John Clay

John Clay: Lack of toughness, leadership sends Reds packing

Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker has another year on his contract, and GM Walt Jocketty expects him to return.
Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker has another year on his contract, and GM Walt Jocketty expects him to return. AP

With apologies to Jay Bilas, who wrote a book on the subject, probably the most overused word in all of sports these days is "toughness."

Unless, that is, you are the Cincinnati Reds.

If you are the Cincinnati Reds, you are cleaning out your lockers at the Great American Ball Park clubhouse right about now, preparing for a long, lonely winter after somehow, someway a 90-win season — completing the team's first back-to-back 90-win campaigns since 1978-79 — became a terribly disappointing season.

Yes, Dusty Baker's club made the playoffs for the third time in four years. Yes, the Reds overcame — to a degree — injuries to Ryan Ludwick, Johnny Cueto, Sean Marshall, Jonathan Broxton, Ryan Hanigan and Tony Cingrani, among others.

And yet, when the season was on the line, they faded into fragility.

They turned soft.

The final week of the season, with maybe a division title and at least home-field advantage in the playoffs on the line, they lost two of three to the woeful Mets. They were then swept at home by the Pirates, the team they needed to beat most.

In the meantime, they (Ludwick) whined about crowd support and dismissed the poor finish as a mere bump at the end of a long road. Tuesday night in Pittsburgh marked the start of a new road. A better road.

It was the same road. The Reds' offense was anemic at best, its focus nonexistent at worst. First baseman Joey Votto, who led the major leagues in walks, swung at bad pitches. Brandon Phillips bobbled a sure-fire double-play ball.

The tale was told in the bottom of the second inning. Pittsburgh's Marlon Byrd led off the frame with a homer. Pedro Alvarez jacked a long fly ball Shin-Soo Choo ran down on the warning track. The hyped-up crowd at PNC Park began chanting "Cueto, Cueto."

The Reds right-hander responded by letting the ball drop out of his glove as if he were a T-ball player who had been distracted by a butterfly.

Once he picked up the ball, Cueto delivered a belt-high fastball that Russell Martin hit into one of those three rivers, or almost. Game over. Season over.

Afterward, Reds GM Walt Jocketty told reporters he expected Baker to be back. After all, the manager is under contract for another year. And maybe that's a good move. Baker ranks among baseball's best at running a clubhouse and earning the trust of his players.

If Baker returns, however, the Reds need to bring in someone to do what Baker cannot or will not do. They need a tough guy. They need a leader.

They need a Greg Vaughn, the veteran outfielder who upon being brought over from the Padres in 1999 set the tone for what turned out to be a 96-win Reds season, a 19-win improvement from the year before.

They need a Scott Rolen, the veteran third baseman who before his retirement this season taught the younger Reds the value of preparation and professionalism and hard-nosed play.

The current Reds seem too nice for all that. Phillips is always smiling and joking. Votto is too much the introvert to be a rah-rah guy. A free agent, Choo could sign elsewhere. Todd Frazier is one of the more affable New Jersey natives you'll ever meet.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals are battling you to the final pitch. The Atlanta Braves are blocking home run hitters from touching home plate if they grandstand around the bases. The Los Angeles Dodgers are celebrating division titles by jumping in a swimming pool — the Arizona Diamondbacks' swimming pool.

To get over the post-season hump, the Reds don't need an edge in talent as much as they need to play with an edge.

Nice guys might still make the playoffs, but in Cincinnati's case they aren't advancing.

It's called hardball for a reason.