Reds stuck in low-rent district

Sunday, October 25, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Amy Bowden gave birth to twin boys last week, the fourth and fifth sons for her and her husband Jim. It's a starting infield and a pitcher. "The only way we can afford a team," Jim Bowden said. He is the Reds general manager. "We" is the Reds. And he is only slightly joking.

Sometime soon, New York Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams and San Diego Padres ace Kevin Brown will sign contracts that, together, will pay them as much as the Reds' entire estimated 1999 payroll.

That would be in the neighborhood of $25 million a year. It's a nice neighborhood for Williams and Brown, and the half-dozen teams that can afford them.

It was a good year for baseball. This is what we hear. Good? It was great, epochal, an all-time smash hit. Except around here. Where, it, you know, stunk. When baseball stops praising itself for the happy stories of Sammy and Mac, Boomer and Rip, it will see a gaping hole where the competition used to be.

Facts: No team with a payroll of less than $44 million had a winning record. No team since 1991 has won a World Series without a top-five payroll. The bottom-five Opening Day payrolls were in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Cincinnati and Oakland. You'd need a space shuttle to get those teams to first place.

The top five: The Orioles, Yankees, Indians, Braves and Rangers. Four made the playoffs.

We see where this is going, has already gone, and it's straight to places like New York.

(By the way: One more word about Yankee greatness, I'm calling Pedro Borbon. And he will have Steinbrenner dolls, and all the necessary pins. I know New Yorkers think nothing is valid that does not occur between the Hudson and East Rivers. But enough, already. Occasionally, a team other than the Yankees will win a world championship. Eventually, it will be a team as good as the '98 Bombers. Everyone outside the 212 area code will acknowledge that.)

Reds among the have-nots

Baseball doesn't need Bud Selig proclaiming its "golden renaissance." It needs viable revenue sharing and an NFL-style salary cap. It needs a system that allows everyone a fighting chance at signing Kevin Brown or Bernie Williams.

As it stands, the Reds (and Pirates and Expos and so on) are graduate school, summer theatre, the mail room. They're hanging out at Schwab's Drugstore, hoping Ted Turner will discover them.

They are the In Between, between a hopeless Here and a rosy There. As Bowden said, "We can win at $25 million, if the big boys are (capped) at $40 million. Otherwise, it's almost impossible."

All it is, is crucial to the Reds success, and to the success of teams like them. That may not sound important in New York or Atlanta, but here's the thing: The Yankees and Braves need teams to play. October is becoming a rotating tournament between thickwallets. We used to complain when teams bought titles. Or, in Steinbrenner's case for years, when a team tried to buy wins, and lost. Now, it's standard procedure.

Is Selig up to the task?

It has to change. You don't win fans and keep them with an annual promise of fourth place. The Cincinnati Reds should not be the St. Louis Browns.

Overhauling the game's economy could be too great a task for Selig, who thinks small and prefers consensus to bold action. It won't happen now, anyway, not in the midst of all this feelgood. Players certainly won't see a need to change anything.

But the Reds and their Third World brethren are in a parallel universe. They're not in the Yankees' league. They're barely in the same game.

In Cincinnati, we watched the World Series the way they might have in Dubuque. Because under Baseball's current money rules, we are in Dubuque. Our October dreams are about the same.

"This is one of the best free agent markets in years," Bowden said. He didn't mean it to sound wistful. But it was.

Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.