BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Push has come to shove. Baseball's efforts to negotiate a diplomatic settlement to the Marge Schott mess have so far achieved dismal failure. The time has come for what the boys at the Pentagon like to call a pre-emptive strike.
The time has come for the commissioner of baseball to stop cowering behind his desk, to stand up and be counted. The time has come for Bud Selig to cease being a ceremonial presence and assert his power. The chaotic condition of baseball's oldest professional ballclub can not be allowed to continue.
The Cincinnati Reds need direction, and what they get is drift. Marge Schott is ostensibly the club's President, but is powerless. John Allen is ostensibly the money guy, and he's closing player deals. Jim Bowden is ostensibly the baseball guy, and he's looking for a job.
A memorandum of understanding has been reached to build a new ballpark on the riverfront, and it may soon be overturned at the ballot box. With two weeks to play in the regular season, the Reds are in the thick of the race to become baseball's only sixth-place team of 1998, and their financial condition would not indicate improvement.
All problems lead to Schott
Some of this is beyond Bud Selig's control, but all of it is related. The Reds' current predicament -- competitively, economically, strategically -- can all be traced to Schott. Her failure to invest in infrastructure -- particularly in scouting, development, marketing and the stadium sales tax campaign -- has left the franchise with too few prospects, an eroding fan base and a severe shortage of political capital.
It is a fine mess, made messier by Schott's peculiar penchant to insult potential customers with ethnic slurs and her elaborate efforts to defraud General Motors in order to retain rights to her dealership.
That Schott has been unable to completely poison the Reds' reservoir of goodwill speaks to the team's long and distinguished tradition in this town. Yet that reservoir needs to be replenished periodically, or it will eventually run dry. The simplest solution is dynamic new ownership.
Baseball's ultimatum -- as it is understood by several sources close to the situation -- is that Schott must commit to selling the team or her suspension will be extended through the end of the Reds partnership agreement (Dec. 31, 2000). Scott's response, a source said, has been to say she will sell the team while making no real effort to do so. This is a transparent stalling tactic, but it has succeeded in reinforcing Selig's reputation for indecision.
If he should impose further sanctions on her now -- citing Schott's involvement of Reds employees in the GM scandal -- it would look as if Selig has been sitting on the evidence while allowing the Reds' franchise to stagnate. It might even be argued that Selig had a personal stake in that stagnation, since until recently owned the Milwaukee Brewers, who became a division rival of the Reds upon joining the National League this season. (The appearance of conflict of interests is no less acute now that the Brewers are owned by Selig's daughter.)
In fairness, Selig's paralysis is probably more attributable to inertia than self-interest, and baseball's aversion to litigation can not be overstated. But the effect on the Reds has been devastating.
John Allen has done a terrific job of taking the home team from massive debt to marginal profitability. Jim Bowden has been tireless in his search for talent. But neither man can speak with the authority of ownership or the passion of having a personal stake in the location of a new ballpark. Neither man has been a match for Bengals President Mike Brown in the competition for construction priority.
Reinstating Marge Schott would not solve the Reds' leadership vacuum. She has an infinite capacity to make matters worse -- witness her egregious attention-grab with Mark McGwire -- and could probably be counted on to fire Allen if ever given the opportunity.
Bud Selig cannot allow this to happen. But he cannot fix the Reds unless he forces Schott to sell.
Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.