Winning helps Reds rediscover ties to past
Updated 6/7/2006 3:51 PM ET
By Paul White, USA TODAY
BASEBALL WAS LIFE for Ken Griffey Jr. when he was a kid in Cincinnati. What could be better for a 6-year-old than watching your dad and his teammates — the Big Red Machine — win their second consecutive World Series title?
When Robert Castellini was 6, the Reds were hardly a machine, but Castellini was just as hot on his hometown team. So hot, in fact, that his bed once caught on fire. That's a true story, one the new CEO of the Reds told when his group took over the team in January.
"I remember listening to Reds games on my big, old Crosley radio," Castellini said, referring to the radio company once run by Powell Crosley Jr., a man who also owned the team and whose name was on the Reds ballpark at the time, Crosley Field. "I'd hide it under the covers at night. ... I'd listen to the Reds games. ... Those old radios had vacuum tubes, and they really got hot. One night I dozed off, and that radio got so hot it set my covers on fire. My parents were pretty hot, too. It was awhile before I could listen again."
Baseball is hot in Cincinnati again. The Reds set club records for victories (17) and runs (149) in April. Coming off a 73-89 season and fifth-place finish in 2005, Cincinnati has spent time in first place this season and remains within striking distance of the National League Central lead. Locals are listening and watching again, so much so that a month into the season the team added 14 games to its television schedule and will consider adding more.
CASTELLINI ADMITS HIS TREPIDATION about taking over the team was what friends and fellow fans would say when the Reds were losing. "I haven't had that experience yet," he says, laughing.
That's because there has been hometown winning just like old times along the banks of the Ohio River.
"In the past, the front office preached 'compete' and all that stuff," says the Reds' Adam Dunn, who hit 86 home runs between 2004 and 2005. "The first thing we heard from these people was 'win.' "
"I'm a want-to-win-now guy," says outfielder Austin Kearns, one of the more resurgent Reds, batting .291 after three subpar seasons interrupted by a series of injuries. "Everybody in here is like that. We're all sick of losing."
That includes Castellini, who has been an investor in the Rangers, Orioles and most recently the Cardinals but now controls the one team he really wanted. "We're buying the Reds to win," he said when he took over. "Anything else is unacceptable."
"This city needs that," says Griffey, who experienced the region's passion for its ballclub through his graduation from Cincinnati's Moeller High School in 1987.
Griffey has enough history in the city to be just as excited about the Reds reaching back to those glory years as he is about winning. Connecting with the past is a cornerstone of what Castellini has in mind for his franchise.
"The most awesome thing was when Eric Davis showed up at spring training," Griffey says. "He was awesome. It really makes an impression when you bring back the guys who built this organization."
Davis was one of the former Reds whom Castellini invited back in various roles this spring. Another was former pitcher Mario Soto, who shared his mastery of the changeup with young Reds Todd Coffey and Elizardo Ramirez and ended up filling in for a while as the organization's Triple-A pitching coach.
"Davis and Soto had tremendous impact," Castellini says. "So did (ex-pitcher Tom) Browning. Having Kenny (Griffey) Sr. there was great."
Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench is a consultant to the team. Former Reds outfielder George Foster heads youth league programs. Fan favorite Chris Sabo is a minor league instructor. Plans already are underway, Castellini says, to involve Dave Concepcion and Joe Morgan, the Big Red Machine's double-play combination.
"It's kind of like the school you went to," Castellini says. "You're a big star, and you get a chance to come back on campus for a while. Wouldn't it be great? That's a great feeling."
Says Morgan: "It's a great idea. Tradition and winning are the two most important things in the game. He definitely seems to be committed to make an effort to re-establish the tradition of the Reds."
Morgan says he and former Reds outfielder Paul O'Neill discussed the importance of connecting ex-players with the current team.
"Paul talked about what it was like to go to the Yankees and have Whitey Ford playing catch with Yogi Berra," Morgan says. "It's saying, 'This is what you have to live up to.' "
When he came to the Reds, Morgan says, former Cincinnati players such as outfielders Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson were around the team.
"It motivated me," Morgan says. "You have to have tradition."
"THE POWER OF TRADITION" is the Reds' slogan this season. You can see it on the outside walls of the Great American Ballpark as you stand on Pete Rose Way. Yes, Rose. The street bearing the name of the game's all-time hits leader is broken up by the ballpark. It goes in both directions along the riverfront from the stadium. Nothing splits Reds fans and family more than their banished former star and manager. He's still revered for what he accomplished on the field, reviled for his missteps off it. His situation didn't help a feeling of awkwardness that has surrounded current and former members of the franchise from the time baseball began investigating Rose's gambling problems in the late 1980s.
"I think it really goes back to Rose and all that," Griffey says. "You had people not wanting to step on other people's toes."
Castellini tiptoes around Rose and decisions made for the franchise before he took over, but he's certainly not shy about his vision for the future.
"I don't want to dwell on anything that happened in the past," he says. "We're here for the here and now. Our ownership is made up of fans. I'm a super-fan."
He believes many Reds fans are ready to respond; they just need a nudge.
"It will never be lost," Castellini says of Cincinnati's passion for the Reds. "Sure, it's dormant. That's not surprising after five losing seasons. We haven't been to the World Series since 1990.
"Cincinnati is just like any other great sports town. We're taking the right steps. We can't expect fans to come right back immediately. We have to make believers out of them."
The owner is having little trouble winning over the players.
"New ownership and management showed they're not going to waste any time," Kearns says. "In the past, it's always been a long-term plan. The initiative is something you really like to see."
CASTELLINI HAS BEEN DOING THAT since a time when optimism was difficult. His childhood nights under the covers weren't exactly glory days.
It was a time when Cincinnati heroes were an up-and-coming slugger named Ted Kluszewski and an almost-finished pitcher named Johnny Vander Meer more than a decade removed from his legendary consecutive no-hitters.
It was a time when a rain delay often was better than the ballgame, not only because the Reds were in the midst of a franchise-worst 11 seasons (1945-55) under .500 but because broadcaster Waite Hoyt, eventually a Hall of Famer, would regale Reds fans with stories that often focused on his former teammate, Babe Ruth.
That all might seem ancient, but not to an owner who understands his team's place in history.
"We're the oldest team in baseball," Castellini says. "We've got 60, 70 years of tradition on most of our competition. This is a multigenerational tradition back to great-great-grandparents."
It's not as if the Reds haven't had local ownership. The Carl Lindner-led group that sold to Castellini's group was local. So was flamboyant Marge Schott, who will never be forgotten. For all of Schott's attention-grabbing eccentricities, she also had a commitment to the team that she understood was a hometown asset. She wanted to win — and did.
Think what you will of the crusty, outspoken woman who turned her Saint Bernards loose on the field, but the Reds haven't been to the playoffs since she lost control of the team.
"There is a feeling out there the previous ownership was not committed to winning," Castellini says. "That wasn't the case. Maybe the communication wasn't there.
"You don't live in your hometown and own the hometown team and not live and die with every game."
The controlling interest in the club has passed along within the ever-evolving partnership that ran the franchise from the time Bill DeWitt sold it in 1967. That's how Schott got control in 1985 and how Lindner became the CEO in 1999 when Schott was forced out by Major League Baseball after making racially and ethnically controversial comments.
Not until this year was there a chance from someone outside the partnership to take over.
Castellini wasn't on the inside, but he was close enough to Lindner through their dealings in the produce industry to seize the opportunity.
While Castellini was running the family business, Castellini Co., Lindner was running Chiquita Brands International. Chiquita owned a stake in Castellini Co. until Castellini bought it back in 2002 as Chiquita emerged from bankruptcy reorganization.
Meanwhile, Lindner and Castellini also were closely involved as Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium was replaced by separate football and baseball stadiums. Castellini sold the land used for Paul Brown Stadium where the NFL's Bengals play.
So when Lindner was ready to back off from the day-to-day operation of the Reds, Castellini was in position to form a group that bought about 70% of the club last November. Major League Baseball approved the sale in January.
And that's when the real action began.
CASTELLINI DISMISSED general manager Dan O'Brien and eventually settled on Wayne Krivsky, the top assistant to Minnesota Twins GM Terry Ryan, the week before spring training. The appeal of Krivsky was his experience helping to build a playoff team in a small-market situation similar to Cincinnati's.
But Castellini retained manager Jerry Narron, who led the Reds to a 46-46 record last season after taking over from Dave Miley, and got advice from Larry Barton and Gene Bennett, special assistants in the Reds front office.
"These are two old-time scouts," Castellini says. "Between them, they have more than 100 years in the business. They have the pride and tradition of the Reds in their blood. These guys were very instrumental leading toward the scout-player evaluator."
That's Krivsky. Castellini might be hands-on, but he made it clear the on-field product is Krivsky's domain. When the owner handed a baseball to Krivsky during Opening Day ceremonies, the gesture was designed to make a statement about who was in charge of the baseball product.
"The tone was set by Mr. Castellini and his group," Krivsky says. "They all grew up Reds fans. They all went out to Crosley Field and Riverfront Stadium. They want their friends to have something to be proud of. Our goal is to put together a team that can contend for a series of years. When that is, I don't know. I don't have a three-year plan, a five-year plan or a 20-year plan. I think I have an idea how to do it."
Kearns says of Krivsky: "He's been with a small-market winner. (Castellini) was with a winning organization in St. Louis. Not just any organization, St. Louis. They definitely know what they're doing. It means a lot to (Castellini) to see his hometown team do well. All this stuff is going to help."
Despite the Reds' early success, Krivsky is trying to keep his long-term vision.
"It takes a certain amount of patience," Krivsky says. "Building up the farm system, working through the draft. There's no substitute for the farm system producing. I've kind of lived it. What I want to put in place is what I experienced with the Twins. They had such continuity. The keys are continuity, stability, loyalty. You keep good people and have fun doing it. It's just making good decisions. You have to know your players."
Almost immediately after taking over and close to the beginning of spring training, Krivsky signed free agent first baseman Scott Hatteberg. That allowed the Reds to keep Dunn in left field rather than move him to first base after the December trade of fan-favorite Sean Casey.
Krivsky also avoided another potentially difficult situation with his first piece of business as general manager, signing Dunn to a two-year contract on the eve of an arbitration hearing. Having Dunn in the outfield made possible the trade during spring training of outfielder Wily Mo Pena to Boston so the Reds could beef up their biggest weakness, starting pitching.
Getting Bronson Arroyo, who's among the major league leaders in wins and ERA, created a solid 1-2 combination with fellow right-hander Aaron Harang, who is off to a fast start and boasting the best strikeout ratios of his career.
The first week of the season, Krivsky plucked second baseman Brandon Phillips from the Indians, for whom Phillips was a former prospect without a major league job. Phillips, 24, immediately became the starting second baseman and was NL Player of the Week his second week in town.
STILL, CAN THE REDS STAY in a contention for the NL Central title or a wild-card spot? Their pitching has been understandably maligned by fans the last couple of seasons, contributing along with the cozy Great American Ballpark to games that often degenerated into home run derbies.
Led by Arroyo and Harang, the rotation is much improved. That takes pressure off the bullpen, where Todd Coffey has been the most effective pitcher and is evolving into the team's closer of the future. Stellar pitching from all three right-handers probably must continue for Cincinnati to stay in the playoff race.
If so, the Reds will be faced with an unexpected dilemma over how to approach the trading deadline.
Castellini has indicated he might be willing to add to the team's $60 million to $65 million payroll target this season to make a playoff bid. Krivsky certainly is willing but doesn't want to deviate from the long-term program by trading away any of the top prospects from a farm system that isn't terribly deep in talent.
"We feel that if we do our job on the field," Dunn says, "they'll go out and improve the team if necessary."
Krivsky says improving the defense remains a priority. Narron has stressed more efficiency in running the bases.
Together, Narron and Krivsky have gotten across their message of how the Reds are going to play baseball.
"They tell you, 'This is what we expect,' " Griffey says. "There are no gray areas. It was laid out early. 'We expect you to play hard. We expect you to be men.' "
And to be treated like Cincinnati Reds, no matter when you wore the uniform.
"We reminded everybody that we are the Cincinnati Reds," Castellini says of reaching out to the former players. "You just can't take that lightly. The pride in the organization over the years has been huge. We had to remind these guys."
They want that message to carry over to the current players, too.
"It helps these guys believe in themselves and realize that they're part of a winning tradition," Castellini says. "All of us have to be reminded we can be as good we can be."
Contributing: Mel Antonen