CINCINNATI — Jim Bowden proposed the concept in a letter to Commissioner Bud Selig last year. The Cincinnati Red general manager suggested a revenue-based realignment as a short-term remedy to baseball's competitive disparity.
"Until we can solve the economic problem on a long-term basis, let's at least create some parity and pennant races," Bowden said the other day in his Cinergy Field office. "Let's give everyone a chance to reach the playoffs by allowing them to compete against teams in the same economic framework."
For example, he said, Florida, Montreal, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh might be grouped in the smallest of the small-revenue divisions.
The Reds, he said, might be aligned with Philadelphia, Houston and San Diego--although Bowden acknowledged that his franchise, given the economic jolt of Ken Griffey Jr.'s acquisition, has moved into a new strata.
"Where we've been is probably a high small market," Bowden said. "But I think that one player of his magnitude changes you from a small- to a mid-market [team]."
Neighborhood aside, Griffey's homecoming in the Feb. 10 trade with the Seattle Mariners has been a boon to club and community.
"We still have limitations, we still have a payroll $20 million below the [St. Louis] Cardinals and
$50 million below the [New York] Yankees, but Junior will pay for himself through the enhanced revenue and will help pay for other players as we head to the new stadium [in 2003]," Bowden said. "We should be able to afford more expensive teams."
In facilitating the trade in which the Mariners had no leverage, Griffey accepted a comparatively under-valued contract of $116.5 million for nine years, with $57.5 million deferred.
The impact was immediate. The Reds had to install 10 new phone lines to handle ticket demands and have already sold more than 2 million for the season, almost equaling their 2,061,222 attendance of 1999. They drew a club-record 55,596 to Monday's inclement opener and expect to total more than 2.8 million, breaking the 1978 record of 2.5 million.
In addition, within a 48-hour period after the trade, the Reds sold 50 of 61 luxury suites at the new stadium. The suites cost between $85,000 and $125,000 a year with a 10-year commitment.
General Motors and Viagra have joined the Reds as national sponsors, with more at the door.
"Not many players sell tickets by themselves," Bowden said. "Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson did it in basketball. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are the only other ones that do it in baseball. Junior has made people here proud to be Reds fans again. The excitement is unbelievable. All the shop windows, all the merchandising, all the kids coming to the park in Griffey jerseys with their caps turned backward."
Bowden, who couldn't dine out before the trade without fans offering to pick up his bill so that he could afford Griffey, estimated that the Reds have already reaped a $10-million revenue increase from the increased ticket sales, not counting concessions and parking, or the impact on downtown business. One study suggests the "Griffey effect" will pump $40 million into the local economy.
Said John Allen, the Reds' chief operating officer, "Our fans said, 'Get Griffey and we will come.' They have and they will."
The expectations for Griffey and the Reds, of course, have risen with the revenue.
The Cincinnati Enquirer had reacted to his acquisition by asking on Page 1, "Is it a stretch to compare the Ken Griffey Jr. trade to the one that brought Babe Ruth to New York?"
The Enquirer responded to his 0-for-11 start by charting what he had done in each at-bat.
"I guess there was some doubt I'd ever get one," he said Thursday night, surrounded by a dozen reporters, after getting his first hit in the uniform that his dad, Ken Griffey Sr., wore as a player and still wears as the bench coach.
Now father and son often drive to and from work together, probably discussing one of Junior's slowest starts.
He is two for 22 with no home runs, still needs only two for 400 and continues to dismiss any and all statistical milestones. "I'm only interested in a World Series title," Griffey said. "I want to practice my victory-parade wave."
The National League Central may be baseball's most competitive division, and Manager Jack McKeon is concerned that, "Some people think we should win automatically. Everybody gets carried away, thinking one guy can take you to the World Series, but it comes down to pitching."
The Reds need Steve Parris (11-4) and Ron Villone (9-7) to build on their 1999 success. They need Denny Neagle (9-7) and Pete Harnisch (16-10) to avoid injuries.
The bullpen accounted for 33 victories last year, and Scott Sullivan, Danny Graves and Scott Williamson--first, second and fifth among NL relievers in innings pitched--will have to maintain that durability.
In his first move of a season in which there may be others, Bowden traded reliever Gabe White to Colorado on Friday for potential starter Manny Aybar.
At 39 and in his eighth year as general manager, former boy wonder Bowden has often shown the creativity that was his only avenue during Marge Schott's penurious ownership.
He put the Reds over the division hump in 1995 with his midseason acquisitions of pitchers David Wells, Dave Burba and Mark Portugal, and he got pitcher Juan Guzman for last year's stretch run.
No promises, he said, but the resources should be there and if the Reds are in the race, "It can be done again."
As Bowden noted, Griffey is paying for himself--and others.