The first images from Arizona rolled in on Tuesday, and they were as familiar as they were heartwarming. Men in Reds gear going through the first paces of spring training. Some light running, a few calisthenics, and then, games of catch. Nothing else in sports combines mundane with significance like the early dispatches from a big league camp.
Yet those dispatches come, yet again, with familiar, not-so-heartwarming reminders. Patience is needed. Progress will continue to be measured in inches. The win and loss columns won't be the ultimate barometer of success.
The Reds rebuild continues, for a third, maybe fourth year, depending on who's counting, if anyone still is. And for a third, maybe fourth straight February, their chances of contention have been universally dismissed before the full squad has even reported. Literally no one honestly believes that the Reds can contend for anything meaningful this year. Even more sobering, no one seems to have any idea when contention can be talked about in something more than abstract, faraway terms.
In some respects, the easy part of the rebuild is over. The first step was when the club finally admitted what most of us had known for a while - that the direction they were going in wasn't the right now. The next step - the one where the Reds started trading away popular players from their past - might not necessarily been easy. No one should dismiss the emotional pangs that come with moving on from so many mainstays, and identifying things like the right players to get in return and when exactly to pull the trigger on a trade are very inexact sciences, but as it became clear that the Reds were going to have to move in a different direction, it wasn't hard to look at a roster and point to the players who they had to move.
That end of this process - for the most part - is done. This weekend's divorce from Brandon Phillips (that word is what best characterizes that particular move) marked the eighth trade over the past 26 months that involved a player who'd contributed significantly to a Reds playoff team. Some of those deals were easier - both emotionally and mechanically - were easier to pull off then others, and some of those trades yielded better return packages than others, but while there will probably be more trade talk this summer, it feels like the saddest, most emotionally-jarring part of the Reds rebuild - the part where I write blogs like this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, and most importantly, this one - is over.
Now comes the hard part. It's the part where the Reds sort through every one they've traded for, developed, drafted, given chances to, taken a flier on, given second chances to, found underneath a rock, and signed internationally, and see what the have. Obviously, Dick Williams and his staff will continue to look everywhere and exhaust every means to find players, clearly there will be key figures for the future who remain in the minors, and with three picks among the first 38 players chosen, including the second one overall, this year's draft looms as an important one, but this entire season will have a very kid-dumping-out-pillow-case-full-of-candy-after-trick-or-treating feel to it.
Except a Halloween haul is easier to quantify than the early returns on a rebuild.
The even harder part, and the part that I find at least as interesting as whether Jose Peraza can be a steady second baseman or whether Robert Stephenson can be the staff ace, is how the Reds keep their fans interested and engaged. The Reds have changed drastically, in face and in personality, over the past few years, and yet the message to us has been the same.
Be patient. Bear with us. Hang in there. Oh, and can you still buy some tickets???
They've been very transparent, and at times brutally honest about what they've had to do to the team and how actions by the front office should shape expectations for what happens on the field. And while there are always fans who will scream into the darkness about how pissed off they are at the latest maneuver, I think most Reds fans - including the one whose blog your reading - have been on board.
But three years, man. Three years of being told that the present is really about the future. Three years of being reminded that Reds record is not only going to be not important, but not good either. Three years of wondering when - if - the Reds will actually be good again.
It takes a toll.
Sports fans are inherently patient. Humans, though, are not. The former understands the time it takes to build a winner, but the latter is prone to, well, the basic human nature that, after a while, tires of the same message, grows bored with not getting desired results, and often inevitably moves their attention, time, emotion, and money, to something else. The push-pull between the two during this baseball season in Cincinnati is going to be interesting.
At some point the message has to change. And soon, it'd be nice if those early images from Arizona weren't tempered with the stale pleas for patience and the hopelessness that comes with knowing that - best case - the Reds will win by not losing nearly as much.
This means that by the end of this season, there needs to be tangible, easy to quantify progress. The Reds of 2017 don't have to play themselves into bona fide, legit, contenders in 2018, but some time soon, they're going to have to have things in good enough order that we can all point to a clear, easy to articulate, time when contention can go from being a pipe dream to a hope.
I'll be blunt: I'd like have an idea soon when it is that the Reds could be contenders again. I'll bet you feel the same way.
The wins and losses will matter a little bit more this season. Seeing players progress to the point that they can be counted on and built around matters a lot more. You and I being able to talk about what's ahead for the Reds by referencing something besides the vague "future" that we've been hearing talking so much about matters more than anything.
I think most of us have been at least partially in on the rebuild since before it began. I think most of us like the direction the Reds are moving in, even if we wish things would be moving faster. I think most of us are very willing to give the people who are running the team a chance to see this thing through.
I know, however, what it's going to feel like for most of us if a year from now, the early endearingly familiar first images of the season are accompanied by hearing things that are not as endearing, but are unfortunately becoming all too familiar.