"We're more of an expansion team than Tampa Bay or Arizona,"
Reds general manager Jim Bowden says with a straight face. "I'm
not kidding." So this is what baseball in the '90s has come to?
The Devils Rays and the Diamondbacks have not played a single
major league game and both are the envy of Cincinnati, a
franchise that began perfecting this baseball thing 129 years
ago. Bowden states his case with simple economics: Tampa Bay has
three players on its roster with long-term contracts averaging
at least $5 million per season, Arizona has three and the Reds
have had only one, shortstop Barry Larkin, in franchise history.
The current buzzword in the organization is downsizing. Just
three seasons ago Cincinnati had one of the top five payrolls in
baseball; in '98 the Reds are among the five lowest, at $24
million. The franchise is unique in baseball because it has
nosedived almost overnight from being a large-market team to
being a large-market team with a small-market mentality. The
shrinking budget has led to the loss of Benito Santiago, Ron
Gant and David Wells in '95; Eric Davis and Mark Portugal in
'96; and Jeff Brantley, Kent Mercker, Joe Oliver and John Smiley
in '97. Not surprisingly, Cincinnati's victory totals have
decreased, from 85 in 1995 (when they won the division) to 76
last year. Attendance has shown a similar trend, going from 2.45
million in '93 to 1.79 million last year.
Each of those years the Reds attempted to patch the holes by
signing aging veterans. "The last two years have been difficult
because you know you need to add just one or two players to win
the division, but you can't pay them," Bowden says. "It's like
there's no light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes you have to
take chances on players you don't really like or drag guys out
of retirement because those are the only guys you can afford."
Poverty isn't Cincinnati's only cross to bear. Let's just say
that if all the major league teams went out to dinner, the Reds
would be the last to reach for their wallet. This is a team
whose skinflint owner, Marge Schott, once gave out handfuls of
recycled candy as Christmas bonuses. One reason Cincinnati
continued to patch with free agents was that the farm system lay
fallow after operating for years with the lowest scouting budget
in the big leagues.
Finally, in '97 the Reds committed to rebuilding with youth.
Midway through last season the team began hoarding inexperienced
players and conducting open auditions. Twelve guys started in
leftfield, nine in right, nine at third base, six at first base,
seven at second and four at shortstop. This year Larkin will be
the only starting position player older than 30. "I came to
spring training a year older, but everybody around me got a year
younger," he says. "If this keeps up, pretty soon there's going
to be a generation gap."
Manager Jack McKeon considers himself a scout in the dugout,
constantly evaluating young talent. McKeon, who earned the
nickname Trader Jack for his many blockbuster deals in the '80s
as the Padres general manager, has found a kindred spirit in
Bowden. "Jim spends 23 hours a day dreaming up ways to improve
this team," McKeon says. "He's aggressive and fearless, and
that's the recipe to get better quickly."
It is a testament to the Cincinnati's thrift and Bowden's
creativity that no position player in the projected Opening Day
lineup was signed as a free agent. Bowden has acquired six of
the eight through trades, and many of them were pulled off the
scrap heap of other organizations. Bowden is an innovator who
makes up for his financial constraints by scouting the inner
cities and by targeting 16-year-old international talent that
has yet to blossom. Only Bowden had the foresight to arrange
pre-expansion draft trades with both new teams, making deals
that returned to his roster players snatched in the draft.
There are also some encouraging off-the-field signs for the
franchise. Schott, who claims losses of $10 million in '97 and
more than $30 million since the strike in '94, may soon sell her
share of the team, which would improve the Reds' image
dramatically. Also, the team is anticipating a revenue boost
from a new stadium, which it hopes will be ready by 2001. Until
then, Bowden will keep exploring ideas to improve the club on a
shoestring budget. "We have to find ways to beat the system,"
Bowden says. "We simply can't play with the big boys on their
terms. They have enough money for eight more Barry Larkins than