Cincinnati Reds Should Borrow Bengals’ Playbook

Cincinnati Reds Should Borrow Bengals’ Playbook

by April 14, 2022 0 comments

Cincinnati sports fans have seen this movie before, and they are not happy. The hometown Reds last won a playoff series in 1995 and have only made the postseason five times since their 1990 World Series Championship. It is an embarrassing postseason stretch for baseball’s oldest professional team.

If it sounds like a familiar refrain, that’s because it is. The Cincinnati Bengals, prior to their historic run in 2021, had previously made the playoffs seven times and went winless, as well. They were a laughingstock for most of those years, so much so that the failures of their baseball brethren flew under the radar year after year. With that said, there was little doubt that the football team drew more ire from fans during that time.

Now the tables have turned. One of these teams has taken strides to remedy the situation as opposed to completely flatlining. The other is headed in the opposite direction. It does not take a master’s degree to see which is which. If the Reds organization wants to return to respectability, they need to look a few blocks west to see how it can be done.

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Fans vs Owners: A Tale as Old as Time

Bengals owner Mike Brown has been the unwilling villain throughout his tenure in Cincinnati. One of the few owners who was not already swimming in cash like so many other NFL owners upon taking over (the Bengals are a family business), he received well-deserved criticism for his penny-pinching ways. Fans begged for him to sell the team, and that criticism was deafening.

The Reds were purchased by a group headed by Bob Castellini (now 80 years old), after he had success as a part-owner of the St. Louis Cardinals. His tenure as CEO started well enough after saying the group was “buying the Reds to win”. The enjoyed a modest uptick in success after his purchase of the team. However, fast-forward, and Cincinnati has the 22nd-most wins since he took over after the 2005 season.

After finally assembling a quality roster in 2021 and inspiring fans to return to the ballpark, the Reds fell short of getting back to the playoffs, largely because of injuries and fading down the stretch. Rather than electing to build on that success, Castellini, general manager Nick Krall and Castellini’s son, COO Phil Castellini blew up the team. This prompted angry fans to start social media movements like #SellTheTeamBob and was also met with critique by the media at large.

The condemnation became so loud that the above named could not pretend to ignore it. It all came to a head on Tuesday, April 12. The Reds staged their 103rd annual Opening Day parade. That is not a typo. The Cincinnati tradition began in 1920, and (aside from lockouts or strikes) is one of the most recognized events in sports. Opening Day in Cincinnati is considered a holiday in the Queen City. That day, the younger Castellini was asked about disenchanted fans threatening to boycott the team at a press conference when he dropped this sacrilegious nugget:

“Well, where you gonna go? Let’s start there. I mean, sell the team to who? …If you wanna look at what you would have this team do to have it be more profitable, make more money. Compete more in the current economic system that this game exists. It would be to pick it up and move it somewhere else. And. So. Be careful what you ask for.”

Just to reiterate, Phil Castellini said this on arguably the most sacred baseball day that exists not only in Cincinnati, but for miles around. Bengals owner Brown probably slept extremely well on Tuesday night.

Damage Control

Castellini tried to clean up his mess later, after the blowback from that tweet came fast and furious. However, it was half-hearted, vanilla, and completely predictable. Somewhere, Nick Castellanos probably hit a home run as he spoke. No one expects much from this Reds team in 2022, although there is significant young talent on the roster that can eventually be exciting.

With that said, fans will not soon forget the jettisoning of players that helped the Reds to one of their more thrilling seasons in recent memory. After what should be considered a successful step in the right direction, the faithful feel betrayed and frustrated. It is a feeling the people of Cincinnati are all too familiar with. However, if the Reds would like a blueprint to follow as they attempt to win them back over, they need not look much further than their nearby neighbors, who at long last seem to be putting it together.

Change Starts From the Top

The elder Castellini is not going to sell this team. At 80 years old, there is little doubt that the intention would be to leave it in the hands of son Phil, who is the newly crowned villain on the banks of the Ohio. Bob, being a savvy businessman who has had his hands in Major League Baseball for years, however, could still make moves at the top to preserve his legacy.

The Bengals’ Brown recognized that the game was passing him by, and entrusted the overall operations to his daughter Katie (Brown) Blackburn and her husband Troy Blackburn, in addition to Brown’s son, Paul. After years of refusing to cede control of general manager duties, he eventually gave those up, too. It is now a combination of Katie and franchise-loyal Duke Tobin, who worked behind the scenes for years with little recognition. He never complained publicly about his role.

While Brown still signs the checks, this group convinced him that the organization’s potential in a small market could only be realized through quality player evaluation and opening the coffers a little further than he ever had. The result was solid drafts and quality free agents without being completely thrifty It closed the book on the “old-school” way of thinking.

The owner of the Reds cannot follow this to a tee, but there are lessons to be learned. This is “sound the alarm” type stuff. Son Phil should be removed from his post of COO immediately, if for no other reason than to appease the fans. What he said in that quote would have been reprehensible anywhere, but in Cincinnati on Opening Day it was inexcusable. Give the man some other title and do not ever put him behind a microphone again. They can either promote someone else to the post or bring in a younger, hungrier, less businessman-like face to take over that role.

Fire David Bell

Cincinnati sports has a knack for letting coaches wear out their welcome. We saw it with Marvin Lewis, who did phenomenal things for the Bengals franchise when all hope was lost, but any fan worth their salt knows he should have been out the door long before he was. The Bengals went young and brought in Zac Taylor and let him have input into the makeup of his team. It was a youth movement. Skeptics were calling for his head immediately, but those that trusted the process were handsomely rewarded.

Baseball is not football, but the million dollar question still applies. If a team is deciding to embrace a youth movement on the field, the 50-year-old Bell who grew up in the buttoned-up MLB is not your guy. No fans are saying “Well, at least we still have David Bell” after the Reds dealt away or failed to sign the core of the team. It’s not that Bell is a bad manager, per se (though many fans would disagree), but if the franchise is committing to a youth movement, go all-in on that. That also includes the majority of Bell’s coaching staff.

Keep Your Fan Favorites

The fire sale by the Reds that just happened prior to the 2022 season came as a bit of surprise. Fans knew some players would be on their way out. That’s just sports. However, it was hardly necessary to cough up some of those players for peanuts. There were some quality prospects absorbed by the Reds’ system, but nothing near the value of who was sent away.

For all his misgivings, the Bengals’ Brown has always paid his favorite players to stay. This is a category where it is hard to compare the two franchises because Taylor was given free reign to decide who remained in Orange-and-Black and who did not fit his vision. He took a lot of flak for trading Carlos Dunlap and releasing Geno Atkins, among other moves.

The key for small market teams that cannot reload every offseason like the New York Yankees is to build from within and then sign a few big pieces to get over the hump. That worked for the Bengals (see: Super Bowl LVI) and it works in baseball, too. In fact, the Redlegs did it well headed into the 2021 season. Had injuries not derailed the team, they would have had a shot at a significant playoff run.

The problem is ownership has given up too soon. A team cannot expect to do that one time, fail, and then just throw their hands up and ship everyone away. Some players like Castellanos were as good as gone in the offseason. Others like Jesse Winker should have been a no-brainer to extend. If you are in the business of making money (the Castellinis clearly are), you had better put some favorites on the field. The Reds had Joe Burrow, Taylor, and Ja’Marr Chase in their pregame ceremonies, presumably so fans knew the names of someone on the field. How the tables have turned.

The Joey Votto contract has been a contentious subject for years. Ownership proved in their spending prior to 2021 that he has not handcuffed them the way some fans suggest. The organization cannot let Votto go the way of Sean Casey and others. Rather, he should go the way of Barry Larkin. He should retire a Red, even if on year-to-year deals.

Connect With the Fans

Baseball is a strange sport, because it is generally still bowing to the same old buttoned-up way of thinking. Social media is boring. The promotions are lame. There is enormous disconnect between the fans and the teams. That’s not to say that players are not out there signing baseballs before the game or participating in charitable events. The NFL has simply passed them by.

Who is the figurehead of Reds social media? No idea. Meanwhile, the Bengals promoted Elizabeth Blackburn to that position and ever since, the social media presence for the team has exploded. They interact with fans, embrace podcasts and YouTube shows about the team, promote the fan of the year, etc. Former Bengals from Anthony Munoz to Ickey Woods to Ken Anderson and Willie Anderson have become champions of the current incarnation. Marisa Contipelli is one of the best ambassadors in the game.

Bengals Ring of Honor. Ruler of the Jungle. Upgrades to the field entrance. The Cincinnati Reds could take one page from this playbook and be on their way. Get former players there. Retire a jersey. Mandatory bat-flips. The Cincinnati Reds could buck trends by stepping out of the traditional comfort zone.

A Business Can Still Be Fun

Of course it helps to have a Burrow on your team. The Reds had a stacked team last season, though, and failed to capitalize aside from selling out several bobblehead games. The business sense is baffling. They had just over 10,000 fans on Wednesday night. Young Castellini will tell you that it’s an unsustainable way to run a franchise. Any businessman worth his salt will tell you that if you opened the gates once a week for free, you’ll make quadruple on food and beverage than you would on the measly discounted tickets you are offering. Not only that, but there are more people in the stadium. That makes fans happy. It makes the players happy, as well.

The Bengals had numerous players giving away free tickets on social media (Clark Harris, especially). If the Reds players gave tickets away, it would connect fans with players, raise the concessions sales, and add people to the ballpark. And for once, maybe the fans would feel appreciated. As a bonus, maybe ownership would have a few more bucks to spend on a better on-field product.

A Tale of Two Cities

Baseball is not football. After years of toil, though, the Bengals are starting to figure it out. As far as talent, the Reds are on the right track. The magic formula does not exist only on the diamond, however. The comments made on Opening Day are a black mark on the already tenuous tenure of the Castellinis, and they need to scramble to figure out how to win back over the fans. Few people in Cincinnati ever expected to say it, but the roadmap seems to lie right down the street.


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Main Image Credit: via Yahoo! News

Covering NFL, MLB, Fantasy Sports, and NCAAB. Cincinnati raised, Los Angeles resident with a stop in Philadelphia in between. Joe Mixon truther, fan of "The Answer". Joey Votto is an international treasure.

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