Holding the Ownership Group Accountable for Its 2006 Promises

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Back in November 2005, it was reported that an agreement had been reached in principle for Carl Lindner to sell controlling interest in the Reds to a group of area businessmen. That group “was headed by Robert Castellini, chairman of a Cincinnati-based produce company, and relatives of a family that owned the team from 1966-84,” and the purchase price was approximately $270 million. (If you’re interested, the franchise was recently valued at more than $1 billion. Cue Dr. Evil gif.)

The sale was, of course, approved by MLB owners, and Castellini formally took the reins in January 2006. At his introductory press conference, Castellini was very clear:

“We’re buying the Reds to win. Anything else is unacceptable,” said Robert Castellini, who was approved by Major League Baseball on Jan. 19 as the team’s new majority owner. … Asked how long it would take to bring the Reds back to playoff contention, Castellini said, “Our goal is to put a contender on the field this year.”

Shortly thereafter, the new Reds ownership team published an open letter to Reds fans. You can see it by clicking here, but here’s the text of the letter:

Dear Cincinnati Reds Fans,

We are proud to be the new owners of America’s first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds.

We’re long-time baseball fans who have grown up with the Reds and have fond memories of going to the ballpark. In our lifetime, we faithfully cheered on the Reds through three World Series championships, six National League championships and eight division titles.

We know this team truly belongs to you, and we understand what the Reds mean to our city and our region. We know what a winning team can do for a city’s pride. We also understand the unique legacy the Reds hold in baseball history and the potential to reignite an American love affair with the nation’s first professional baseball team.

It is with a sense of both responsibility and respect that we pledge to Reds fans:

  • We will bring championship baseball to Cincinnati. The Reds have a long tradition of success. Only three cities have won more World Series than Cincinnati. We will work hard to be a championship team again.
  • We will build one of the most respected organizations in baseball. As partners in other successful baseball organizations we know how it’s done. We will build a winning management team by putting the right people in the right positions with the right resources to win. We will foster a winning attitude and culture.
  • We will have a greater community presence. We will continue to improve the lives of area children by building on already successful Reds Community Fund programs like the Rookie Success League. Whether it’s providing a way for inner-city children to play baseball or generating funds for charity, we’ll take this outreach to a new level.
  • We will rekindle the Reds Nation spirit. We’ll share our story and our strategy, communicating directly with fans everywhere who want to know what is going on. When you visit the ballpark, we’ll periodically be asking for your feedback so we can continuously improve the experience. Our goal is that you feel a part of the Reds Nation whether you’re at the game, listening on the radio or living in another major league city.
  • We will not rest until you are happy. The Reds are, after all, your team. You buy the tickets. You watch the games. You support us financially and emotionally. Without you, the Reds cannot be great. We know you won’t be happy until the team wins. We won’t be happy, either.

Bringing championship baseball to Cincinnati is the ultimate goal. Like you we believe in the power, potential and magic of the Cincinnati Reds. We will work tirelessly to bring a winner home to you.

We thank you for this opportunity and hope to earn your support.

Robert H. Castellini, Chief Executive Officer

Joseph Williams, Jr., Chairman of the Board

Thomas Williams, Vice-Chairman of the Board

This year represents the 13th season of Castellini’s stewardship of the Reds franchise, and with the club bumbling their way to a fourth consecutive 90-plus loss season, it seems like an opportune moment to see how well the current ownership group followed through on the pledges made to Reds fans in those early days.

1. We will bring championship baseball to Cincinnati. Technically, Castellini and company delivered on this pledge: the Reds won National League Central Division championships in 2010 and 2012. Sure, they mentioned “World Series” in the letter to fans—and the Reds haven’t even sniffed a World Series lately—but the playoffs are a crapshoot, and the Reds were certainly in the mix during those years (as well as 2013).

On the other hand, Cincinnati’s cumulative record since Castellini took over is 953-1,039 (through the first 48 games of the 2018 season). In the four-plus seasons since the Reds last appeared in the playoffs (as a Wild Card team), Cincinnati’s record is 292-404. That’s a dazzling “winning” percentage of .420.

As noted above, the Reds are likely on their way to a fourth consecutive 90-plus loss season. Cincinnati had suffered through a combined total of four 90-plus loss seasons in the previous three decades of baseball. Let’s give Reds ownership a grade of C on this pledge.

2. We will build one of the most respected organizations in baseball. It’s difficult to assess this one. Ownership has made great strides in minor league facilities, international scouting, minor league coaching, nutrition, etc. The farm system rates as one of the best in baseball. Castellini seems to be a nice guy who is well-liked by his peers. The festivities surrounding the 2015 All-Star Game in Cincinnati were widely praised by everyone.

Without question, however, ownership hasn’t fostered “a winning attitude and culture” as promised. The product on the field has often been embarrassingly bad. As recently as 2016, the Reds front office was rated by The Sporting News as being the worst in baseball. Last year, a FanGraphs project ranked the Reds dead last in their “organizational ratings.”

While the Reds were rated somewhat more highly during that 2010-2013 span, things have fallen off the cliff. If this rebuilding process yields fruit in the near future, it’s likely these ratings will rise. Grade: Incomplete.

3. We will have a greater community presence. This one is an absolute slam dunk, as this ownership group has continued, year after year, to increase its presence in the community. As evidenced by the recent renovation and dedication of Bernie Stowe Field on the West Side, the Reds Community Fund has done incredible work in the area. The Fund is one of the shining lights in our community. Grade: A+.

4. We will rekindle the Reds Nation spirit. Ahem, that should be spelled Redleg Nation, thank you very much.

The club does great work in highlighting the history of the franchise through the incredible Hall of Fame experience, the statues, the retired numbers, etc. Those things—along with RedsFest and the Reds Caravan—help to promote a shared identity and sense of community among Reds fans.

On the other hand, check out this chart:

 

Average attendance at GABPRank in MLB (of 30 teams)
201430,57614th
201529,87018th
201623,38325th
201722,67726th
201817,62825th

 

Notice any trends? I think it’s safe to say that the “Reds Nation spirit” got a temporary boost in the years after 2010 but has not been rekindled on a permanent basis. In fact, my not-so-scientific radar says that the mood of the Reds fan base is as low as it’s ever been in my lifetime. Grade: D.

5. We will not rest until you are happy. If the owners were serious about this pledge, I imagine there have been a lot of sleepless nights among the employees at 100 Joe Nuxhall Way.

The ownership group, led by COO Phil Castellini, has certainly been relentless in improving Great American Ball Park, with changes every year to enhance the gameday experience for fans. Until those stadium changes are mirrored by improvements in the team that plays on the field, however, Reds fans are not going to be happy. And we certainly aren’t happy now. Grade: C-. (Because the fans are seriously unhappy at the moment, but management is trying diligently to make things right.)

The good news? All of those grades will improve almost immediately if and when the Reds start winning baseball games again. If this rebuilding process begins bearing fruit soon and the Reds begin climbing their way up the standings, all will be (mostly) forgiven. More good news: If the Reds are aggressive over the next 12 months—bringing up prospects who are ready, trading surplus assets, being active on the free agent market—I actually think the Reds could be competitive as soon as next year.

Bob Castellini was correct during his opening press conference: Reds fans are passionate and desperate for (and will support) a winner. The truth is that Castellini is just as desperate as we are; he wants nothing more than to hoist a World Series trophy above his head. And, if we’re being honest, the Castellini group has been light years better than the owners it replaced.

But we are more than a decade into Castellini’s tenure, and Reds fans are getting antsy for the club to deliver on the promises that were made back in 2006. Look at those grades above. Final grades will be posted soon, and I’m perfectly happy to grade on the curve, but it’s time for Castellini and company to demonstrate some urgency.

All we’re asking is for Reds ownership to do what they told us they were going to do. If they can’t live up to those pledges, well, Reds fans will very likely continue to turn their attention elsewhere. And that would be heartbreaking for a city that has the local baseball team woven into its DNA.

Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, “The Big 50: The Men and Moments that made the Cincinnati Reds” is available now, in bookstores and online.

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