What in the world is an expensive power hitter such as Greg
Vaughn doing in the camp of the Cincinnati Reds, a low-budget
operation that used to ferry its players around on commercial
flights instead of charters? Vaughn, who arrived at the opening
of Reds spring training in Sarasota, Fla., in a white stretch
limo, is helping the Reds take a swipe at the baseball maxim
that only the biggest-spending clubs can dream of October. His
presence in a Cincinnati uniform is a signal that the Reds are
doing something radical for a team at the lower end of
baseball's class structure: actually trying to win.
Last season Cincinnati took the downmarket approach: Conceding
defeat before the first pitch was thrown, they pared their
payroll so far (from $38.2 million in 1997 to $21 million) that
the team made money for the first time in at least five years.
The Reds also lost 85 games--only the second time since the
expansion era began in 1961 that Cincinnati endured three
consecutive seasons without a winning record.
The acquisition of Vaughn in a five-player trade with the San
Diego Padres on Feb. 2 clinched the Reds' return to the
financial middle ground that most clubs find untenable. (Indeed,
it took Cincinnati's board of directors five days of
hand-wringing to sign off on the $2.2 million in added salary
that the Vaughn deal entailed.) With a $30 million payroll, goes
the theory, the 1999 Reds will spend too much money to guarantee
a profit and too little to guarantee a contender. No team made
the playoffs last year without spending at least $47 million.
None had a winning record without spending at least $38 million.
"I'd love to someday have an $80 million payroll and be able to
go out and get a player when I need one," says Jim Bowden,
Cincinnati's general manager. "Maybe someday, in a new ballpark,
that will happen. Can you win with a $30 million payroll these
days? I think you can, but you have to be a little more creative."
March 15, 1999
Bowden is one of the game's strongest advocates for correcting
the competitive imbalance in baseball. He has flooded
commissioner Bud Selig's office with correspondence endorsing
realignment based on revenues: divisions of haves and have-nots.
At the same time he is trying to prove that a team with a low
payroll can win. If he succeeds, won't he blast a hole in his
own argument for realignment? No, he says, because he believes
the imbalance will only worsen over time.
Trying to win on a shoestring has inspired Bowden to hand out
more second chances than a booking agent in the Catskills. When
you can't compete for big-ticket free agents and you work for
Marge Schott--the penurious outgoing owner who'd rather pamper
her Saint Bernards than her ballplayers--you are always on the
lookout for the next Shecky Greene to add to your B-list bargains.
In his seven years as Cincinnati G.M., Bowden has signed three
outfielders who had been out of baseball for a year (Eric Davis,
Ron Gant and Deion Sanders), a clinically depressed pitcher
(righthander Pete Harnisch), a manager in exile blackballed for
his highballs (Davey Johnson) and an outfielder who seemingly
spent as much time on the disabled list as off (Kevin Mitchell).
When Jerry Springer appeared with a glove at the Reds' spring
training camp last month, you didn't know whether it was a
publicity stunt or the result of another of Bowden's wild
scavenger hunts for talent--at least until the schlockmeister
(and former Cincinnati mayor) swung some lumber. "Can't hit,
can't run, can't field," Bowden reported.
This season, emboldened by a four-year contract extension, the
imminent removal of Schott and the lack of a powerhouse team in
the National League Central, Bowden has shifted gears and
reached out for top-shelf talent. Two months before becoming the
first general manager in history to trade for Vaughn, a hitter
coming off a 50-home-run season, Bowden snagged a former 20-game
winner, Denny Neagle, from the Atlanta Braves in a four-player
trade that added $4.75 million to the Cincy payroll. "The key is
having assets," Bowden says. "We've got them now." Translation:
Cincinnati has bought itself four months of hope and high ticket
sales. (That's four months more than are possessed by
cash-strapped teams such as the Kansas City Royals, the
Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos, which have already waved
the white flag.) Come the July 31 trading deadline, the Reds
will be either a low-payroll contender defying conventional
wisdom or an auction house offering Neagle and Vaughn to bidders
with younger (read: cheaper) players. Imagine a team that comes
with an exchange policy. That's Cincinnati.
"There is no risk here," Bowden says. "I believe a player has the
most [trade] value in July."
"I just hope he doesn't pull a Jerry Reinsdorf and say we have
no chance if we're 3 1/2 games out," Neagle says, referring to
the Chicago White Sox owner's midseason surrender and fire sale
in 1997. "I'm signed for next year, so he can always trade me
after the season. But Vaughn's a different case. He can be a
free agent, so it will be more urgent to trade him."
Neagle was so unhappy to join the Reds that his first reaction
was to promise he would invoke his right to demand a trade after
this season. Bowden had not been seeking Neagle; he merely
responded to an offer from Atlanta general manager John
Schuerholz to trade the lefthander and outfielder Michael Tucker
for second baseman Bret Boone. Bowden insisted that
hard-throwing pitching prospect Rob Bell be included. "Any move
we make," Bowden explains, "must be done with an eye toward
2002, when we hope to have our new park ready." Schuerholz
balked at throwing in the righthanded Bell. Bowden, who didn't
want to move Boone, said, "Fine. Go ahead and get [Fernando]
Vina," the Milwaukee Brewers' second baseman. Bowden knew that
the Braves wanted Boone more than Vina. Schuerholz blinked. He
put Bell in the deal. Bowden then agreed to include Reds lefty
reliever Mike Remlinger.
Within an hour after the trade was announced, at least eight
teams called Bowden to ask about Neagle. Bowden told them Neagle
was not available. Neagle comes relatively cheap (two years, $9
million left on his contract), and Bowden wanted to build his
team around a rotation that included Neagle and righthanders
Harnisch and Brett Tomko, who were a combined 75-44 (.630) over
the past two seasons.
Still, not even the captain of the Reds thought the Neagle trade
did enough to make Cincinnati a winning team. Shortstop Barry
Larkin, tired of losing and of Schott's embarrassing business
and personal fiascos, pushed Bowden to explore trading him to a
contender. Larkin put his wanderlust on hold after Bowden
obtained Vaughn and outfielder Mark Sweeney from the Padres in
exchange for outfielder Reggie Sanders, infielder Damian Jackson
and pitcher Josh Harris. Larkin says now, "A lot of things about
my situation were misrepresented. I wanted to play for a better
team, and now I do. When I was growing up, there was a lot of
pride in the Reds. We lost that feeling. I want to see it come
back to Cincinnati."
To make the Vaughn deal, Bowden had to persuade the Reds' board
of directors that it would be money well spent. (Schott was not
involved in the decision.) He finally succeeded by leaving a
voice-mail message at 3 a.m. for managing executive John Allen
in which he promised the team could make money by spending
money. "I don't think there's any question we'll make it back in
ticket sales," Bowden says.
The Reds drew more than two million fans in each of the four
seasons preceding the 1994 strike but haven't done so since.
(Last year attendance was 1.7 million.) Vaughn gives the team
instant credibility. He is the game-breaking hitter that
Cincinnati hasn't had this decade (chart). No Red has driven in
100 runs since Davis did in 1989 or hit more than 37 home runs
since George Foster did in '78. Of course, Vaughn had his own
problem with the trade. The Reds had not allowed facial hair on
players since 1967. "I don't see myself shaving," Vaughn told
Bowden. "I'm just going to show up at spring training with my
goatee. When you traded for me, you got the goatee, too."
This time Bowden needed Schott's help. She had negotiated
clauses into the contracts of Bowden and Allen requiring that
they enforce the ban on facial hair. After intense fan support
for Vaughn, Schott agreed to scrap the policy. Talk about a
hitter with power. "Just shows you what 50 dingers can do,"
As if to underscore Cincinnati's efforts to upgrade its lineup
and image, Vaughn arrived for his first day of work in the white
limo. His batting-practice slugfests next to Beethoven
Boulevard--a walkway beyond home plate named after the Hollywood
movie Saint Bernard, a favorite of Schott's--drew the camp's
biggest crowds. Fifteen other Reds among the 56 in camp quickly
Without playing a game, Cincinnati had a big month. Not only did
the Reds add Vaughn, but the defending NL Central champion
Houston Astros also lost leftfielder Moises Alou for several
months to a severe knee injury and failed to land the Toronto
Blue Jays' five-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, who
was dealt to the New York Yankees instead. "I like what I'm
seeing," says Neagle. "Houston is the team to beat, but there's
no reason we can't shoot for winning the division, not just the
Still, Cincinnati needs help from a supporting cast that
includes more has-beens and youngsters than can be found on the
large-revenue clubs. The Reds' reclamation projects include
lefthander Steve Avery, whose fastball couldn't roust a
radar-toting trooper on some interstates; Jason Bere, the Menudo
of pitchers, who peaked at 23, when he went 12-2 for the White
Sox, but who has gone 18-27 in the four seasons since; and
centerfielder Mike Cameron, who with the White Sox batted .210
and was the worst hitter (among players with at least 150 at
bats) in the American League last year with runners on base
The Reds' chances of contending rest heavily on six players born
within 18 months of one another. The oldest and most experienced
of them is Cameron, 26, who has two years and 36 days of major
league service. The other five are third baseman Aaron Boone,
first baseman Sean Casey, second baseman Pokey Reese,
rightfielder Dmitri Young and baby-faced co-closer Danny Graves.
The 25-year-old Graves has yet to join Vaughn in the bearded
fraternity. Asked what he was waiting for, he responded,
The hair policy reversal is likely to be one of the last decrees
by Schott, who is under orders from Selig to sell all but one of
her 6.5 shares--there are only 15 shares in all--in the club by
the end of March. A Cleveland attorney, Larry Dolan, has offered
$65 million for those 5.5 shares, but the six limited partners
in the ownership group have the right to match any offer and
have a go themselves at running the club. According to one team
source, the limited partners have vowed to exercise that right.
Meanwhile, Bowden is rebuilding the Reds' player development
system, which Schott cut to the bone; upgrading his players'
travel to an all-charter-flight policy, like the rest of
baseball; and updating the uniform by adding black accents to
the cap and logo while ditching the garish red shoes for basic
black. "Progressive" is how Larkin termed the new moves.
"We're going to be a first-class organization," Bowden told the
players in a clubhouse meeting at the start of camp. The team
around him wore a look long missing around Cincinnati, and it
had nothing to do with whiskers or street chic. It was the look
of a contender. The dog days may indeed be over.
With the trade for Greg Vaughn (right), Reds general manager Jim
Bowden may have found what Cincinnati has lacked throughout the
'90s: a consistent home run threat in the middle of the lineup.
As the chart below shows, over the past seven years a different
player has led the Reds in homers each season, the longest such
active streak in the majors. Last year Vaughn hit 29.9% of San
Diego's 167 dingers; Bret Boone led the Reds with 24, only 17.4%
of the team's total.
YEAR PLAYER HRS TEAM'S HRS % OF TEAM'S HRS
1992 Paul O'Neill 14 99 14.1%
1993 Chris Sabo 21 137 15.3%
1994 Kevin Mitchell 30 124 24.2%
1995 Ron Gant 29 161 18.0%
1996 Barry Larkin 33 191 17.3%
1997 Willie Greene 26 142 18.3%
1998 Bret Boone 24 138 17.4%
Come the trading deadline, the Reds will be either a low-payroll
contender defying conventional wisdom or an auction house
offering Neagle and Vaughn.