The timing was terrible. On the eve of Opening Day, the Cincinnati Reds called a press conference to announce that their starting pitcher had been scratched.
Dave Burba, ostensibly the home team's ace, was traded to Cleveland Monday afternoon for a kid with two hits in the big leagues. The deal brought the Reds into budgetary balance, but compounded their dire pitching deficit.
Your first reflex was that the home team had surrendered before the season had even started; that you might as well start waiting for next year because Reds General Manager Jim Bowden has already written this year off.
Your second thoughts were less severe. They distinguished timing from tactics and perception from reality. They told you if the Reds are truly committed to development, and have abandoned haphazard, hand-to-mouth planning, then they should trade journeymen pitchers for potential stars. They should probably do it every chance they get.
Sean Casey may not prove to be everything Bowden said he was Monday - if he does, he will be Lou Gehrig - but if the ballyhooed first baseman is even half as good as advertised, this deal will one day be compared with Peter Minuit's purchase of Manhattan.
''Five years from now,'' Bowden predicted, ''people will look at this as one of the best trades the Reds have made since Joe Morgan in the '70s.''
Man of conviction
Bowden kept saying he was ''convicted'' of Casey's talent, and there is every reason to expect this prospect to appeal. Casey batted .386 last summer at Double-A Akron, .361 at Triple-A Buffalo and .396 in the Arizona Fall League. If he doesn't hit in the big leagues, Bowden might be convicted of malfeasance, but a lot of other baseball people will have been wrong, too.
Bottom line, Bowden was obliged to cut his payroll by $2.7 million, but said he would have done this deal if the money hadn't mattered. His guiding philosophy during the Reds' recent belt-tightening has been that it is better to build a solid foundation for a foreseeable future than to maintain the pretense that the Reds are serious players in the 1998 pennant race.
Better to be frank with the fans than try to fool them. Better to bite the bullet today if it means more ammunition tomorrow.
''We can't lose our vision of where we're trying to go,'' Bowden said. ''And we're not trying to do a patchwork job to pretend to contend. Instead, we're building a championship baseball club from the bottom up. . . No matter how much it hurts our present team, you know in the long run it's the best thing to do.''
Opening Day is an occasion for optimists. It is the first page of an empty scrapbook, an adventure about to unfold, one of those golden moments when fantasy holds sway over fact.
The lineup card somehow looks more loaded than it did the previous September. The pitchers are all fresh from some epiphany that has added bite to their breaking balls. The fans contemplate a ballclub, no matter how humble, and detect the raw elements of euphoria.
In it for long term
Management, however, cannot afford to get caught up in the moment. It must look beyond current circumstances toward the long-term. It must be prepared to pounce if a team resolved to win now is willing to part with a prodigy for an experienced pitcher. It must dare to make an unpopular move even if it means Mike Remlinger starts Opening Day.
The best-case scenario is that you get a bat like Jeff Bagwell's for an arm like Larry Andersen's, as Houston did in a trading deadline deal with Boston in 1990. At worst, Dave Burba wins the World Series and The Mighty Casey strikes out.
Still, it says here the Reds are smarter to take calculated risks at building a contender than to stand pat on mediocrity. It also says they are smarter to snare Cleveland's top prospect than to make a feel-good move for a bigger name with an older birth certificate. (See Justice, David).
Dave Burba will be missed, but he need not be mourned. He is proof the Reds finally have a plan.
Reds' stunner: Bye, Bye, Burba
Bowden: Fans will love Casey
Analysis: Trade furthers youth plans
Allen: Budget cutting over
Perez unlikely to sit
Remlinger: From bullpen to No. 1 starter
Burba gets chance with contender
Its Opening Day: Reds in first
Reds-Padres scouting report
Notebook: Larkin almost ready