Reds beating odds for playoff spot

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 1, 1999

The Associated Press

The Reds are bucking the small-market blues by contending for the playoffs with a limited budget and boundless enthusiasm.

Friday, October 01, 1999

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The Reds are bucking the small-market blues by contending for the playoffs with a limited budget and boundless enthusiasm. They’ve turned into baseball’s darlings and revived the franchise with a season that defies the odds.

”I’ve been getting a lot of calls lately from all over the country,” manager Jack McKeon said. ”I think we’re the sentimental favorites.

”I think everybody would like to see us go far, all the way to the World Series, because we’re scrappy and we have an interesting bunch of guys and we have a low payroll. I don’t think the big-money guys would like to see us get in.”

The big-money guys have dominated the playoffs in recent years as salaries escalated and the gap widened between the haves and have-nots.

Teams like the Reds, who had a $33 million opening day payroll, usually drop out of contention as the season wears on. This team hasn’t.

After a day off Thursday, the Reds finish the season with three games at Milwaukee that will decide whether they make the playoffs. They’re tied for first in the NL Central with Houston and two games ahead of New York for the wild card following the Mets’ 4-3 loss to Atlanta.

”You couldn’t have scripted it any better,” first baseman Sean Casey said. ”We’re going into the last weekend of the season with the postseason on the line.”

The Reds have held their own against teams that have outspent them 2-to-1. The six major league teams that already have clinched playoff berths had opening day payrolls ranging from $61 million to $85 million. The Mets’ was $63 million, while Houston’s was $52 million.

”No one said we were supposed to be here,” cleanup hitter Greg Vaughn said. ”We were supposed to pack our bags and fly to Milwaukee for the last series and then go on our way.”

Forced to do more with less, the Reds have gotten by with a few stars surrounded by young players and role players who have done their jobs without complaint. Together, they’ve reveled in the role of underdog.

Mark McGwire was so impressed by the Reds’ spirit last weekend that he wanted to talk about them, not his latest record-tying homers during a series at Cincinnati.

”They are the perfect example of what the game is all about,” McGwire said.

In recent years, the Reds have been the perfect example of what was wrong with baseball. Schott received punishments for inflammatory comments and the team went three years without a winning record as it slashed payroll and rebuilt.

Schott has been muzzled by baseball and is in her final days as owner – she has agreed to sell control of the team to three limited partners for $67 million, a deal that should be signed soon.

Instead, the spotlight has been on players like Casey, who arrived last year in a trade and is so personable that he’s known as ”The Mayor” because he seems to befriend everyone.

”People are people,” Casey said. ”I always think everyone wants to have a good conversation, if you can have it. Maybe I seem a little naive. I just enjoy people.”

The Reds have been a good conversation piece since the offseason, when general manager Jim Bowden substantially improved his club through trades and free-agent signings.

The Reds got the kind of break that a small-market team needs to compete when the San Diego Padres offered Vaughn, who was coming off a 50-homer season.

Vaughn has hit 43 homers, driven in 114 runs and become the first player in franchise history with 40 homers, 100 RBIs and 15 steals in a season. He carried the team through September with 14 homers, matching Frank Robinson’s franchise record for one month.

”He’s the one that took all the pressure off our young players,” Bowden said. ”You don’t go out and get 40-homer, 100-RBI guys, and you don’t win without them.”

The only downside to the season has been the fans’ reluctance to get carried away by it. The Reds drew 2 million for the first time since 1993, but had hoped for more.

In their World Series championship season of 1990, the Reds drew 2.4 million.

”After a few bad years, it takes the fans a while to get serious,” McKeon said. ”They say, ‘Are they for real or not?’ ”

Crowds picked up for the last home series, when the Reds made one remarkable comeback after another that proved they’re for real.

”This is a very special team,” catcher Eddie Taubensee said. ”I’m having more fun this year than I ever have. Whether we make the playoffs or not, it’s something I’ll never forget.”