Saturday, May 22, 1999

Lindner's Reds a business, not a 3-ring circus




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The first question was for Carl Lindner, so naturally John Allen stepped to the microphone. There was not a moment of hesitation by the Cincinnati Reds' managing executive and not so much as a peep out of their owner-in-waiting.

        Everyone knew their places Friday morning at Cinergy Field. Authority was carefully delegated and roles were well defined. The Reds' corporate machinery moved so smoothly you couldn't hear the gears grinding or see the St. Bernard slobbering.

        You want to know how things are going to change in the home team's transfer of power? The answer is that the change has come.

        The Reds are a real business again after almost 15 years as a carnival act. They are conducting commerce in an orderly fashion and finishing projects promptly. Friday, a 30-year lease on a new ballpark was announced within bunting distance of home plate, four years to the month after Marge Schott assembled 16 of the city's most prominent suits to declare support for a new stadium.

Schott put Reds in hole
        This deal could have been done years ago, but Schott hesitated while Mike Brown hurried. Her inability to seize the moment or appreciate the stakes cost her ball club site selection, construction priority and perhaps $50 million in lost revenues. While Brown's stately pleasure palace is taking shape on schedule for next season, the Reds' new ballpark is still on the drawing board. It is not expected to open until 2003, four years later than County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus thought possible on the night the stadium tax referendum passed in March 1996.

        When Lindner finally was cajoled into addressing the crowd Friday, he spoke graciously and glowingly in his high-pitched mumble of Schott's various contributions to the city. Yet once the mini-cams had moved on — which is when the truth usually emerges at these events — some insiders grumbled that Schott's indecision on the stadium project was her lasting legacy; that she had set the franchise back at the exact time it needed a boost.

        By the time Fill-In-The-Blank Field finally opens, three of the Reds' division rivals (Houston, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh) already will occupy new playpens. St. Louis may still have Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa might still be in Chicago. Baseball's oldest professional ball club still will be playing catch-up.

        “There's no point crying over spilt milk,” General Manager Jim Bowden said Friday. “We are where we are.”

        Schott's biggest tactical blunder was deciding she would wait to see the terms of the Bengals' deal before committing herself to a contract with Hamilton County. She operated on the flawed premise that the Reds would be entitled to everything Mike Brown got, and then some. She failed to grasp the increasing influence and portability of professional football franchises and the additional leverage Brown gained by negotiating an early escape to his original lease.

New Reds already rolling
        When county officials first approached Schott about a deal, they were hard-pressed to wade through all her digressions. At one early meeting, Schott carelessly stubbed out her cigarette on the left wrist of County Administrator David Krings. The resulting scar is barely visible now, an indication of how much time the Reds have wasted.

        An indication of how little time will be wasted henceforth was that Friday's news conference took place barely one month after Lindner and his partners cut the deal to acquire Schott's controlling interest in the ball club. The Chiquita mogul is a man — How shall I put this? — who does not mess around.

        “I have not met with Mr. Lindner on (player payroll),” said Bowden, who appeared before the cameras in a red tie patterned with peeled bananas. “But being a very successful businessman his whole life, I think it will continue with baseball.”

        Carl Lindner cannot magically transform Cincinnati into a big market. He will not cure whatever ails Denny Neagle and Dmitri Young. He is not likely to lose money in order to win games.

        He just gets things done. Nice change.

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

        REDS PAGE
SULLIVAN ARCHIVE