Marge (Schott) At Large
Nineteen eighty-four. The Big Red Machine had been disassembled. The championships were a memory. Baseball was struggling in Cincinnati. Then local car dealer and woman-about-town Marge Schott was named general partner of the Cincinnati Reds, and Pete Rose came home as player/manager. Hit a triple his first game back and slid in head-first.The Reds would challenge for division titles over the next four years, and Rose would break Ty Cobb's all-time hits record before a sold-out crowd at Riverfront Stadium. Season attendance doubled in seven years. Schott, justifiably, basked in the glory of hometown hero, a woman beating the "good old boys" at their own game, the custodian of baseball's oldest professional franchise.Then it all came unraveled for Schott -- the racial slurs, the suspension, the greedy business deals, the strike. And now she faces forced removal from the game she professes to love. How did she come to this? It's simple: Everybody knows Marge Schott was good at the beginning, but she just went too far.DECLINE AND FALL OF THE REDSSome of the great names in baseball have been Cincinnati Reds -- from Harry and George Wright in 1869 to Ernie Lombardi, Johnny Vander Meer, Ted Kluszewski, Frank Robinson, Johnny Bench and Barry Larkin. But you wouldn't know it from attending a game at the barren Riverfront Stadium.And some of the game's renowned architects have been involved in Reds management -- Larry MacPhail, Warren Giles, Bob Howsam and Sparky Anderson, among others. But you wouldn't know it from the small, inexperienced staff that now holds the franchise's reigns. The 1996 Reds are an organization in a nose dive to self-destruction. Attendance is down for the second year in a row to a per-game average of 22,212 as compared to 25,882 last season (which was off 14 percent from 1994). Unlike their counterparts in other major league cities, the Reds have done nothing to lure back bitter fans after baseball's divisive 1994 strike.Many teams discounted tickets last year (or gave them away for free), offered "family plan" packages and set up autograph sessions to connect players with the fans again. Baseball marketed itself in a way it never had before - it had to regain the fans' trust.Of course, the Reds did none of the above. Team officials said the Reds' public relations strategy consisted of assembling a winning team and not raising ticket prices."Mrs. Schott wants to try some new things," Mike Ringering, Reds director of publicity, said at the time. "But we'll probably wait until next season to introduce anything."The only new promotion to surface so far in 1996 is a plan to open the stadium a half hour earlier for weekend games to allow fans to watch batting practice. The program kicked off May 11, though team officials say it's too early to determine the success.Recognition of the franchise's glorious past is nonexistent -- quick, name the two Reds who have had their numbers retired -- and is matched only by the lack of promotion of current Reds stars. Quick, name last year's National League Most Valuable Player. (For answers see the end of this story; don't bother looking in Riverfront Stadium.)No trophies, pennants, retired jerseys, World Series rings, photos or other memorabilia are available for public viewing. Plaques from the Reds Hall of Fame that used to be displayed at Crosley Field sit collecting dust in a Riverfront closet. Fan election of Reds players to the honorary hall was discontinued after 1988.Reds management has responded to this marketing challenge by cutting its front-office staff to 41 people, fewest in the league according to Sports Illustrated. (The New York Mets have 120, the Colorado Rockies 111 and the San Diego Padres 104, the magazine reports.) The Reds' 1985 media guide listed 59 front-office staff members, including 10 who worked in marketing, publicity and promotions. Today those critical functions are handled by a staff of five.Customer service and community relations departments have been eliminated, while the scouting staff was trimmed to 25. (The Los Angeles Dodgers have 57 scouts, says Sports Illustrated.)Key positions in the organization consistently have been filled with less experienced and presumably less costly hires, from Jim Bowden (at age 31 the youngest general manager in baseball history when hired in 1992) to John Allen (became Reds controller in 1995 after six years experience with Columbus' AAA team) to Ray Knight (now serving in his first managerial position at any level of professional baseball).MARGE'S BASEBALL BLOOPERSAnd then there are Schott's famous "bloopers" from over the years that have included remarks about her team's "million-dollar niggers," about "fruits who wear earrings" and about how "Adolf Hitler was good in the beginning but he went too far." Her ethnic and racial slurs earned Schott a one-year suspension from baseball in 1993 and a trip to "sensitivity training."The experience, however, has not taught Schott a lesson about the responsibilities that come with free speech and with running a pro sports franchise in Cincinnati. In fact, the past three months have topped all previous low points in her tenure with the Reds.Schott refused to endorse the campaign to convince Hamilton County voters to pass the sales tax increase to fund new stadiums for her and for the Bengals, saying simply the decision was "up to the fans." She even complained in the days leading up to the March vote that the Bengals didn't deserve their own stadium for 10 home games a year. Apparently scolded by Cincinnati business leaders for potentially sabotaging the vote, Schott later appeared at the sales-tax victory celebration and was photographed hugging Bengals president Mike Brown. Meanwhile, Reds management squabbled with Cincinnati officials over $4.2 million in back rent the team owes the city and has yet to pay a dime. The county has assumed responsibility for collecting the back rent as a result of the sales tax passage, said Hamilton County Administrator David Krings, and has folded the rent situation into the bigger picture of stadium negotiations.Which means the money is still not forthcoming.Then umpire John McSherry died on the field at Riverfront, "cheating" Schott, her team and her biggest crowd of the season on Cincinnati's traditional Opening Day. After sending used flowers to the umpire's room at Riverfront Stadium, she said she wanted to resume the game. Players from the Reds and Montreal Expos, in honor of McSherry, called it a day, sending Schott into an unseemly -- and highly publicized -- fit.In the season's first week the Reds canceled their SportsTicker service that provides out-of-town scores on Riverfront's electronic scoreboard. Schott was quoted as saying she didn't know why Cincinnati fans cared about scores from games they weren't watching in person. The service, which costs $350 a month, was reinstated by the Reds when Star Bank offered to pay for it.And, finally, Schott was skewered in high-profile interviews with ESPN and Sports Illustrated. During the May 5 ESPN broadcast she repeated her belief that "(Hitler) built tremendous highways and got all the factories going. Everybody knows he was good at the beginning, but he just went too far."The May 20 Sports Illustrated cover story, "Heaven Help Marge Schott," reveals Schott to be a meddling owner who videotapes players on road trips, keeps a log of all calls in and out of the Riverfront Stadium clubhouse, won't provide basic office supplies and grumbles about overpaid players whose names she can't remember. Several unnamed Reds staffers are quoted as calling their boss "despicable" and "spiteful, mean-spirited and evil."Bud Selig, chairman of baseball's executive council, immediately called for Schott to apologize for her Hitler remarks, and two days later she issued a written statement -- which one published report claimed was ghost-written by baseball officials in New York -- saying, "I will continue to try to be more sensitive to all people." But baseball officials, embarrassed at her remarks and promising further sanctions against Schott, seem more concerned with fallout from the Sports Illustrated piece.Given the Reds' cutbacks in scouting and staff, especially marketing, Selig and cohorts are reportedly worried about the future of the franchise. The executive council, which suspended Schott in 1993, met with her in Philadelphia June 5 to discuss ways to get her to step back from day-to-day operations of the Reds.So here we have a team that nobody wants to see with a history nobody knows run by a front-office that doesn't know what it's doing under orders from a CEO who's at best incompetent and at worst racist and who is, yet again, awaiting sanctions from Major League Baseball. And what is Cincinnati doing while its sacred baseball franchise burns? Hardly fiddling. No, they're giving Marge Schott a $250-million fund to build a brand-new, state-of-the-art stadium anywhere she wants. No questions asked.GOVERNMENT'S ROLEHamilton County residents and visitors began paying an extra half cent in sales tax this week in the first steps toward funding two new sports stadiums. Additional funds -- from the Reds and Bengals, the local business community and the State of Ohio -- have yet to be finalized, though the stadiums are supposed to debut in 1999.County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus, who engineered the sales tax plan and campaign, said he's confident the county and the teams will come to an agreement soon."We're meeting regularly with both teams, and the talks appear to be productive," he said. "It's in everyone's best interest to wrap up the negotiations as soon as possible and begin construction. We need to get the stadiums up and running sooner than later."But, while the Bengals have hired a director of community affairs to expedite negotiations and seem to be moving toward a deal, the Reds have yet to announce any significant stadium developments - much less any plans, ideas or even commitments to act on the county's funding plan.One county official describes the Reds' negotiating stance as basically letting the Bengals do the hard work and asking for whatever the county agrees to give the Bengals.Other people wonder if the county should be negotiating with the Reds and Schott at all, given her track record of racial insensitivity. But Bedinghaus said he thinks it's inappropriate for Hamilton County to try to interfere with how Schott runs the Reds."We're negotiating with a business entity, not an individual," he said. "Marge is just the current custodian of the Reds franchise. The problems she has had with Major League Baseball or anyone else are hers to deal with. It's not our position to get involved with the relationship between baseball and Marge and the Reds."Dictating social policy through government intervention, Bedinghaus said, is not his vision of government's role."The City of Cincinnati has stubbed its toe before when it gets involved in social issues -- like the Human Rights Ordinance -- and it's created a lot of problems for the city," he said. "The county will not get involved in that."The argument over whether the county should use the leverage of its stadium funding to force Schott to modify her public behavior might be moot anyway. Baseball officials met with Schott June 5 to discuss her recent "bloopers" and her handling of the sinking ship that is the Cincinnati Reds. Sanctions involving a suspension of Schott or her selling ownership interest were expected.Yet it's difficult to stand by while a once-proud baseball franchise ignores its past, its fans and its players. It's difficult to explain why the uniform numbers of Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Pete Rose have not been retired or honored with morale-boosting celebrations. It's difficult to understand why the Reds would not display their huge, glittering World Series championship trophies for adoring children -- and adults -- to ogle at Riverfront Stadium. It's difficult to watch Barry Larkin toil in relative anonymity for a hometown team that doesn't seem to value him and won't promote him.And, more than anything, it's difficult to support spending tax dollars on a new stadium to generate millions of dollars in profit for the very owner responsible for dragging the Reds franchise into its current sorry state.Marge Schott has just gone too far.(Quiz Answers: Larkin is the current league MVP, and Johnny Bench and Fred Hutchinson are the only two Reds to have their numbers retired.) SIDEBAR 1: CURRENT HAPPENINGSCincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott met with baseball's executive council for five hours June 5 to save her job and her beloved team. But baseball officials had other ideas and this week announced sanctions that will remove her from day-to-day control of the franchise. Schott's history of embarrassing remarks and racial slurs have always been a nuisance to baseball and to Cincinnati fans. But now that she's running the franchise into the ground and attendance is dropping, the powers-that-be are ready to take serious action. SIDEBAR 2: MARGE AND THE FANSSeason (Milestone) Attendance Per Game1983 1,190,419 14,696(Year before Marge Scott took over as Reds' general partner)1987 2,185,205 26,978(First year over 2 million since 1980)1990 2,400,892 29,641(Reds win World Series)1993 2,453,232 30,287(Highest attendance since 1978)1994 1,897,681 31,628(Strike-shortened season)1995 1,837,649 25,882(Strike-shortened season)1996 599,730 22,212(Through June 4) not required Reds media guide and public relations office.