Monday, April 05, 1999

Opening Day not Marge's finest hour




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Marge Schott's love of Opening Day is undeniably deep and unbelievably unrequited.

        It is her favorite time of the baseball season because of the pageantry and the parade and her place at the center of the city's attention. The Reds are 10-4 on Opening Day during Schott's tenure as the club's chief executive officer. But on balance, it is a day she would be better off spending in bed.

        The lame duck owner of the Cincinnati Reds has a unique talent for spoiling her own parties, for turning an annual celebration into an awkward ordeal. Joe DiMaggio liked to compare Opening Day to Christmas, to the unwrapping of mysterious and wonderful packages. With Marge Schott, those packages typically contain time bombs.

        When John McSherry died in the first inning of the 1996 opener, Schott was so self-absorbed as to complain that the plate umpire's passing had ruined her day.

        “I feel cheated,” she said. “This isn't supposed to happen to us. Not to Cincinnati. This is our day. This is our history, our tradition, our team. Nobody feels worse than me.”

        In a life marked by reckless remarks, Marge Schott has seldom sunk any lower than that. She wanted the game to go on, even as McSherry's body was bound for the morgue. Later, she sent the surviving umpires second-hand flowers.

Opening Night? Phooey
        When baseball scheduled Opening Day 1994 on a Sunday night to accommodate television, Schott stubbornly refused to recognize the game as the authentic opener, saving the decorations and the festivities for the following afternoon. The season consequently started with an antiseptic advertisement instead of promotional pizzazz, and ESPN's Jon Miller sniping at Schott for failing to do her part to showcase her sport.

        When the Reds raised their world championship flag on Opening Day, 1991, Schott seized control of the ring ceremony. She then unceremoniously summoned the players to her side by barking out their last names as if she were calling the roll of an infantry regiment. She used last names only, it was widely assumed, because that's all that appeared on the jewelry boxes and she could not recall her players' first names without prompting.

        Schott has always adored the trappings and traditions of Opening Day, but she has never learned how to play her role regally. Much as her lack of pretense helped make her popular, her lack of class caused us to cringe. On Opening Day 1993, banished from her front-row seat because of some of her offensive remarks, Schott emerged from an upstairs box after the game and was asked for a parting comment.

        “Woof, woof,” she replied.

Makes Bengals look good
        The difficulty in assessing Schott's stewardship after 14 seasons is that her bumptious style obscures her bottom-line substance. The Reds are 68 games above .500 during Schott's tumultuous tenure — the Cincinnati Bengals, during the same period, are 44 games below .500 — yet Schott often suffers by comparison with the Harvard lawyer who runs the local football franchise.

        Mike Brown has made substantially more money than Schott during this span, and outflanked her in the battle for stadium priority. Still, the Bengals' business successes may have been more a function of pro football's financial stability and leverage than Brown's particular brilliance.

        On the field, which is what matters most to the paying customers, the Reds have been far more productive. They have won a World Series, three division titles and compiled a better record than the Los Angeles Dodgers during the Schott era. Their recent decline probably owes as much to baseball's hyper-inflationary environment as it does to misguided management practices.

        Yet if this is to be Schott's last Opening Day in charge of the ballclub, she is likely looking at a lopsided legacy. She has behaved too badly for her blunders to be overlooked, and she has not won enough to be excused as eccentric.

        She will be remembered mostly for what she'd like us to forget.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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