Sunday, February 28, 1999

Must Reds' owners be local?

Probably not . . . as long as they win

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Cincinnati Reds are owned by Cincinnatians. And they have been for nearly a century.

        Nonetheless, there is little significant opposition among the cognoscenti to the notion of an out-of-town group — even one from Cleveland — owning the Reds.

        Even among those who would prefer that local ownership step forward and buy the team, there is no hostility toward the Dolan family of Cleveland, which has offered Marge Schott $65 million for 51/2 of her Reds shares.

        Baseball's first professional team has not been owned by an out-of-towner since 1902, the last year of a 12-year run by Indianapolis clothing store magnate John T. Brush, perhaps best remembered as the builder of Cincinnati's “Palace of the Fans” (forerunner to Redland Field/Crosley Field).

        Bob Howsam, the architect of the Big Red Machine's glory years in the 1970s and the man who revitalized the franchise in the mid-1980s by bringing back Pete Rose, believes local ownership is preferable.

        “Cincinnati is unique in a lot of ways,” Mr. Howsam said. “I know how proud Cincinnati is of its franchise and of having people from Cincinnati (own it). If they could get it (the sale of the Reds) to local people, it's the best way to go.”

        But he stopped short of forecasting the ruination of the

        Reds' tradition if the club were to wind up in out-of-town hands. It's just that he saw first-hand in the 1970s how well things can work in Cincinnati with local ownership, and he'd like to see it continue.

        Although Mr. Howsam didn't claim to be privy to any discussions between the Reds limited partners, one could tell from his comments he wouldn't be surprised to see local ownership step forward and match the $65 million offer from Cleveland.

        If that happens, the locals would get the club.

        “(The late) Louis Nippert and his wife, Louise (still a Reds limited partner), had this great desire to keep the Reds in Cincinnati for all time,” said Mr. Howsam, who worked for them in the 1970s. “They wanted it owned by local people. That was Mr. Nippert's whole approach, even when he sold it to the Williams (brothers) after the 1983 season.”

Sentiment counts
        Mrs. Schott espoused a similar position when she bought the Reds from the Williamses in December 1984. She called her purchase of the controlling interest of the Reds her “Christmas present to Cincinnati.” She has always said she thought the Reds might have left town if she hadn't stepped forward, although no evidence of such a threat has ever been unearthed.

        But it was the sentiment that counted.

        Mr. Howsam paints a picture of a Reds ownership group with strong Cincinnati roots and a civic-mindedness that will be severely tested before allowing the Reds to be sold to out-of-towners.

        “(The late) Louis Nippert and his wife, Louise (still a Reds limited partner) were wonderful to work for,” Mr. Howsam said. “A person operating a ballclub could not have better people. They were not worried about expenditures as long as the team produced.

        “They wanted (the club) to make at least a profit, but they were not trying to get a profit for themselves. None of the (owners) were, and we started out with 12 to 14” part owners in 1967.

        Mr. Howsam wasn't insinuating the Dolans wouldn't be able to do an outstanding job if they get the controlling interest. Certainly, the family has money and a willingness to spend it — judging by their near acquisition of the new Cleveland Browns franchise, which sold for $530 million. Charles Dolan, the chairman of Cablevision, would have been part the Browns deal; he isn't part of the Reds deal.

        “I don't know the Dolans,” Mr. Howsam said. “They sound like reliable, well-to-do people. I have nothing against them. But I do see they are related to the fellow who owns Cablevision. I would think there be a (synergy) there” between the Reds and Cablevision somewhere down the road.

        “The Chicago Cubs (owned by the Tribune Co.), the Atlanta Braves (owned by Ted Turner), the Los Angeles Dodgers (owned by Rupert Murdoch) ... they've all got those networks. I'm not saying that's what would happen (in Cincinnati), but ... it's going to be important that the group that owns the club has money and is willing to spend it.”

        That last sentence is where many Reds fans line up.

        They want a winner.

        Following are opinions gathered this week by The Cincinnati Enquirer from residents who are considered among the most knowledgeable fans of the game; they live and breathe the game every day in some form or another:

        • Joe Bick, sports attorney and agent: “The (Dolans) said, right out of the chute, "We are Ohio people and have no intention of moving the team anywhere.' ... I'm more concerned that the owner of the club will do the right kind of job rebuilding this franchise than I am about where they're from.

        “I want a team that's competitive, that will have a strong farm system and scouting system, that will sign some key free agents to stay near the top year-after-year as the Cleveland franchise has done in recent years.

        “Nobody in Cincinnati (among the Reds limited partners) has stepped forth (to match). It's not a competitive bidding situation yet, so there's no reason to (disparage) the Cleveland group based on anything that's happened so far. ... If an ownership group comes in and has the right kind of people running it and the ownership group is spending the money, does it really matter if they're from Pluto?

        • Steve Wolter, collector and dealer of Reds memorabilia: “I'd like to see the limiteds step forward (and match the Dolan family's offer). I don't see any reason to be greatly concerned about what might happen if the Dolans get it, but I don't think there'd be a significant role for (Reds managing executive) John Allen. And I think that's wrong.

        “John's been good for the Reds these last couple of years when the game needed to be returned to the fans of Cincinnati. ... I like the idea of local ownership by the people who know the city, the team and the tradition. I don't like seeing the lines (of rivalry) between the city and the teams blurred so much. Cleveland's a rival in football, and now in baseball, too, with interleague play.

        “On the other hand, the new owners are going to have to be able and willing to infuse cash into the team to continue the rebuilding process. That's the bottom line — the success of the team. If it could be done by local owners, so much the better.”

        • Kevin Grace, sports historian and teacher of a course at the University of Cincinnati called “The Social History of Baseball”: “What struck me about this proposed deal is not that the group was from Cleveland, but that if you offered Marge enough money, she would sell. Nowadays, there is so much absentee ownership in sports, it's really of minimal effect.

        “In this day and age, with money being tossed about the way it is, where an owner lives is totally irrelevant. They can keep a condo in Cincinnati, fly in and glad-hand with the players, but it really has no effect at all on how they run the business. Speaking as a fan, what's important to me is that (Reds General Manager) Jim Bowden live in Cincinnati. He has to be at the office to do his job everyday.

        “We in Cincinnati are only aware of ownership so much in the past few years because Marge was in charge. People weren't aware of Louis Nippert, and they surely weren't aware of the Williams brothers, and they aren't going to be aware of the Dolans.

        “Fans are a heck of a lot more concerned about Greg Vaughn coming over from San Diego than they are new owners coming in from Cleveland. This isn't a situation like Murdoch in L.A.; (the) Fox (network) is the best example of how a corporation can have a negative influence. Fox is using a team — not as fans of the sport or as a money-making venture — but as a write-off.”

        • Jim Crowley, sports lawyer and lecturer: “There's no reason for concern. I can see some eyebrows being raised when (Washington, D.C., entrepreneur) Jonathan Ledecky offered $55 million (for Mrs. Schott's shares), because there's no team in Washington, D.C.

        “What's important (with new ownership) is that you have aggressive, smart people who want to commit their assets to a franchise so it can do well, and that's what you have (with the Dolans). Everything I've heard is that they are first-rate people, very interested in baseball and committed to having a winner.

        “Aggressive new ownership — that's what it's all about. It happened in 1967, when new ownership brought in Bob Howsam, and it is poised to happen again if things come together. ...

        “What does it matter where the owners are from? One of the most articulate — and passionate about Reds baseball — of the (Reds) limited partners is Bill Reik. Where's he live? New York. And if he were to be the point man of a new ownership team, guess where he'd run the team from? New York.

        “He'd have good baseball people in charge, and he'd let them run it. That's how successful franchises operate.”


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