John Allen gets it. Not that ''it'' involves splitting the atom.
The acting executive of the Cincinnati Reds hears the voice of the fan, and it really registers. He is all ears, and yet, no Dumbo. Allen understands the basic rule of the entertainment business, which is to supply the customer with what he seeks.
If this passes for inspiration around Cinergy Field, so be it. The Reds were brain-dead for so long that any sign of life should be applauded. Accordingly, Allen's decision to retire the uniform numbers of Ted Kluszewski, Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson rates a standing ovation.
Baseball's oldest professional ballclub has been painfully slow to get in touch with its past. Some of the blame belongs to the cantankerous Marge Schott, and some to earlier administrations whose scant sense of history gave the ballpark the same homey feel of a Motel 6.
With one sweeping nod to sentiment, Allen has atoned for the oversights of his predecessors. He has given three generations of Reds fans cause to celebrate, and an excuse to reminisce in what figures to be another bleak baseball season on the home front.
The Reds have scheduled the three retirement ceremonies on separate nights - for maximum impact on attendance - but there is more behind these moves than a short-term boom at the box office.
Gives peace a chance
Allen's initiative makes peace with two of the Reds' greatest and most embittered players. It shows management is moving beyond its old racial boundaries, symbolically reaching out (on Martin Luther King Day) to an audience the team has had trouble tapping. And, politics aside, it is the right thing to do.
In honoring the memory of the muscular Kluszewski, Allen has recognized a player who will never reach the Hall of Fame but is no less beloved because of it. Big Klu was the personification of a power hitter, with biceps that belonged on Paul Bunyan, set off by a sleeveless shirt.
Discerning Reds fans might argue that Ernie Lombardi is equally deserving. A persuasive case could be made for Edd Roush, whose career predated uniform numbers. For that matter, George and Harry Wright have yet to be adequately recognized for making Cincinnati the birthplace of professional baseball.
This is no time to quibble, however. Had Allen failed to act, the debate over whose jersey merits mothballing would be largely moot. Until Monday, the Reds had formally removed from circulation only Fred Hutchinson's No. 1 and Johnny Bench's No. 5. (Jackie Robinson's No. 42 was retired by all teams by the edict of acting Commissioner Bud Selig). The New York Yankees, meanwhile, have retired 14 numbers.
Next: Rose, Nuxhall
Given the finite supply of two-digit figures, and the prospect that big-league baseball could survive for centuries, numbers should not be retired frivolously. This tribute should be bestowed on a limited basis, to first-ballot Hall of Famers and special cases: Pete Rose; Joe Nuxhall.
That the Reds have been reluctant to honor their own owes in part to Rose's status as baseball's pariah. So long as the Hit King is in exile - and that's not about to change - grand gestures by the ballclub will strike some fans as hollow.
When the Reds failed to honor Morgan following his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990, he said he had lost interest; that the moment had passed; that he could not be sure Marge Schott would not someday rescind the honor.
That John Allen was able to answer Morgan's objections, and convince him to take part speaks both to his powers of persuasion and his growing authority. It might be a signal that baseball is determined to continue muzzling Marge until her partnership agreement expires.
''I think all the good that John Allen has done and is trying to do could only be hurt by Marge coming back and pushing him aside,'' Morgan said Tuesday.
What John Allen is trying to do is help baseball's oldest ballclub to act its age. With this team, nostalgia could be his strongest selling point.