we thought we were watching it unfold before our eyes.  The helpless horror we felt as the team blew a 10-0 lead through a series of fatal flaws and inexplicable failures won’t soon be forgotten, unless of course we win next year, or the next. 

You see, no one holds the 1970 or 1972 series against the Reds now.  Now the division championships, the NL pennants are symbols of pride and greatness, even for the years they didn’t result in world championships. They fill out the resume:  6 division titles, 4 pennants, 2 championships in 10 years.  30 years later, no one complains that the Reds of 1970s should have won more or should have been better. They were greatness personified.  Who could possible expect more?  Now Bench’s game tying home run in the 1970 NLCS proves he was clutch and no one asks what happened in the 1970 World Series.

Winning has a way of swallowing up losing, on the field and in life.  It’s why I love sports.  It’s why I love life.

I’m still waiting for my Big Blue Machine.  

The engine is running, all it needs now is a tune up.

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