Jim Bowden cannot afford any more mistakes. He cannot foist another novice manager on the Cincinnati Reds. Not after humiliating Tony Perez and misjudging Ray Knight.
No, the boy genius general manager needs a sure thing now if he is to endure as a baseball executive. He can't risk another guy who requires on-the-job training. He is going to want to be so right this time that he can't possibly go wrong.
He should start with a phone call to Thousand Oaks, Calif. He should beg Sparky Anderson to come back.
In firing Knight on Friday, and appointing seasoned Jack McKeon as an interim manager, Bowden has addressed the mounting chaos in his clubhouse. We have likely seen the last of the six-man starting rotation, and there should be a lull in loony controversies.
McKeon has been around long enough to know when to keep his mouth shut - a lesson Knight has yet to learn - but the primary reason Trader Jack got this promotion was because he was already on the payroll. He is an amiable fellow and an experienced eye, but he cannot make contenders of a bad ballclub, and he will not mean beans at the box office.
Sparky wants it
For those of you keeping score at home, McKeon is three years older than Anderson (66-63), and he has won three fewer World Series (3-0). What's more, Anderson wants this job despite all the obvious drawbacks.
How could Bowden presume to stand in his way?
''People say, 'Why would you ever go back to a club that's in the position they are in right now?''' Anderson said Friday afternoon in a telephone interview. ''My answer to that would be this: I owe that city something. Do I just always want to be remembered for the great years? Or would I be willing to have to start over and possibly have to have some lean years? I've never been a coward.''
Without the cash to compete for quality free agents, and a minor-
league system of limited promise, the Reds are looking at a long, bleak rebuilding period. They have more in common with the New York Mets of 1962 than the New York Yankees of 1927. They need a manager who can take some of the focus from the field, someone who can keep things light until some heavy hitters show up.
Casey Stengel did that for the expansion Mets and helped build a powerful fan base for the weakest club in baseball history. Sparky Anderson is the closest thing to a modern Stengel, right down to his skewed syntax.
''I would like to have two years to see if I could straighten this thing out to where we're on the right track,'' he said. ''I would never want to pin anybody down to a long thing. If, at the end of that, if things are going extremely good, then I think you should go one year at a time. That way it never gets old.''
Sparky has '70s appeal
Bringing Sparky back 20 years after Dick Wagner fired him would be both popular and shrewd. It would be soothing to the great gobs of Reds fans who are forever stuck in the '70s, and it would deflect some of the heat from a front office which has now employed four field managers since 1993.
Bowden's impulsiveness has proved an asset in acquiring players, but it has also led him to two managers who had never filled out a lineup card before. He fired Perez before giving him the chance to grow into the job. He let Knight linger long after he had lost the loyalty of his players.
Wagner remembers telling Knight he needed to serve a minor-league apprenticeship before he managed in the majors. At the time, Knight vigorously disagreed.
Later on, he often remarked on how much more there was to the job than he had imagined. Knight was steeped in the strategy of the game but a trifle short on its politics.
''If it comes around again,'' he said Friday, ''I will have learned a lot.''
If Ray Knight really wants to manage again, here's hoping he has the chance. The Reds have never had a manager who expended more effort on a less competitive club or who endured more ridicule in search of solutions.
Proven winner needed
But what the Reds need now is a skipper who does not need to establish his credentials in the clubhouse. It must be someone who has managed before - at least in the minor leagues - and it ought to be someone who has succeeded.
''I think that with young talent it's very important to have experience at the helm,'' Bowden said.
The usual suspects include Bob Boone, Jim Fregosi and Hal McRae, all of whom have managed in the majors and all of whom have their admirers within the Reds organization. Any one of them might work out.
None of these names, however, are as compelling as Sparky Anderson. The hunt should start with him.
Today's Reds report
REDS DUMP KNIGHT; McKEON STEPS UP
SPARKY MAY HAVE BEEN OFFERED JOB
SPARKY SHOULD BE NEXT MANAGER Tim Sullivan column
REDS BIG LOSERS IN ROULETTE GAME Paul Daugherty column
McKEON'S FIRST DIRECTIVE: RELAX
BRAVES 7, REDS 3
NOTEBOOK: TOMKO GETS FRESH START
BOX SCORE, RUNS
USA TODAY BASEBALL PAGE