BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The pennant race is an uninvited guest this season in Cincinnati. The Reds have left no room for it amid their roster remodeling and have made no provisions in the event of an extended visit.
If the recent surge that has carried the home team to the cusp of mediocrity should continue, it will do so with the help at hand. Fifteen wins in 16 tries are not enough to tempt Managing Executive John Allen to abandon the master plan.
"I'm not a baseball guru or anything, but let's be realistic," Allen said Wednesday afternoon. "If we're going to make a run, it's going to be with these guys. We're not going to alter the team's objectives, which are to let the kids get an opportunity to play as we point toward the future."
Until the last few weeks, the Reds' competitive future was projected as 2002. Lately, though, the home team has indicated an interest in an accelerated timetable. Tuesday's comeback victory in St. Louis moved the Reds into fourth place in the National League's Central Division and to within eight games of the wild-card leader, San Francisco Giants. Wednesday's 4-2 overtime win was simply stunning.
What seemed a Lost Cause as recently as last month has since become a Remote Possibility. There are still six teams between the Reds and the last playoff position, but there are also 67 games to go.
Yanks, here we come?
The most attractive aspect of baseball's adoption of wild-card playoff berths is that it keeps more teams in contention late in the season. This is also the most dangerous aspect.
It's easy to get seduced by a winning streak and believe that an immature ball club is suddenly all grown up. A talk-show caller Tuesday was so emboldened by the Reds' progress that he predicted a World Series conquest of the New York Yankees, grudgingly granting that baseball's most dominant team might prolong the proceedings to six games.
John Allen and General Manager Jim Bowden are paid to see things more clearly. Their euphoria about the Reds' recent success has yet to impair their judgment about the Reds' real short-term prospects. "There's a difference between a championship-caliber club and a contending club," Bowden said. "If we can make a trade that helps the present team win sooner, we'll do that now, as long as it doesn't affect our long-term plan. But any time we can make a deal that helps us win a world championship in 2002, we're going to do that."
Thus Pete Harnisch continues to be viewed primarily as trade bait, and Eddie Taubensee might well be expendable. Barry Larkin is probably stuck -- too good to be given away; too expensive to be easily moved -- but one fabulous fortnight has not convinced Bowden to stock up on veterans for the stretch run.
The Reds remain interested in Jason Bere, a starting pitcher recently banished to the bullpen by the Chicago White Sox. But Bere is only 27 years old -- young enough to fit a youth movement. Thirtysomething retreads, however, need not apply.
'On the same page'
This is the only way it can work. The baseball executive who attempts to appease impatient fans with quick-fix solutions endangers the whole enterprise. Bowden once tried to make repairs with the likes of Ruben Sierra, when his farm system was unusually fallow, but he is now committed to kids. Allen, who controls the cash flow, has left him no alternative.
"Jim and I are definitely on the same page as far as the long-term goals and objectives of this club," Allen said. "If we got to that point (where the playoffs were possible), who would have gotten us there? These guys who are here now. Would it be fair to dump a couple of them because you think you have a better chance with someone else?" Fairness is seldom the first consideration when baseball teams talk trade -- it is rarely a consideration at all -- but John Allen seems to be growing sentimental about this group of ballplayers.
"I'm a fan, too," he said. "And since we got the (stadium) memorandum signed and the baseball team's winning, I can go to the grocery store again."
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail. Message him at firstname.lastname@example.org.