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Deion, Petey, Ray and Jack: Quite a year

September 29, 1997

CINCINNATI (AP) _ Deion. Pete Jr. Ray and Jack. Marge and Albert.

There are so many candidates for the signature moment of the Cincinnati Reds’ season. None of them quite satisfies.

Sure, Deion Sanders came back to baseball, hit the ground running and ran wild on the bases. He also redesigned the Reds’ road uniforms, feuded with Curt Schilling and took a fly ball off the noggin, providing the club’s best blooper of the year.

But he ran off just when things were getting interesting, more interested in playing football than winning the National League stolen base title. He’s probably gone for good.

Pete Rose Jr. _ the feel-good moment of the year. The son of baseball’s career hits leader finally got his moment in the major leagues, got a hit and got a hug from his dad. Tears flowed, fans reveled.

Ah, but once the day ended, everyone saw why Rose Jr. has knocked around the minors most of his career. He finished September 2-for-14 with nine strikeouts.

Most likely, there will be no curtain call.

Ray Knight lost games, huffed about his accomplishments, alienated the clubhouse and finally got fired as manager. Jack McKeon took over, won games, puffed on his cigars, soothed the clubhouse and got a one-year extension.

That’s a story still in the scripting stage.

Let’s not forget Marge Schott, the exiled owner who actually stayed out of the headlines for an entire season _ well, almost. There was that one fascinating moment when Albert Belle and the Chicago White Sox showed up for the first interleague game and Schott decided to try to befriend the unfriendly outfielder.

At least Schottzie 02 escaped with all of her fur.

Great moments, but none of them defining. When Reds fans look back on 1997 a few years from now, they probably won’t remember it as the year of Prime Time or the Hit King’s son.

It’s much more likely to go down as the season of the John Smiley trade, the day when the Reds became more like Pittsburgh than Atlanta.

By trading their best starter to the Cleveland Indians in July for prospects, the Reds began a downsizing and rebuilding that will consume them for the next few years. After pushing Atlanta for the biggest payroll in the National League in the mid-1990s, the Reds are trying to pull a Pittsburgh and compete with younger, cheaper players.

Forget about signing big-name free agents for awhile. Concentrate on the kids.

``We’ve changed directions,″ managing executive John Allen said. ``We’re going with a youth movement.″

Finances demand it. Due in large measure to their club-record 18 losses under Knight in April, attendance slid to the lowest level since 1986. That was a huge blow to a club that doesn’t have luxury boxes to sell or a new stadium to promote.

The payroll was pared to just over $30 million this season. It will be the same or a little lower next year, forcing the Reds to act more like a small-market club than a contender.

They kept McKeon, 66, for another year because developing young players is his strong point. Veterans like Hal Morris, Bret Boone, Reggie Sanders and Eddie Taubensee could get swept away in the rebuilding, giving the lineup an entirely different look.

``My job is to develop the young players into potential pennant winners,″ McKeon said. ``Our goal is to try to build this club with young players so we have a championship ballclub by the time we move into a new stadium.″

There’s no timetable for that _ the club and local politicians haven’t even reached agreement on where a stadium would be built, much less how it would be financed or when it might be finished.

So, for the foreseeable future, the Reds will go with a lineup sprinkled with names like Nunnally, Stynes, Reese and Tomko and hope fans show up to watch them play hard, learn and develop.

If they take to McKeon like they did this year, they could at least be entertaining. A team that was 13 games under .500 when Knight was fired went 33-30 under McKeon even though the rotation was virtually wiped out by injuries and the Smiley trade.

``The relationship he’s had with the players is very positive,″ team captain Barry Larkin said. ``Hopefully it will carry over to spring training and we’ll continue to play with confidence and looseness. Good things should continue to happen.″

``It’s tough at the present time to put a timetable on wins and losses,″ McKeon said. ``But basically, I think we will provide a very exciting young club for the fans of Cincinnati.″

And hope they pay to see it.

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