New Kings of the Queen City: Reds @ Cardinals

Our rival Cincinnati Reds are helmed by a fascinating duo: a former friend and an infamous foe.

Forgive Cincinnati Reds' owner Bob Castellini if he is tired of being small-market. When selling his minority share of the St. Louis Cardinals to take over this storied but run-down franchise in 2006, he proclaimed his intentions: to build a world-class organization, and "to win. Anything else is unacceptable."

In business-speak, this generally means "find me a proven leader who knows how to win." This year, he has found two – and ironically, harvested both off the scrap heap of his own division.

The hiring of Dusty Baker (right) last October ended a parade of no-names writing out the Reds' lineup card. And just days ago, Castellini dismissed his hand-picked but inexperienced general manager in favor of Walt Jocketty, the architect of the Cardinals' decade of prominence. In so doing, the Reds have stepped out of near-anonymity and landed two of the biggest fish that the NL Central pond has ever known.

The timing of both moves could not be coincidental. Baker's hiring was announced as fans nationwide were tuned into the National League playoffs, and Jocketty's promotion came as the Cincinnati team was burying April's natural optimism with a lead-footed early performance. With the former, the Reds were able to make headlines concurrent with the pomp and showmanship of baseball's greatest stage. With the latter, the Reds hope to salvage a rare second chance to make a first impression on the new season.

For the Reds' ownership, this signals the beginning of a second wave of a desperate rescue operation – an effort focused as much on the regional fan base as on the team itself.

This riverboat town is the quintessential small market in many ways – it has a very small city population core (roughly 300,000), and a largely decentralized outlying population. Regional rooting pride has been eroded in the past by the nearby broadcast power of the Cubs, Braves, and the KMOX Cardinals, and by decades of incompetent ownership and management. In short, it takes a significant effort to reach the broader fan base of roughly two million people and bring them to the ballpark, and even more of an effort to bring the "C" to national prominence.

Despite opening a brand new ballpark just five years ago, and exorcizing as many demons as possible from the poisonously bad Marge Schott years, the Reds have failed to match their recent high attendance mark of 2.58 million fans. Two significant events contributed to set that bar, in the year 2000:

1) The Reds were coming off a surprise 96-win season in '99, finishing only one game behind Houston in the division.
2) The Reds made a bold move in the off-season and brought a legitimate All-Star and first-ballot Hall of Famer to their roster in Ken Griffey Jr.

Griffey, who is a mere three home runs shy of joining the ultra-elite 600 circle, can be said (despite his lengthy injury history and his recent move from the iconic center field position to the corners of the ballpark) to be the best all-around player to have worn red togs in Cincy since Pete Rose. This trade, which Griffey all but demanded from his caretakers in Seattle, brought a marquee star to a city that had not had one to rally around since their miracle World Series win of 1990. And the fans did rally, to the tune of a half-million-sized bump in attendance.

It is difficult to read whether the fans responded more to star power or to a winning team in that season, because they haven't had much of either in the past thirty years. But however fickle or star-hungry the Cincinnati fans may be, they aren't stupid.

The team spoiled both ends of the formula in 2001, as franchise icon Barry Larkin retired (and was replaced with Pokey Reese), Griffey missed fifty games to injury, and the team lost 96 games on its way to the dank and dismal NL Central basement. Fans avoided the game like it was school on a Saturday, and didn't come back until their new ballpark opened. Attendance last year qualified the Reds for 13th among 16 NL teams.

And so, onto this dimly lit stage come Baker and Jocketty (right), the new caretakers of the Reds, each prepared to take their role in the effort to save the Reds. The manager is best known for his ability to manage massive star wattage (read: ego) in his clubhouse, and get the best from difficult, often prickly personalities. The GM has been lauded for building a generation of contenders wearing birds on the bat, largely through high-impact and high-volume trading.

Ironically, these two men arrive concurrent with the next generation of young talents, including shortstop Jeff Keppinger, power-hitting Joey Votto, and super-prospect center fielder Jay Bruce. Headlining the youth movement are a trio of blazing young pitchers, Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, and Homer Bailey. If the team takes the long view, these three pitchers, along with ace Aaron Harang, could suddenly transform the perennially pitching-poor Reds into an arms powerhouse. However, will the team take the long view with a "win-now" mandate from ownership?

Just last week, Brian Walton here at The Birdhouse took a long look at what the implications of having two veteran-friendly leaders in Dusty and Jocketty might mean for this core of young (and eminently tradable) talent, and even asked how these two long-time rivals might get along.

Time, and a likely flurry of activity, will answer the first question. For the second, there may be no friction at all. If Walt displayed one quality as GM, it was his ability to work hand in hand with his manager's needs and desires, and to do so without the intrusion of his own ego. Even the heavily criticized Mark Mulder/Dan Haren trade was one that answered a specific call from the Redbirds' manager for a second rotation ace to bolster Chris Carpenter's work. In other words, we may be witnessing the beginnings of a beautiful friendship, one guaranteed to drive the Cardinals and their fans to distraction.

The 2008 Reds come to the ballpark with an 11-15 record, a new bunch of talented young players, and a significantly different aura than in years past. In many ways they are the true wildcard of this division, and the dramatic changes at the top of this organization will more than likely be echoed by further moves of equal or greater significance.

One reading of the tea leaves portrays a potentially shocking possibility: the owner is in full-blown "win now" mode, and appears to enjoy making the news… left fielder Adam Dunn is in his contract year and is potentially on the trading block… Jocketty has proven his ability to persuade his bosses to significantly expand payroll for high-impact players… Dusty provides perhaps the safest harbor in the major leagues for controversial superstars… and just two weeks ago, Dusty casually asked his friend Barry Bonds how he was feeling these days.

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