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The current buzzword in the organization is downsizing. Just three seasons ago Cincinnati had one of the top five payrolls in baseball; in '98 the Reds are among the five lowest, at $24 million. The franchise is unique in baseball because it has nosedived almost overnight from being a large-market team to being a large-market team with a small-market mentality. The shrinking budget has led to the loss of Benito Santiago, Ron Gant and David Wells in '95; Eric Davis and Mark Portugal in '96; and Jeff Brantley, Kent Mercker, Joe Oliver and John Smiley in '97. Not surprisingly, Cincinnati's victory totals have decreased, from 85 in 1995 (when they won the division) to 76 last year. Attendance has shown a similar trend, going from 2.45 million in '93 to 1.79 million last year.
Each of those years the Reds attempted to patch the holes by signing aging veterans. "The last two years have been difficult because you know you need to add just one or two players to win the division, but you can't pay them," Bowden says. "It's like there's no light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes you have to take chances on players you don't really like or drag guys out of retirement because those are the only guys you can afford."
Poverty isn't Cincinnati's only cross to bear. Let's just say that if all the major league teams went out to dinner, the Reds would be the last to reach for their wallet. This is a team whose skinflint owner, Marge Schott, once gave out handfuls of recycled candy as Christmas bonuses. One reason Cincinnati continued to patch with free agents was that the farm system lay fallow after operating for years with the lowest scouting budget in the big leagues.
Finally, in '97 the Reds committed to rebuilding with youth. Midway through last season the team began hoarding inexperienced players and conducting open auditions. Twelve guys started in leftfield, nine in right, nine at third base, six at first base, seven at second and four at shortstop. This year Larkin will be the only starting position player older than 30. "I came to spring training a year older, but everybody around me got a year younger," he says. "If this keeps up, pretty soon there's going to be a generation gap."
Manager Jack McKeon considers himself a scout in the dugout, constantly evaluating young talent. McKeon, who earned the nickname Trader Jack for his many blockbuster deals in the '80s as the Padres general manager, has found a kindred spirit in Bowden. "Jim spends 23 hours a day dreaming up ways to improve this team," McKeon says. "He's aggressive and fearless, and that's the recipe to get better quickly."
It is a testament to the Cincinnati's thrift and Bowden's creativity that no position player in the projected Opening Day lineup was signed as a free agent. Bowden has acquired six of the eight through trades, and many of them were pulled off the scrap heap of other organizations. Bowden is an innovator who makes up for his financial constraints by scouting the inner cities and by targeting 16-year-old international talent that has yet to blossom. Only Bowden had the foresight to arrange pre-expansion draft trades with both new teams, making deals that returned to his roster players snatched in the draft.
There are also some encouraging off-the-field signs for the franchise. Schott, who claims losses of $10 million in '97 and more than $30 million since the strike in '94, may soon sell her share of the team, which would improve the Reds' image dramatically. Also, the team is anticipating a revenue boost from a new stadium, which it hopes will be ready by 2001. Until then, Bowden will keep exploring ideas to improve the club on a shoestring budget. "We have to find ways to beat the system," Bowden says. "We simply can't play with the big boys on their terms. They have enough money for eight more Barry Larkins than we have."
by Tim Crothers
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