COLUMN: Local Reds fans relishing pennant race

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By John Herndon

There is joy in Reds Country again.

At least for now there is.

Being in a pennant race 100 games into the baseball season for the first time in more than a decade will do that to you, you know.

If some conversations at the Anderson County Invitational for youth league baseball teams are correct, Anderson County is still the territory of the Cincinnati Reds. The passion for professional baseball's oldest franchise is alive and well locally and it has been energized by what is going on in the National League's Central Division.

As of Monday, the Reds and St. Louis Cardinals were neck-and-neck in the quest for supremacy and have been for most of the year. While the Cardinals have pretty much owned the division, finishing first seven times since Major League Baseball went to six divisions in 1994, Reds fans are looking for their favorite team's first title since 1995.

The Reds have not actually been in a bona fide pennant race since 1999, when they lost playoff game to the New York Mets for the wild card berth. The Reds did go into the final weekend of the 2006 season with an outside chance at making the playoffs but fell well short and it would have taken a miracle at that.

But with Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and company leading the division for much of the season and still hanging around because of strong starting pitching, interest in the big league team located closest to Lawrenceburg is high again.

So high that the first-person plural is often used to talk about the team..

“We're a half-game out right now,” Anderson County resident Jeff Harper said Saturday. “We picked up a game last night.”

The Reds and Cardinals flip-flopped positions on Saturday and Sunday and entered Monday with St. Louis owning a half-game lead by virtue of one less loss. The teams were even in the win column with 55.

Harper was attending the Anderson County Summer Slam baseball tournament at Legion Park. The night before, even after preparations for the tourney, Harper got home in time to see Jay Bruce drive in Votto with a double for the game-winning run in Houston.

“It's exciting,” said Harper, a lifelong Reds fan who works for the Kentucky Farm Bureau in Louisville. “When I am home, I watch them and when I am on the road, I tune them in and listen to (Reds radio announcer) Marty Brennaman.”

Anderson County Little League president Bart Lewis, who was also at tournament being held at Legion Park, once got a tryout with the Reds. He is still a huge fan. “I have to be. I grew up that way,” Lewis laughed.

And the Reds' success has prompted him to pay closer attention. “Absolutely. It is so much fun. I have been up once (to a Reds' game) and I either watch or listen to 95 percent of their games.”

Even the casual fans are taking notice of what his happening 100 miles north of Lawrenceburg. “I am a Yankees fan, but I follow (the Reds) because they are the closest team,” said Anderson County High School senior Josh Brown, also at the tournament.

A huge baseball fan and a member of the high school team, Brown said he could not remember the Reds being good this late in the season.

Don Simmons, also of Lawrenceburg, also admitted to being a casual fan, but, like Harper, noted, “They are a half-game out.”

Simmons said that the pennant race has caught his eye. “I look to see how they did and look to see who they are playing now,” he said.

Most under the age of 45 don't have vivid memories of the Big Red Machine of 1975-76. Considered by most as one of the two or three greatest teams ever put together, that team won back-to-back World Series titles. In 1976, the Reds did not lose a single post-season game.

But Harper and Lewis both have fond memories of the 1990 team that led the National League West from wire-to-wire and then won the World Series. Many have said the current Reds are much like that team “I like the '90 bullpen better,” smiled Lewis, recalling the Nasty Boys trio of Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton.  “What I like about this team is the strong starting pitching. They can go four or five deep.”

When was the last time, if ever, you heard someone say that about the Reds? This is the franchise of Bench, Perez, May and Kluszewski, for Pete Rose's sake. And, true to form, the current Reds are leading the National League in hitting again.

But Lewis says that abundance of hurlers is why he thought these Reds could surprise in the spring. “I really did,” he said. “They have a lot of pitching.”

And with the 2010 trading deadline looming on Saturday, Reds fans don't think they will be saying good-by to some of the stars as they have several times over the last decade.

“Right now, we aren't talking about who we are trading away,” said Harper, sounding like a general manager. “We are talking about who we will bring in.”

Whether or not the Reds bring in some help – bullpen, anyone? -- they have at least given their longtime fans in Anderson County hope for a return to glory.

E-mail John Herndon at jpherndon@theandersonnews.com.