“I don’t really own this car,” I once heard Jay Leno say of a one-of-a-kind classic car in his keeping. “I just take care of it for the next owner.”
I repeated this comment to the Ohio State student who was, at the time, its marching band’s drum major. “Do you know how brilliant that is?” he said, eyes wide. “That’s exactly what it’s like to be drum major.”
It is. The drum major cannot fold, spindle, or mutilate the position. If he changes one single solitary thing about his duties without widespread permission, he will hear about it from fans of the football team, fans of the band, former drum majors, alumni bandsmen. The ghost of Woody Hayes will crash down upon his immortal soul. Who he is, in this moment of life, is not as important as what he must do– and how he does it.
For what he does to burnish his own life resume is not up for discussion; all that is asked of an Ohio State drum major is two years or more of never screwing one single thing up and maybe leaving the job a little bit better for the next.
But not too much.
It’s a near-impossible ask, of course, but consider what Reds fans ask of our leadership. It is at once an outrageous task and the easiest job in the world. We ask for excellence but are willing to settle for aligning payroll to resources. Sweeping the entire sport’s pre-emptive favorite for the championship and a decade’s worth of domination are the goal, but eh, that’s a pretty big ask, and at least the team is still in town, amirite?
Caught in the tension of this are the actual players, who find themselves in this odd mix of easygoing appreciation and building frustration. We’ll take what we can get. We just show up a little bit less. No to season tickets, yes to the radio in the background and the DVR recaps. We’re here. We also aren’t.
The only times I have attended RedsFest were when I was working it, but I was still interested to see how a mostly-empty stadium and direct insults from the front office would apply to this winter wonderland of anticipation and game-used items. The answer: Lines around the block of the Convention Center. The message, then, is “Wouldn’t kick a Word Series trophy out of bed, but not gonna delete the contact, either.”
Why, then, must the ownership shift its amazing strategy of putting good beer and bad teams in place? I used to wonder what this front office would do when the Bengals inevitably return to form and Votto retires, but staring at that photo of fans patiently awaiting admittance to the high-cost rally event, it occurred to me that answer is another question: Why should it? We are a city-wide Charlie Brown, ever staring at the little red-haired girl and squinting down the lawn at Lucy holding the football: This time, this time, it could be different. And then it’s not and we just shrug and walk back to the other end of the grass for another express trip to laying flat on our backs.
It’s because many of us don’t just love the Reds– this fandom wasn’t a choice for most of us; it was laid upon us at birth– we love baseball. We’ll sit in a bar staring over our date’s shoulder at two teams we don’t know much about playing a game that will have absolutely no impact upon our team, just because it’s nine men fanned out across the grass.
Current ownership knows this. It’s baked in. The literally bank on it. And so they’re smart enough to tend the rose garden and keep the outfield watered while maintaining the 2019 price of pop. They’re bare-minimum custodians. We cannot complain of total neglect.
But a respectful classic car owner, an innovative drum major, and an owner who truly understands the job knows that maintaining the status quo is the bedrock. To maximize impact while never ripping the guts out of the thing, they will find ways to use 21st century technology to curb the loss of horsepower while keeping the original engine engine mostly intact,. Toss the baton over the goal post and maybe add another half-rotation to the backflips. And keep the ballpark a ballpark to which we’re not ashamed to take out-of-town friends, but to a game at which we might see a winner.
Those who keep the pace work hard. They give. They are necessary. They deserve our gratitude. The best of these understand that they don’t really own what they own.
But sometimes the output could be so much more.