Bring back pride, respect, fun

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Reds are again open for serious business. The circus is closed.

Baseball's oldest professional ball club ceased to be a sideshow Wednesday evening when the sport's executive council coerced Marge Schott to give up control of her team through 1998. The Reds' Chief Executive Embarrassment will temporarily cede her authority to controller John Allen, and eventually to a third party to be determined.

Sanity may yet return to Riverfront Stadium. So, too, should fun.

If Mrs. Schott's ultimate successor has the authority to act in the best interests of the ball club and without Marge's micromanagement - as acting commissioner Bud Selig insists - that person will have a unique opportunity. Mrs. Schott's replacement will be positioned to restore pride and respect and sound business principles to a franchise that has lately become synonymous with folly.

This is an opportunity that ought not be missed.

Minimal efforts in marketing and promotions and a wider scope in scouting would represent quantum leaps from the Reds' standard operating slough. A reasonable person need not reach out very far to Reds fans to be seen as the second coming of Santa Claus.

Start by posting a sign at Riverfront Stadium announcing that the premises are now ''Under New Management.'' Treat fans like customers instead of so much cattle. Spruce up Riverfront Stadium with some banners. Pay more heed to Reds history. Retire the numbers of Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson. Lighten the mood with an acrobatic mascot. Raise the volume with strolling musicians. Make the ballpark experience memorable again.

Reluctant Reds fans need not be courted, but they cannot continue to be ignored and insulted without risky repercussions. Despite her many misdirected defenders, Marge Schott has convinced a lot of people to avoid the ballpark through her recurring stupidity and intolerance. Some of these fans won't need much incentive to come back. Reds fever still runs pretty deep around here, ownership notwithstanding.

The reconciliation of these disaffected fans could be contingent on Mrs. Schott's observing the terms of her settlement, and remaining out of the Reds' day-to-day operation. No sure thing, that. National League President Len Coleman vows to keep a close eye on abuses, yet if Mrs. Schott has the right to recommend her replacement, she inherently maintains some influence.

''There was no teeth at all to her first suspension,'' said Tim Sabo, the former Reds controller and whistle-blower. ''Hopefully, they (baseball leadership) have learned from that. The direction that they should go is to get someone who is not accountable to her directly, but to the partnership.''

Mr. Selig said Mrs. Schott would not be allowed to fire her stand-in without Mr. Coleman's consent, but she may still be able to manipulate club policy because she retains the right to approve the annual budget. That process will reveal just how much latitude her replacement is allowed, and how much progress the franchise can make during her forced sabbatical.

''We can guarantee that this person is going to be the CEO,'' Mr. Selig said Wednesday night. ''Mrs. Schott will be allowed to approve the annual budget, but this is not in any way going to be a sham. Leonard Coleman will monitor this on a very, very close basis. . . . If there are any violations of this agreement, that will lead to something far more serious than what you have tonight.''

Ostensibly, baseball's executive council was forced to sanction Mrs. Schott because she had become a continuing embarrassment and a growing public relations problem. Their hidden agenda was to stabilize a franchise that has been careening out of control.

Twelve years after she gained control of the ball club, Mrs. Schott's short-sighted management nears its inevitable reckoning. The farm system has become infertile through lack of investment. The fan base has dwindled through years of neglect. The player payroll has grown far beyond the bounds of revenues, and has nearly exhausted Mrs. Schott's cash reserves. The Reds lost roughly $32 million over the last two years, and stand to lose millions more in 1996.

Hard decisions are at hand. For the Reds to return to profitability, player salaries must be slashed and ticket prices will likely rise. The genius of Marge Schott is that she will be able to blame someone else for the bad news.

The good news is that she is gone, and that the Cincinnati Reds may again be taken seriously.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 13, 1996.