Reds left behind

Thursday, December 17, 1998

Think of the Reds as your corner grocery. They don't carry all the national brands, but they are convenient.

If you crave gourmet goat cheese or an insouciant cabernet or a starting pitcher who earns $50,000 per inning, you must go to the mega market. But if you can be satisfied with Cheese Whiz, Gallo and Steve Avery, there's no need to leave the neighborhood.

Baseball comes in two sizes these days. There are a handful of serious players who operate in boutique ballparks and/or cable nirvana. Then, in the economy-size category, there is everybody else.

The Reds are part of what promises to be a permanent underclass of major-league mediocrity. They can't generate enough revenue to compete for the pennant — at least not so long as they are based at Cinergy Field — but they can still be profitable if they watch their pennies.

They exist not so much to achieve excellence as to facilitate competition, to supply the Braves and the Dodgers with someone to play. Small-market clubs in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Minnesota have all won the World Series since free agency pried open baseball's labor market in the mid-1970s, but those days grow distant.

Gap only widens

Once upon a time, a clever general manager and a couple of keen scouts could steal the pennant from wealthier competition. No more. Baseball's payroll disparities have lately grown so wide that no amount of brainpower or initiative can bridge the gap between the great powers and the powerless.

“It's very difficult, very challenging and very upsetting as a whole,” said Jim Bowden, the Reds general manager. “What has to change is the amount of money that gets shared (by all clubs). Get us in the range where you're not 15 Barry Larkins away from winning, but two or three. Make it a $15 million differential instead of the present $70-80 million.”

During last week's winter meetings in Nashville, Bowden proposed a dramatic realignment. He suggested that each league create divisions on the basis of revenues rather than geography. That way, the poorest clubs (as determined by proceeds from the previous year) could compete for a pennant and a place in the post-season.

Bowden has floated class-system proposals before, and they never seem to be taken seriously. Baseball remains the sport most resistant to change and most tethered to tradition, and National League rules require unanimity before any divisional realignment can be approved.

But this time, Bowden's arguments may be reaching a more receptive audience. Commissioner Bud Selig has identified the payroll gap — and its profound impact on competitive balance — as one of baseball's most serious problems. Bowden has been asked to put his proposal in writing, and plans to submit a draft by the end of the week.

“I was really surprised by the amount of support I got from the other general managers,” Bowden said Wednesday. “And it wasn't just the small-market clubs. I think there's a recognition that this is a problem that needs to be addressed. When the NFL has a problem, they address it. We're in a situation where we need to find a way to solve a problem that keeps getting worse.”

Not long-term solution

Short of a salary cap (which would necessitate another catastrophic work stoppage) or significantly liberalized revenue-sharing (which would require generosity from George Steinbrenner), baseball faces a future in which the same eight or 10 teams will dominate the playoffs and the rest will be forced to become punching bags in order to show a profit.

Bowden's plan could not solve the game's long-term inequities, and it might undermine the notion of a level playing field, but it would supply more teams with a shot at a meaningful September. Given the obstacles involved in persuading players or owners to sacrifice some of their income to achieve a more lasting solution, Bowden's bold proposal might prove the most pragmatic alternative.

“Probably,” he said, “none of us should sleep till we solve these problems.”

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