Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Oester: Jr., Larkin tried Reds' morale


Former coach joins team's critics

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        CLEARWATER, Fla. — Ron Oester saw it coming. He heard it coming. Before Pokey Reese and Dmitri Young went public with their complaints about the Cincinnati Reds, Oester had listened to their laments in private.

        And more.

        The former Reds coach said Tuesday player unrest was more widespread and organizational problems more profound than Reese and Young described. He said Reds management included too many yes men and not enough people willing to confront problems.

        One of the problems Oester cited was Ken Griffey Jr.'s tendency to arrive late or leave early during team drills. Another was Barry Larkin's reluctance to move from shortstop to accommodate Pokey Reese. Oester's characterization suggested the Reds were a team tyrannized by two superstars and passive management.

        “At some point they have to address it,” Oester said. ’“I don't know why they can't see it. It's like everyone's got blinders on. You need to clean house. Until you clean house, it isn't going to get any better. I'm not talking about one or two people. I'm talking about six or seven people. They need a big broom.”

        Oester was among those coaches swept out in last year's purge. He had been offered the managing job that ultimately went to Bob Boone. He had rejected the club's initial offer and realized too late the offer was non-negotiable. Oester said he was misled by Reds general manager Jim Bowden, which Bowden denies, but Oester nonetheless returned to fulfill the final year of his coaching contract.

        He has resurfaced as a minor-league infield instructor for the Philadelphia Phillies, at a salary less than one-fifth what he could have made managing the Reds. Even so, Oester said Tuesday he is as happy now as he was miserable last season.

        “When I see Bob (Boone),” he said,’“I'm going to thank him for firing me.”

        Oester's assessment of the Reds' internal problems could be colored by his unhappy experience last year, but after 27 years in the organization, it is difficult to simply dismiss it as sour grapes. If Oester is accurate, ’dissension and disorder run deep with the Reds. His remarks, those of Reese and Young, and the abrupt resignation of first base coach Ken Griffey Sr. should prompt owner Carl Lindner to take a closer look at his operation.

        “Things got under a lot more people's skin than Dmitri and Pokey,” Oester said. “You ask any of the pitchers there ’— especially in the bullpen — they're not happy with the way things have gone. (First baseman) Sean Casey came to me a couple of times, he was so upset with (Ken Griffey) Junior.”

        Casey acknowledged seeking Oester's input last season but denied lodging complaints about specific teammates.

        “Ronnie O was one of the guys I went to when I was concerned about losing,” Casey said. “But I never went to him about a player. I'd ask him, "What do you think? What do we need to do?'”

        Oester's opinions always have been readily shared, but they were rarely solicited by his superiors. Like Griffey Sr., Oester was a holdover coach from Jack McKeon's staff who was imposed on Boone and never considered himself part of the manager's inner circle.

        Those actions he took to address issues were usually at his own initiative and sometimes at the risk of alienating players. Oester is more direct and less calculating than is Boone, and his pugnacious style creates a different set of problems.

        “I would not have been as complacent as Bob was,” Oester said. “As a manager, you make them do things your way ... I got into it with Junior and we screamed at each other. The next day we joked about it, but we knew where we stood.

        “Junior's not a bad guy. He just needs a little discipline. He wants discipline. His weakness is being a teammate ... as far as being with his teammates and doing what they're doing. ... When you've got a team and you do everything together and you have one or two guys who don't’... you have problems.”

        Oester questioned why Griffey would take batting practice and then leave the field for medical treatment instead of shagging flies with his teammates. He believes this is the kind of behavior that tears teams apart.

        “We were all unhappy last year because it was a such a bad year,” Reds reliever Danny Graves said Tuesday. “Little, minute things like being late for stretching or talking on cell phones (in the clubhouse) get to you. But it was a miserable year.

        “I hate to see all these people saying bad things. Whatever happened is in the past. Plenty of things weren't right last year.”

        Though Bowden declined to discuss Oester's charges ’— “We're focusing on 2002; 2001 is behind us,” he said — the club's actions show some sensitivity to recent criticisms. A notice was posted on the clubhouse chalkboard announcing a $100 fine for cellular phone use in the dressing room. The fine is consistent with baseball's ban on cell phones in the clubhouse, but that policy often was ignored last season in Cincinnati.

        Third baseman Aaron Boone, the manager's son, says the adverse publicity of the last week could lead to positive change.

        “I think this could bring us closer,” Boone said. “... If you have a problem, address it. I think that's going to happen.”

        Conversely, the criticism could bring some of the team's problems into sharper focus and lead to a lot of uncomfortable questions. Already, Reds players are growing weary of responding to the allegations of departed employees. Though he was the subject of some of Oester's sharpest statements, Larkin declined comment Tuesday.

        “I think Pokey (Reese) showed he was better defensively than Barry (at shortstop),” Oester said. “I honestly think Larkin was jealous.

        “But if it means making a team better, you have to be willing to change positions. To me, that (resisting a change) is not a leader, not a guy who cares about winning. Cal Ripken Jr. — they moved him. Pete (Rose) moved.”

        Oester praised some of Larkin's subtle leadership skills, particularly his counseling of younger players, but like Reese he bemoaned the departure of the more assertive Greg Vaughn. He also wondered about the wisdom of trading Reese and Young, players he considers the’“heart and soul”’of the 1999 Reds team that won 96 games.

        “I think they got rid of the wrong guys,” Oester said. ’“I know they got rid of the wrong guys.”

        John Fay contributed to this report.

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or e-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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