BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Marge Schott has signed off on a stadium deal, and the pen should be preserved for posterity. After a lengthy and exasperating holdout, the obstinate owner of the Cincinnati Reds has finally come to terms with reality.
She is not going to get as sweet a deal as did the Cincinnati Bengals. She is not going to get a ballpark immediately west of the Suspension Bridge. She is not going to be guaranteed sellouts or smoking exemptions or box seats for her St. Bernard.
But if she can resist her instinctive inclination to drag her heels, to digress, to dawdle, Marvelous Marge is going to get a ballclub worth owning; eventually, perhaps, one worth watching. The memorandum of understanding she signed Tuesday was probably a year overdue, but it provides a framework for a prosperous franchise, provided that the general partner can stay out of the picture.
Worst may be over
Schott's much-anticipated autograph was the most significant sign of hope the Reds have produced since Todd Benzinger fielded a foul pop fly to finish the 1990 World Series.
John Allen has brought balance to Schott's books, turning the leading money-loser in professional sports into a prudent and marginally profitable operation. Now, he has an instrument to begin growing revenues, and the potential to improve the product on the playing field.
The tunnel is long. The light is dim. But the worst may be over. Back debts have been forgiven, future rent has been reduced, and the tedious question of a boutique ballpark on the riverfront is at last moving from the realm of political debate to architectural feasibility.
By the Reds' modest standards, this spells progress. The future is no longer a figment of Jim Bowden's hyperactive hyperbole, but tangible enough for timetables and promising enough that payroll should be a diminishing problem. The ballpark should be finished no later than 2003, and maybe slightly sooner. Hope springs eternal. The Reds have been stuck in neutral for so long that it has recently looked like reverse. Allen says he has succeeded in eliminating debt, but his austerity program has led the Reds to last place in a mediocre division. This is the predictable pattern of baseball's small-market franchises, and the reason so many of them are clamoring for new digs.
A better ballpark will not put the Reds on a financial par with the Atlanta Braves or the New York Yankees -- or even, perhaps, with the Cleveland Indians -- but it should serve to prolong those periods when the club is competitive and reduce the length of the down cycles.
No team can expect to win every year, but no team can long endure if it has no chance to win in any year.
"We're the oldest franchise," Allen said Wednesday. "We belong in Cincinnati. It's very important to our organization that we obtain a lease that ensures our economic viability over the long term."
Give up on Broadway
Economic viability may not sound quite as stirring as a promised pennant, but it is the difference between having a franchise and losing it. If the Reds are deserving of public subsidy -- as the voters have declared -- then their prosperity should be a higher priority than their location. Efforts to obstruct a deal, to force a public referendum on Broadway Commons, can only delay stadium construction and extend the existing mediocrity at Cinergy Field.
When the Bengals' lease for a new riverfront stadium faced its last midnight deadline, councilman Todd Portune physically turned back the clock at City Hall in order to get the deal done "on time." Now, Portune is pursuing a petition drive that would thwart the Reds' agreement with Hamilton County and return stadium negotiations to Ground Zero.
Portune's position is at best inconsistent and at worst insane. The idea of subverting the process at this point, and of bargaining from scratch with Marge Schott, is utterly unthinkable. You get her to sign something, you had better run with it.
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at firstname.lastname@example.org.