Big Red machinations
By Rick Hummel / ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
SARASOTA, FLA. — Once upon a time, and not that long ago, the Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds were almost mirror franchises - two middle America clubs that generally were successful on the field and almost always successful at the box office because of a passionate fan base.
But in the last 10 years or so, starting about the time a group headed by Cincinnati businessman Bill DeWitt Jr. bought the Cardinals from Anheuser-Busch, the Cardinals have become even bigger, both on the field and at the box office. And the Reds have become lamentable and, on occasion, even laughable.
From 1997 on, the Reds have had seven losing seasons out of nine and, after an initial boost from their Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati's attendance dropped under 2 million last year in only the third year the new stadium was in operation.
In the past five seasons, the hitting-rich but pitching-impoverished Reds have finished a collective 86 games under .500 and wound up only as high as third one time. But into this mess has stepped Bob Castellini, another Cincinnati businessman who observed first-hand the Cardinals' success. Castellini was a minor investor in the Cardinals but sold that interest when he took over the Reds in January.
Castellini said the Reds won't be using "precisely" the same formula as the Cardinals. He pointed out, for instance, that the Cardinals' payroll is a healthy $94 million, or about $25 million more than the Reds' payroll, but the feeling in the clubhouse is that if the Reds are contending in the summertime and they need to go get a player, ownership will let them.
Castellini had season tickets to Reds games, but he gave them up two years ago because, simply, "the team wasn't winning, wasn't contending."
He has vowed to rectify this matter. "We're buying the Reds to win," Castellini said on the day his group officially purchased the team. "Anything else is unacceptable."
Castellini has been hands-on. He met with the general manager, manager and coaches in a visit to Sarasota earlier this week.
"He didn't ask errant questions," said Jerry Narron, starting his first full season as manager. "He asked intelligent questions."
This meeting came the day after Castellini arranged for a private plane to take injured catcher Jason La Rue to Cincinnati for arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and La Rue was ferried back via the same plane and was in the clubhouse in Sarasota 10 hours later.
Much of what goes into this season for the Reds may be about restoring the organization's lost pride.
"You're right on," Narron said to an interrogator. "But what I've seen since I came over here (as a coach) in 2004 is a big change in leadership when Mr. Castellini became the owner. He brings a lot of energy, a lot of passion. He cares about Cincinnati. He cares about the Reds."
New general manager Wayne Krivsky said: "The Cardinals have set a pretty good standard, certainly for everyone in our division but in all of baseball for how they've operated their franchise and their fan base. It starts at the top. It starts with ownership. But I think we can duplicate that in Cincinnati with the tradition that's there.
"Many of the fans there, if they weren't watching the Big Red Machine (in the 1970s), they heard about it. They'd like to see the glory days come back."
Reds outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. was part of the glory days in the mid-1970s as the young son of Reds star Ken Griffey Sr. "People wanted to be at the ballpark; people wanted to play for the organization," said Griffey Jr.
When Griffey Jr. went back to Cincinnati in 2000 after playing 11 years in Seattle, he said what he saw "was a little bit of a shock. But I think we're going in the right direction."
There is little question about the Reds' offense. Adam Dunn hit 40 homers and drove in 101 runs last year. A revitalized and healthy Griffey Jr. had 35 homers and drove in 92. Shortstop Felipe Lopez banged 23 homers and drove in 85.
While the Reds hit 222 homers, they allowed 219, and their team earned-run average of 5.15, highest in the National League, trumped the Reds' offensive figure of 4.79.
But Narron said the acquisition of Bronson Arroyo (14-10) from Boston for outfielder Wily Mo Pena rounded out a legitimate starting staff of Arroyo, Aaron Harang (11-13), Brandon Claussen (10-11), Eric Milton (8-15) and Dave Williams (10-11 with Pittsburgh).
"We have nothing to lose," said former Cardinal Tony Womack, who will be the Reds' starting second baseman. "It's easy to beat expectations ... when people don't expect anything."