Thursday, September 16, 1999
Baseball kicks out Schott, dog
Marge loses stadium office, Schottzie barred from field
BY JOHN ERARDI
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. With the passing of the Reds ownership torch to Carl Lindner here Wednesday, one of the most flamboyant, controversial and, yes, successful, on-the-field eras in Reds history is over.
Marge Schott is going quietly she declined to be interviewed for this story but not completely. She will retain one ownership share in the Reds, 21 blue-level box seats and a luxury suite.
For two years, Baseball officials had tried to convince Mrs. Schott to sell the team. Her use of racial slurs, insensitive remarks and sometimes-erratic behavior embarrassed them. Her methods of operating the team concerned them. She was suspended twice. Finally, after General Motors accused Schott of using the names of seven Reds' employees to help falsify 57 sales at a Chevrolet-GEO dealership she has since sold, they asked her to sell the baseball team.
Now the change is nearly complete. Baseball owners approved the deal Wednesday night and it closes Oct. 1.
I see a woman who understands that the game is over, said Chip Baker, the Reds' former marketing director and a close confidant of Mrs. Schott.
Although Mrs. Schott loses her role as general partner, she will continue to be a presence at the Findlay Market Parade, host the annual Reds Rally at her Indian Hill home, and sign slews of autographs for kids at the ballpark.
But it is a ceremonial presence, because she will no longer retain an office in the Reds' complex at Cinergy Field, no longer be consulted by Reds managing executive John Allen on matters of significance to the Reds future and no longer be along with her St. Bernard, Schottzie the most identifiable icon of baseball's oldest franchise.
Mrs. Schott does not figure to hire any more helicopter pilots trailing banners undermining the Reds' general partners the way she did in 1983, when she was a limited partner and the reticent Williams brothers James and William were where the Reds' buck stopped.
Tony, Pete, Joe. Help. Love, Marge, read the sky banner that was being pulled by the helicopter.
It was a reference to former Big Red Machine members Tony Perez, Pete Rose and Joe Morgan, who by that time were members of the Philadelphia Phillies headed for one last World Series.
A Christmas gift
The sale to Mr. Lindner was approved just three months' shy of Mrs. Schott's 15th anniversary of buying the Reds in December 1984, when she attended an introductory news conference with her St. Bernard, Schottzie, and declared her purchase of the Reds to be a Christmas present to herself and to the city.
I get carried away at Christmas, she said.
Mrs. Schott was widely perceived as one of the few breaths of fresh air within the Reds ownership group that had overseen one of the lowest periods in Reds' history the 101-loss season of 1982.
Fans couldn't wait for her to take center stage.
Diva, breath of fresh air, loveable maverick ...
They are not phrases one would associate with Mrs. Schott today.
As with any other limited partner, Mrs. Schott will not be accorded special treatment. That means the loss of her office, it means she will no longer be accompanied by her St. Bernard if she chooses to go on the field before the game.
Mr. Baker said the loss of her office is wrenching to Mrs. Schott. It could not have been calculated to be more devastating, Mr. Baker said. It's like removing the mother from the family constellation. Marge very much regards that (the Reds front office) as being her family.
Mrs. Schott's attorney, Frank Kelley, the former longtime attorney general of Michigan, negotiated long and hard with baseball on behalf of Mrs. Schott.
But the office and dog were two points on which baseball would not budge. Their position was that Mrs. Schott's status is that of a limited partner and should not be granted any special privileges.
Mr. Kelley could not be reached for comment.
Mrs. Schott's philosophy about her mission on behalf of the Reds never wavered, Mr. Baker said.
She wanted to bring a winner back to Cincinnati not because she was competitive that way but because she wanted it for the fans, he said. Winning the hearts of the fans was more important to Mrs. Schott than winning baseball games.
The dollar hot dog
Steve Schott, Mrs. Schott's cousin by marriage and the club's executive vice president from 1988 to 1991, said one of his most vivid memories of Mrs. Schott in charge of the Reds is when she refused to allow the Reds concessionaire to raise the price of concessions, particularly the dollar hot dog. Her sole reason was, "We have to keep it affordable' and she wouldn't have it any other way, Mr. Schott said.
He also marveled at the number of times Mrs. Schott would see a license plate from West Virginia or Central Ohio and bring those families down to her box seats to watch the game with her.
She's a huge Reds fan, said Mr. Schott.
For Mrs. Schott, baseball and its fans were the essence of Americana, Mr. Baker said. If you look at her today, she's really had the idealism kicked out of her.
Her love and compassion for all people a fondness of which Barry Larkin and Eric Davis and Dave Parker have all spoken supersedes whatever words might have come from her mouth, Mr. Baker said.
He is not alone in this belief.
Her open-checkbook policy watered the seeds that former Big Red Machine architect Bob Howsam had planted with his return to the Reds in 1983. He had signed Dave Parker as a free agent before the 1984 season and hired Pete Rose as the team's player-manager in August of that year. Mrs. Schott's purchase came four months later.
Players that were signed by Mr. Howsam's scouts Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, Joe Oliver, Paul O'Neill, Chris Sabo, Tom Browning and Rob Dibble, among others were soon headed for the big-league club and they formed the core of the World Championship team of 1990.
It was Mrs. Schott who hired Lou Piniella to manage that team and Bob Quinn to be its general manager. In turn, they made the acquisitions Randy Myers, Billy Hatcher and Hal Morris, among others who helped put the club over the top.
She wears her World Championship ring every now and then, but I think she was personally more fond of her times with Pete (Rose) in the mid-1980s, Mr. Schott said. She'd be down there on the field with Pete, looking at the stadium filling up, all those people coming to see the Reds, and she just loved being a part of that with him.
Mrs. Schott has on numerous occasions characterized herself as the savior of the Reds franchise and the person who brought Pete Rose back to the Reds in the mid-1980s. Neither is true: There was never any intent by any bidder to move the Reds, and Rose's hiring was completely and totally the work of Mr. Howsam.
But in many quarters, Mrs. Schott was perceived as a savior, because the franchise which in the 1970s had been considered the epitome of front-office operation and on-the-field success, had fallen to consecutive last-place finishes in 1982-83.
But no sooner had Mrs. Schott bought the Reds than she began to put the financial pinch on the franchise's lifeblood: scouting and development and the aggressive marketing of the ballclub.
Complaints began to surface from scouts and front-office em ployees. Mrs. Schott doled out inconsequential or no bonuses, audited scouts' laundry bills and made them drive smaller cars. Some employees and her limited partners sued her; some quit; others were fired. Some berated her in the media.
But, by and large, the fans didn't care.
The team was winning more games than it lost.
Mr. Rose broke Ty Cobb's all-time hit record in 1985, the first of a lengthy run of second-place finishes. After Mr. Rose was banned from baseball during the 1989 season for his involvement in gambling, Mrs. Schott moved aggressively to hire a pair of Yankees castoffs Mr. Piniella and Mr. Quinn as manager and GM.
That helped pave the way for a wire-to-wire World Championship in 1990. Fans flocked to the ballpark; the season ticket base was firmly re-established; the team was young and exciting.
But Mrs. Schott came off as too much of a cheapskate when she wouldn't spring for a team party, skimped on the team's World Championship rings and wouldn't pay $15,000 to bring an injured Eric Davis back to Cincinnati from the World Series in Oakland.
Although on the field the Reds survived the quick hiring and firing of Mr. Perez as manager and returned to the top of the division within two years it soured some fans. And, nationally, Mrs. Schott was coming off as a bigoted, bumbling stumble-bum of an owner.
After the 1992 season, documents filed in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court claimed she had called Mr. Davis and another former Red, Mr. Parker, her million-dollar niggers.
She was suspended; her loveable image had all but eroded.
Joe Morgan refused to ever again set foot in Riverfront Stadium (unless he was broadcasting a game), not even if the Reds were to retire his number. Most of the former Reds greats, including Johnny Bench, spoke out against the way she was running the team.
Through it all, Mrs. Schott managed to survive by spending freely on the big-league club.
When Reds general manager Jim Bowden who proved himself a wizard at making such sanguine acquisitions as comeback players Ron Gant and Tony Fernandez wanted a more expensive player (pitcher David Wells), Mrs. Schott opened her purse.
The Reds returned to the top of their division in 1994 (before the players' strike hit in August and wiped out the rest of the season) and in 1995. But, in October 1995, there were 16,000 empty seats for opening night of the National League Championship Series against the Braves in Cincinnati.
Mrs. Schott's free-spending style no longer was enough.
The crowd of 36,762 was the smallest ever for a playoff game in the stadium's 25-year history. Reds fans were turned off by the strike despite the club's success on the field.
Mrs. Schott was stung by what she perceived to be the fans' ingratitude. She had kept ticket prices low, had maintained the dollar hot dog, and now the fans were biting the hand that fed them.
Disgusting, said Mrs. Schott about the 16,000 empty seats.
They're just spoiled here, she said.
Those remarks, too, cost her some support.
And gone was the base of support that might have saved her ownership: There was hardly any young (i.e. inexpensive) talent percolating upward from the minor leagues Mrs. Schott had stripped it bare through her cutbacks in scouting and development.
This and the racial epithets that would later get her suspended and ousted, say the baseball historians, will stand alongside the 1990 World Championship as Mrs. Schott's legacy.
But among many Reds fans, especially among her strongest supporters, Mrs. Schott's legacy is her high regard for the people who paid their way into the game as well as for the people who couldn't afford it.
I can't be too objective about her, Mr. Baker said. She's been as tough on me as anybody, but there's a part of me that loves her. Most people who didn't like her or disagreed with her attempted to dismiss her or regard her as inconsequential. They heard the words but they didn't take the time to understand what was in her heart.
Borgman cartoons on Schott