The tragic number is two. Despite the matchless mediocrity of the National League's Central Division, the Cincinnati Reds may be down to their last day of mathematical delusion.
One more loss to the Houston Astros - either today or tomorrow - and the home team will be officially eliminated from October. Unofficially, the Reds recognized the grim reality of their circumstances many months ago.
This is a baseball franchise in full retreat. Marge Schott's bills are being paid with borrowed cash, and John Allen's austerity campaign has yet to stop the bleeding. Thus the player payroll must be slashed more severely next year to make up for this season's shortfall, and a fallow farm system must be harvested more aggressively.
The light at the end of this tunnel is about as dim as one of Elton John's wind-blown candles.
In announcing Jack McKeon's contract extension Friday afternoon, Reds General Manager Jim Bowden spoke of rebuilding his team for the "new stadium." It is a nice thought, and it proved a successful strategy in Cleveland, but as a timetable it is terribly vague.
No relief in sight
The Reds' new stadium exists now only in theory. No ground has been broken. No site has been selected. No design has been determined. No deal has been struck. No real progress has been reported.
Unless they ultimately embrace the concept of Broadway Commons, the Reds' next ballpark is likely at least five years away. (Presuming, of course, that Hamilton County has sufficient money remaining once it has rebuilt Versailles for the Bengals.)
Until their stadium situation gets settled - or Marge Schott sells out to someone willing to absorb more losses - the Reds can only rebuild to a point. They are like the man who holds a $10,000 policy on a mansion that has just burned to the ground. They are headed for hardship.
Though McKeon's honeymoon period has been encouraging, baseball's oldest ballclub is looking at a long run of irrelevance. The Reds have supported subpar starting pitching by scoring fewer runs than any team in baseball, and will be unable to compete for front-line help in their current financial condition. Worse, they may be forced to move some of their few marketable players to cut expenses.
"Our general manager is liable to trade anybody at any time," McKeon said after Saturday's 4-1 loss to the Astros. "I'm out of that end of it. Just give me the players."
Time to say goodbye
McKeon said he had no concerns about payroll cuts when he agreed to his contract extension, and he can probably predict most of them. The Deion Sanders' sideshow is surely over. Hal Morris is bound to be bought out at season's end. Bret Boone will probably be traded for prospects, if he is not first seized in the expansion draft. Except for Barry Larkin, and perhaps pitcher Dave Burba, any pricey veteran is a good bet to be gone.
"It's a tough situation," outfielder Reggie Sanders said Saturday. "I like the Reds. I want to stay here. But that's one of those situations that's basically out of my control. Not many people know what's going on. It's not like a lot of things are talked about." Some clues are pretty transparent. The Reds are going to cast their lot with kids - Chris Stynes and Jon Nunnally, Pokey Reese and Brett Tomko - and live with the consequences. Economics allow for no other alternatives.
"The thing you have to remember with young players," Bowden said, "is that they get better. As long as they have the talent to begin with."
Bowden has a keen eye for talent, but his budget may not be big enough to capitalize on his instincts. The Reds are headed down the daunting path of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Montreal Expos. They must try to make do with rapidly diminishing resources.
Some day real soon, the Reds' role in the 1997 pennant race will be officially over. The long wait for next year has never been more bleak.