Reds need visionary at top

Wednesday, October 28, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HELP WANTED: Owner. Deep pockets required. Deep thinking preferred. Fixer-upper baseball franchise in established neighborhood. Tax subsidies available. Location negotiable. No pets, please.

If Marge Schott is sincere about selling controlling interest in the Cincinnati Reds -- a development devoutly wished and widely doubted -- we can probably expect her to hold out for top dollar. We can certainly expect her to hold out for as long as baseball lets her.

The Reds' exiled general partner has a dubious talent for digression, for turning a minor detail into a massive deliberation, and a massive deliberation into an impasse. Schott may at last be en route to the exit, but no woman since Lucy Ricardo has been more reluctant to leave the stage.

If Schott goes quietly, it will only be because someone had the foresight to bring a muzzle. The smart money, however, is on Kicking and Screaming. Selling the Reds ought to be a fairly simple transaction, but it figures to wind up a siege.

This would be unfortunate, for every day Schott sits atop the organizational chart is a day the Reds are losing ground to the competition. The National League's Central Division, once baseball's most moribund division, now features the two most dynamic personalities in the game (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa), stadium construction in Houston and Milwaukee, and a doddering dog lady known to wax nostalgic about the Third Reich.

Years of neglect showing

Even when the Reds were more competitive on the field, their infrastructure was crumbling from years of Schott's neglect. Corners cut in scouting, development, marketing and promotion resulted in a fallow farm system and a dwindling fan base. A reckoning was inevitable, and it has been severe.

John Allen and Jim Bowden have managed to stop most of the bleeding through cost-cutting and improvisation, but if the franchise is to move forward again it may require an infusion of fresh capital and charismatic leadership.

Getting Schott to sell is Job One. (Job Two is getting her office fumigated). Yet shifting the ballclub into slightly better hands does not entirely ensure its future stability. Given the limitations of their market and the complications of their stadium project, what the Reds need now is an owner with a long-range vision and the money and mindset to absorb some short-term volatility.

Because Schott's limited partners retain the right to match any outside offers she may receive, control of the ballclub will likely pass to some combination of the gang of four who last month bought Frisch's share of the franchise: Carl Lindner, Louise Nippert, William Reik and George Strike. An outsider might raise the bidding beyond the limiteds' desire to match, but not beyond their means.

Brown outsmarts Schott

After 14 years of Schott's addled administration, almost any new Reds owner would be welcome. But not just anyone would succeed. The position calls for someone who wants to get involved without being intrusive; for someone who hires carefully and meddles reluctantly; for a serious fan willing to defer to more expert opinions. It is a difficult part to cast.

Among Schott's limited partners, only Reik reveals a real passion for the day-to-day fortunes of the Reds. Yet the baseball qualifications of this Wall Street whiz have been in question since last spring, when he predicted Willie Greene would hit 40 home runs.

Except for vast wealth, no proven formula exists for effective sports ownership. The New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner leads largely through intimidation. Eddie DeBartolo made the San Francisco 49ers pro football's preeminent power as a benevolent dictator. Jerry Reinsdorf has made a mint off the Chicago Bulls, primarily because Michael Jordan landed in his lap.

Mike Brown, meanwhile, is a Harvard lawyer who has been studying football since he was big enough to throw one, and he can't seem to get out of his own way. That he has consistently outsmarted Marge Schott proves only that he has a pulse.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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