By Corey Zeh
The Reds were crowned 2012 Hess Field Wiffle Ball Champions this past August. It was the culmination of a season that started in April, but their journey began sometime ago. The summer of 2008 is perhaps the most important period in league history. It saw the leagues best rookie class introduced along with a new attitude brought by teams like the Angels, the Nationals, and of course, the Reds.
Hardly a word was uttered about the Reds in the months leading up to the 2008 season. Notes from several scouts and GM’s reveal some potential for a kid named Zach Popp as his dazzling athleticism was on display in spring training, but other than that they were barely a blip on the radar. This obliviousness to the Reds talent and charisma would not last long. The Reds first game of the year was against the mighty Braves, and although they would eventually fall 5-2, they did lead for much of that game and it was more than enough to announce there presence. The Reds had captured the hearts of the league and of America within weeks of the season starting. Soon “Aussy” was a household name and on every Wiffleball magazine cover this side of Colonie, CPD tattoos started popping up all over Scotia and Glenville, and Ian Schoonmaker was fighting off groupies in gym class. There were many questions both from within the Reds organization and outside it as to whether they could handle the fame and fortune at such a young age. None of them even had a learners permit, so how they would handle the paparazzi outside there school, the autograph requests from bus drivers and the cases of free juice boxes was a seemingly legitimate question. True to their form though, they stuck together as a team…. until the season ended.
Despite the relative success of the team there was a split amongst the group, perhaps in part to their prompt sweeping in the divisional round which did leave room for contemplation. Aussy and CPD felt as though there futures were not as a Red and so they decided to cash in on a big-time offer from the newly formed Rays. While Reds team captain Mike Sacoccio decided to keep the rest of the team together and change the teams name to the Dodgers. Almost all the members of the Reds would go on to have success for the next 3 seasons. The 2009 Dodgers captured the #1 overall seed and are still considered to be one of the best teams never to win the championship, while Aussy and CPD helped get the Rays to the playoffs. In 2010 Aussy left for the mecca of HFWB, the Braves, while Popp went to the Angels and CPD went to the Orioles with former Reds player Scott DeBiase. In 2011 Popp and Aussy re-united on the Braves and made a World Series run before falling short to the Cardinals, while CPD went MIA.
So why re-visit all of this past history? Because it leads us to the summer of 2012.
There had been a lot of wiffleball played, many games won and lost and stories created and forgotten since that Reds team in 2008. Through it all though none of the former Reds, no matter where they landed, had obtained what they were looking for all along; A championship. So after the 2011 season it was decided to put the Reds back together to make a run at a title, together.
It was a rough start for the ‘Red Machine’ right from the very first inning of their season. There was a lot of hype about the return of Nick Leffler, former Dodgers and Orioles pitching standout who had skipped the 2011 season, but the hype was quickly ended as the defending champion Cardinals put up 6 runs in the first inning as the Reds went onto lose 15-3. Quite honestly Nick never really got on track, he played less than half the season so the jury’s out on how he would perform if he had another 20 innings of work, but regardless of the ‘what ifs’ he was clearly not going to be there for the long haul. Just a few weeks into the season the Reds were 0-4 and outscored 71-16 including a 2 hour sweep at the hands of the Braves where for the first time and perhaps the only time all season the normally jovial Reds showed frustration which boiled over at times and resulted in bickering and finger pointing.
The Reds were supposed to be a top tier team and they weren’t playing or acting like it at the moment. After a healthy dose of the Phillies got them to 2-4 (sorry guys) they swept a pesky Dodgers team to get to .500 and one of the most important moments of their season would be right around the corner. In a key series the 4-4 Reds played the 5-5 Tigers on a sunny Sunday afternoon, but the sun wouldn’t be the only thing shinning bright that day. After an easy win in game 1 which featured a bunch of rotation jockeying the Reds found themselves trailing 5-2 in the 5th when one of the OG’s CPD hit a solo shot to bring them within 2. Now despite there negative scoring margin to that point the Reds and everyone else knew if they were going to have a successful year it would be there bats that would get them there and guys like CPD, Aussy and Popp would have to step up. After slicing the lead to 5-3 heading to the 6th CPD would come up aces again in the 6th with another solo shot with 1 out to cut it to 5-4. Eventually the Reds found themselves with 2 on and 2 out with 14 year old and noob Tyler Popp up at bat, captain Aussy waiting on deck for a chance to end it. Tyler came up with the infield hit of his life and managed to load the bases for ‘The Auss’. One pitch later no one was on base and the ball wasn’t on our property anymore and 4 Reds were running to touch home plate, capped off by their captain who had just seemingly righted their ship.
To a degree that 8-5 walk-off win did set the Reds on the right course, they would never again be under .500 but they finished the season 5-5 although losses to the Rangers, Rays, Brewers and Cardinals are nothing to be ashamed of. Sitting in the middle of the pack with a 4th place finish is not what the Reds had expected nor their fans. Their team stats mirrored their mild finish. There are 19 statistical categories we keep track of for teams and the Reds finished top 3 in just one of them. The Reds hit .401 as a team which was good for 5th best despite being arguably the best hitting team in the league. While Aussy did have a career year hitting .492 with 19 HR’s and 55 RBI, and perhaps the most consistent year in league history as he homered off of every team in the league and in every series played even through the playoffs, the rest of the team never clicked at the same time. Big bats CPD and Zach Popp combined for just 34 RBI and 12 HR’s which wasn’t enough to overcome there mediocre pitching for most of the season. Having Zach Popp makes the Reds a tough team to beat in any series but to have the best shot at winning a title they needed other guys to step up on the mound. The Nick Leffler experiment hadn’t panned out, Aussy had gotten roughed up in the first half of the year and Mike Curtin had been basically average and the playoffs were right around the corner.
The Reds had received a 1st round Super Sunday bye and wound up facing the Rays in a win or go home game and would be throwing their captain Aussy in order to set Zach up for the semifinals. It was up to Aussy to tame the Rays offense and keep the Reds dreams alive and he delivered big time. Aussy was dazzling on the short mound throwing sliders, riser and knuckle balls and making good hitters look foolish. Behind Aussys pitching and the Reds bats they clobbered the Rays and sent themselves to the semifinals to face the Braves. Remember, the Reds first game five years earlier in 2008 was against the Braves when they were just kids with a dream. Now they had a chance to live that dream and possibly go to the World Series.
The semifinal series would go all 3 games and come down to a tremendous pitching performance by the Reds ace Zach Popp and a few big hits (or intentional walks of CPD) and before they knew it the Reds had taken the final step and defeated an old foe to reach a World Series that some thought may never be coming. The Reds walked off the field and embraced one another as I’m sure memories of walking to the field and Mike Sacoccio throwing his hat and Schoony being sent home were conjured up in each of their minds. But suddenly memories of two blown leads over Chris Hess, giving up a grand slam to Steve Culver and getting swept in a matinee double-header by the A’s to lose the 3 seed popped into their minds, and they knew… work was still left to do.
Their opponent in the World Series would be the Rangers, a chiseled veteran squad from Rotterdam well versed in grinding out wins and inhaling cigs. This series too would go the distance, a five game war where everything the Reds stood for would be put to the test. Were their bats big enough? Was their pitching deep enough? Would they pay their league fee? The Reds started right out of the gate in game one with a 5 inning mercy win 12-0, the first mercy win in World Series history. Game two was a grinder as Zach Popp squared off against rival and one-time teammate Josh Longo and Longo and the Rangers would get the best of them. After losing game 3 to former Cy-Young award winner T.O. the Reds back were up against a wall, so they came out swingin. Big hits by CPD and Aussy, and Mike Curtin pitching the game of his life helped push the series to a game five where they could once again put their ace Zach Popp on the mound, but it wouldn’t be Popp that would clinch them the title. In front of a sold out crowd the Reds brought the lumber just like they did in game one and have relied upon so often, immediately taking an early lead with bombs to left and center field by everyone. Popp was more than confident on the mound with all that fire power behind him and he cruised only giving up one run. The game would not even go the full distance as CPD delivered the knockout (en route to World Series MVP) in the 6th inning with a walk off solo shot to give the Reds a 14-1 victory and their first ever league championship.
The Reds embody everything a team in this league is supposed to be about. They have fun and they win as a team. Every player played a role in the regular season and in their postseason run as well. They didn’t have the best stats and they weren’t the best team until it mattered most. They weren’t ready to win a championship in 2008, but despite each taking separate paths after that first season they all ended up back together each as a better player and teammate than before. I think they finally realized that this league isn’t about how good you can become or which team to sign with, its not even about winning a ring. Its about taking a journey with a group of guys you would ride or die for and being able to say that we won and we did it our way, together. And that’s the bottom line.