Give Jim Bowden credit for gallantry. The Cincinnati Reds General Manager has issued Ray Knight a vote of confidence that carries some credibility.
Bowden is holding himself responsible for his ballclub's atrocious April and has volunteered to serve as the ballclub's primary lightning rod.
''I should have all the heat,'' he says.
There were no legitimate grounds for Bowden's mea culpa - it's not his fault, either - but it was a very nice gesture. If Bowden panicked in firing Tony Perez, it is a mistake he is unlikely to repeat.
The trouble with the Reds runs too deep to be solved by sacrificing a manager or a GM to mollify the mob. It is the result of 12 years of organizational turnover and neglected infrastructure. If the blame belongs to a single individual, she is Marge Schott.
For several seasons, the Reds General Partner has succeeded in disguising the internal shortcomings of her franchise by maintaining a major-league payroll her market size couldn't justify. Those days are gone.
Schott's cash reserves are now depleted, and her willingness to accept short-term losses is greatly diminished. Instead of selling the team, as the Williams brothers did under similar strain in 1984, Schott has decided to operate the club on a subsistence basis. What this means, gentle readers, is that as bad as they've been, the Reds are likely to get worse before they get better.
Next: Clint Hurdle
Every ballclub experiences a dark period now and then, but the Reds' systemic problems suggest a prolonged down cycle. In authorizing Managing Executive John Allen to impose a $30 million player payroll on Bowden, Schott has allowed all the corners she has cut in player development to be exposed. It has been, so far, a sorry sight.
The Reds opened a two-game series with Atlanta on Wednesday night one game ahead of the last-place Chicago Cubs. Worse, they are losing with journeymen pitchers and an aging nucleus of position players. They have not been competitive, and they are no longer young enough to be interesting.
This is what happens to a baseball team that tries to live hand-to-mouth for too long. It is what happened to the Reds in 1982, after Dick Wagner traded George Foster and Ken Griffey to cut costs and replaced them with Paul Householder and Clint Hurdle. This is a comparison that should give any Reds fan the creeps.
Yet the club's current predicament may be even more frightening, given the lack of help down on the farm. Schott's inclination to scrimp on scouting - both domestic and (especially) international - made the decline of her minor-league system inevitable. Baseball America rates the Reds' minor-league prospects second-worst among all big-league ballclubs.
John Allen has seen the need to increase the club's investment in scouting, but it could be several years before that commitment can bear fruit. Even now, the Reds are still severely out-radar-gunned by the likes of Atlanta and Los Angeles. When Bowden and two of his aides went to watch Highlands High School's Eric Glaser pitch Wednesday, they counted seven Braves scouts in attendance.
Talent what matters
To hold Ray Knight responsible for organizational problems that preceded his hiring would be like blaming Colin Powell for Custer's Last Stand. If Knight's job is at issue here, it is only because the kind of people who call radio talk shows can't comprehend complex explanations.
''Obviously Ray's been under tremendous heat,'' Bowden said Wednesday. ''But the fact of the matter is it's not his fault. It doesn't matter who's managing. You're not going to have success when your top three starters are giving up eight runs a game.''
Connie Mack was a brilliant baseball man, but he finished last seven years in a row after finances forced him to break up his pennant-winning Philadelphia A's of 1914.
Baseball is not so different now. Games are not won with dugout wizardry, but good players. What Ray Knight needs is less torment and more talent.
BRAVES 12, REDS 3
NOTEBOOK: LOSSES CAN'T BUM BOWDEN