Sunday, February 17, 2002

SULLIVAN: Reds baseball

Past more enticing than future

By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The camera shows no ballplayers, and no fans. The stadium is empty as Marty Brennaman's disembodied voice describes the last pitch of the perfect game Tom Browning threw in 1988.

        The commercial is about memories as deeply ingrained as the label of a Louisville Slugger. It's about the first night at the ballpark with your father, and a magical moment forever fresh. It's about the way baseball creeps into your soul and takes up residence. It's the best thing the Cincinnati Reds have done all winter.

        The home team is selling nostalgia this year because current events are less enticing. Finances make the pennant unfeasible, so the Reds are instead trying to generate warm and fuzzy feelings for Cinergy Field, just before the charges are set for its implosion.

        There are a lot of memories rattling around the not-so-old ballpark, but not so much in the way of warmth. Cinergy Field has been serviceable, but it has about as much charm as an emergency room. Both are sterile and spare, designed for utilitarian tastes and multiple tenants.

        During the 1970s, when the Reds were extraordinary, what was then known as Riverfront Stadium seemed a perfect metaphor for Cincinnati's no-frills efficiency. As the product on the field has deteriorated, though, the place seems as dated and depressing as a closet full of disco duds. When they finally blow up the condemned ballpark, there will be fewer tears than cheers.

Don't rationalize results

               Until then, there should be anguish aplenty. The Reds lost 96 games last season on merit, and they begin workouts today without the glad presence and potent bat of Dmitri Young. Pete Harnisch and Pokey Reese also were lost in the latest round of economy moves. So, too, was any pretense that the Reds are equipped to compete in 2002.

        Pre-opening revenues from Great American Ball Park are beginning to show up in the Reds' ledgers, but they have yet to make a discernible impact on player payroll. Austerity — or what passes for it in big-league baseball — is still the order of the day. The Reds continue to spend on the basis of the Pinto in the garage and not the Porsche on order from the factory.

        Given the convulsive nature of baseball's collective bargaining, prudent spending is probably appropriate. Absent a labor agreement, prevented from dissolving two failing franchises, careful owners are prone to caution. The problem is that for every careful baseball owner, there is another whose recklessness raises everyone's costs.

        Baseball fans inevitably prefer profligacy to prudence. Their only investment is emotional. They want results, not rationalizations.

No frills, no thrills

               Reds owner Carl Lindner has twice caved in to popular demand, first with the acquisition of Ken Griffey Jr., later by re-signing past-prime shortstop Barry Larkin. Yet Lindner's bottom line hasn't bent this spring. He met twice with free agent reliever Jeff Shaw, who offered to play at a discount to play close to home, but no deal has been struck.

        Thus, the Reds start spring training with last year's closer, Danny Graves, experimenting as a starting pitcher, and no obvious bullpen replacement. There will be 37 pitchers in camp when workouts begin this afternoon.

        Maybe one of them can make memories like Tom Browning.

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or e-mail:


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