Allen, Bowden can build from ground level

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Marge Schott may learn to like being banned. Be it cause-and-effect or sheer coincidence, the Cincinnati Reds have shown improvement both at the gate and in the standings since their owner was exiled June 12.

Schott has profited during her punishment, an irregularity that usually requires taking a rap and opening a Swiss bank account.

Forced to rely on her hired help, she has found them surprisingly capable. If Marge has not yet seen the error of her ways, she has been unable to ignore the success of her successors.

By agreeing to make John Allen's interim position permanent Friday, Schott gave symbolic sanction to his campaign to reclaim lost customers. Allen's efforts have cost the club next to nothingand have bought great gobs of goodwill. Fans can run the bases now on Sunday afternoons, and children have a better chance to interact with the players.

These small steps represent giant leaps in the Reds' approach to customer relations. They suggest that someone at Riverfront Stadium - or whatever it is to be known as next - has heard the people grumbling, and heeded them.

''I really felt when he (Allen) first came in that he made a real positive impression on what's happening around the stadium,'' Barry Larkin said Friday. ''I actually believe it's a little more fun for the fans to come to the ballpark.''

A chance for real change

Allen's moves thus far have been largely cosmetic, but he now has the power to overhaul the creaky organization and the opportunity to leave a lasting imprint. Schott maintains some control over the budget but will no longer be allowed line-item veto power. Allen and General Manager Jim Bowden should be able to show her better ways to spend her money and more ways to save it.

The biggest changes in the Reds' operation are likely to be made quietly, over a period of several seasons.

Some of the money Schott has been spending on major-league payroll will probably be reallocated to scouting and development. This should bring stability to a franchise that has become overly dependent on overpriced free agents because of its meager minor-league production.

One of the more obvious answers is a larger scouting presence in Latin America, a fertile region the Reds have essentially abandoned under Schott.

Dollars intelligently invested in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Panama can save a club millions in the rent-a-player market. But you have to spend the money today to realize the savings tomorrow.

''My background is development and scouting, and I believe that's how you build the franchise,'' Bowden said. ''It's like building the Prudential building. You don't start at the top.''

Marge's no-lose situation

Schott has been hearing this refrain for years but was always able to ignore it because her top-down tack had been hugely successful.

The Reds have won consistently on her watch, but they have lately done so by deficit spending. As Schott's cash reserves dwindled and her talent pool proved a mirage, a new course of action was necessary. She was finally forced to retrench this season and refused to take on any additional salary even if it might have meant the pennant.

Long-term, this was the correct call. Short-term, it was an acknowledgement that the old ways weren't working.

If Marge Schott had not been removed from office, she would have been obliged to reinvent her franchise in order to keep it competitive. That burden now falls to Allen and Bowden.

If they pull it off, Schott reaps the benefits. If they fail, she has someone else to blame. Unless she starts granting interviews again, it's practically a can't-lose proposition.

Fear of failure should not be acute here. Allen's fan-friendly gestures and promotions have contributed to a 25 percent attendance increase since June 12. Bowden's drive and decisiveness have helped make contenders of a team that was nine games below .500 on the day Schott was suspended.

The two men have earned the chance to reshape the Reds, and Marge Schott has no choice but to trust them. So far, so good.

''He's got the wheels rolling,'' Larkin said of the Allen administration, ''and now we don't have to shift gears.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Aug. 10, 1996.