Will the spirit of St. Louis fly in Cincinnati?
By John Erardi
Enquirer staff writer
Say this for Robert Castellini, the Reds' pending new chief executive officer, and his partners, the Williams brothers:
The Cincinnati-based friends don't hide from the success they've had as part of an ultra-successful ownership group - led by their longtime friend Bill DeWitt - with the St. Louis Cardinals since 1996.
They even referred to that success in the Reds-issued press release Wednesday about the upcoming transfer of power from present Reds CEO Carl Lindner to Castellini. That transfer is about only 30 days from being approved by Major League Baseball.
"...Castellini and Williams are familiar with the Reds' tradition and the Cincinnati market, and bring unique experience to the Reds from their many years as part owners of the St. Louis Cardinals," the press release stated.
DeWitt told The Enquirer this week that Cincinnati couldn't be getting better new ownership than the grouping of Castellini and the Williams brothers - Thomas and Joseph. But DeWitt wouldn't saddle the trio with the burden of expectation. He declined to answer a question about whether the group's success in St. Louis since 1996 can be duplicated in Cincinnati.
Castellini and the Williams brothers are precluded by Major League Baseball from speaking publicly about their intentions until the sale is approved, so Reds fans don't yet know what is in the men's hearts. Fans can only hope that duplicating DeWitt's success in St. Louis is what is in store here.
Two longtime baseball observers - Rick Hummel, a veteran baseball writer in St. Louis, and Bob Nightengale, a national baseball writer who has chronicled the success of baseball in St. Louis and the recent demise of it in Cincinnati - both believe the Reds are primed for a comeback.
"It's almost a joke that Cincinnati hasn't been more like St. Louis the past 10 years," Nightengale said. "Those two clubs used to be (neck-and-neck) with one another in the way they drew. Now, Cincinnati is fighting it out with Pittsburgh and Milwaukee (in attendance). There's no reason for that to be the case, given the strength of that baseball market."
Nightengale said success for a baseball franchise begins at the top with ownership. He cited the Los Angeles Angels, who have transformed their market with strong, new, aggressive leadership.
"I look for the (new) Cincinnati ownership to make a splash," Nightengale said. "When new owners come in, they usually spend some money. They want to create some interest."
Hummel said that if Castellini and the Williams brothers were paying attention to the way DeWitt has operated the Cardinals, they couldn't help but learn a lot over the years from his management style.
"First of all, Bill is open and accessible, and he'll always give you an answer unless it's some issue that baseball has a gag order on," Hummel said. "He's not flamboyant - he isn't going to say things that get him on page one - but he'll let it rip. ... He'll tell you what (the plan) is. I understand that's been a problem in Cincinnati, not knowing what (the plan) is. Bill knows you have to win (and get into the postseason) or at least come close. That's what he set about doing as soon as he arrived here (in 1996)."
The big thing that Cardinals fans and the media didn't know when the DeWitt group came to St. Louis was: "Do they have the money?" Hummel said. "We since learned that they did. They spent it smartly. And they hold some back for midseason acquisitions. The last few years that's meant Scott Rolen and Larry Walker. The payroll was $92 million (in 2005). That's unbelievable for this market, but the team is filling the ballpark."
The Cardinals have been in the playoffs six of the 10 seasons under DeWitt, Hummel said. They hadn't been there for nine years (1987) until DeWitt arrived. They have been there five of the past six seasons.
Hummel noted that DeWitt signed off on the deal that Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty made to bring Mark McGwire to town in 1997. Then, DeWitt signed McGwire to a big, four-year deal in late '97 to keep him in St. Louis.
"I give him huge credit for that deal," Hummel said. "That was before (McGwire) hit any of those 70 home runs he hit in '98. The next deal that they (McGwire and DeWitt) did was just the two of them sitting down and working it out. Bill is involved in everything, but he doesn't meddle. He has good people around him and he trusts them and lets them do their work."
Neither Hummel nor Nightengale have a clue whether Castellini-Williams have their eye on any player deals that might give Reds fans a winter jolt after five straight losing seasons. But at least the timing of the sale is good, they said.
"They (Castellini and Williams) obviously wanted to get the deal done," Nightengale said. "A lot of times you see these ownership changes during the season, maybe even during the summertime, but this puts them in a position to be involved in (the free-agent) market and all the winter meetings. (Reds fans) couldn't ask for better timing.
"(The new Reds ownership) can hit the ground running (for 2006) if that's what they want to do. I honestly don't believe the club is that far away from being successful again. We (the national baseball writers) know the fan base is there; they (the Reds) just have to win. In my opinion, they are only a couple of pitchers away from doing that."