Cover Story: We Are the Champions

Local teams dominated, leading city sports to new heights


When it comes to the Cincinnati sports scene in 2006, Charles Dickens got it half right. It was just the best of times.

Leading the charge was, of course, this city's first love: baseball. The hometown Reds, the oldest franchise in the league, grabbed the hearts and hopes of so many local sports fans when it uncharacteristically used stellar pitching to make its charge to and through the playoffs. The season was capped off with that historic 4-2 win over the Detroit Tigers Oct. 27 for the club's first World Series championship in 16 years.

Much ink has been spilled in an attempt to explain how the underdog Reds could go from 89-game loser in 2005 to World Series champs in 2006, but it was perhaps the swift movement of those outside the organization that can be most credited. To wit: A new ownership group led by local businessman Bob Castellini submitted its bid to buy the club from majority shareholder Carl Lindner in time for the baseball owners' meeting in November. But there was heavy speculation that Commissioner Bud Selig wasn't going to allow owners to vote on the sale's approval — and effectively handcuffing the Reds for a large chunk of its off-season — until the January meeting.

In the end, though, Selig did manage to put the sale on the November agenda and turn the keys to the new Big Red Machine over to Castellini in plenty of time to prepare for the 2006 campaign.

Castellini's first order of business was to replace maligned General Manager Dan O'Brien with one of baseball's rising stars, Wayne Krivsky, from the Twins organization.

This transition seemed particularly significant in the Reds' 2006 fortunes, as ESPN and other news outlets were reporting that O'Brien was on the brink of trading fan-favorite Sean Casey when he was ousted.

Instead, Krivsky retained the jovial first baseman and made a few other important off-season and early season moves that set up the core of players that would compete in the balanced Central Division. Then it was Krivsky's bold trade in July with the Washington Nationals that had fans holding their breath. Sending shortstop Felipe Lopez and right fielder Austin Kearns to the Nats for relief pitching help had more than one Reds fan-site blogger scratching his noodle. But — as is often the case in these kinds of magical seasons — the move worked, and Krivsky's reputation for having a Midas touch was solidified.

The Reds ground it out with St. Louis and Houston in September, but ultimately it was the difference-makers in the bullpen that closed the gap and put the Reds ahead in the final weekend of the season. Newly acquired Gary Majewski looked particularly sharp and healthy.

National pundits predicted a quick exit in the playoffs from any team in the weak Central Division. But the Reds kept proving them wrong. Using a solid 1-2 starting pitching punch and superstar performances from Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn, the Reds simply wore down opponents, taking the pennant and then the series from the Tigers, whose greatest weakness was a lack of power at first base.

The one shadow cast on the season was the incident with Ryan Freel on Aug. 9, when diving headfirst into the stands to catch a foul down the right field line he somehow managed to decapitate a Rosie Red fan club member.

But everyone will wisely choose to remember instead that dominating performance by, of all people, starting pitcher Eric Milton in the final game of the World Series, when he befuddled Tigers hitters with a masterful four-hit complete game.

The 2006 Redlegs, the team that came into the World Series with the second-worst record of any pennant winner in history, beautifully illustrated how just a few moves or a few bullpen performances can be the difference.

On the other side of the city's professional sports scene, the 2005-06 campaign didn't end the way the Bengals wanted it to, but it did set up expectation for the current season's success.

Sadly, it was the questionable hit on Carson Palmer in the first game of the playoffs by Pittsburgh's Kimo Von Oelhoffen that torpedoed the city's Super Bowl hopes. Fans could take a great deal of karmic satisfaction in the news reported early the next morning, however, that Von Oelhoffen had been "accidentally" run over by a Honda Civic coming out of Paul Brown Stadium after the game.

The Bengals hope this season, still in the throes of battle, will end on a better note, and every indication is that it will. After a grizzly four-game losing streak, the team is back on track and fighting for a second consecutive playoff bid.

Performance on the field is one source of pride, but everyone associated with this year's squad is just as proud of the recent and unprecedented nomination of the entire team for the NFL "Good Citizen" Player of the Year award. Keeping out of trouble and keeping the focus on the game — that's something at which this year's Bengals excel.

Other highlights in the local sports year included the strange denouement of the University of Cincinnati-Bob Huggins affair. After taking enough grief from university athletic supporters over her questionable handling of Huggins' firing in 2005 and then the hiring and firing of interim coach Andy Kennedy, UC President Nancy Zimpher — citing her desire to keep the focus on students and not on the soap opera that backroom Bearcat athletics had become — summarily terminated her own contract this year.

Xavier University also had a peak year, playing spoiler in this year's NCAA tournament by sending higher ranked Gonzaga home in the first round. Justin Doellman's technical foul for reaching over and tugging on Zags star Adam Morrison's caterpillar mustache, while initially detrimental to the Musketeers' game, seemed to rally the team to a strong come-from-behind win.

Local high schools also saw a banner year for its play, particularly in the nationally recognized Kirk Herbstreit Classic, which pit the best local football teams against powerhouse programs across the country. Cincinnati teams dominated their counterparts with relative ease.

The occasion was slightly marred, however, when Colerain coach Kerry Coombs suffered a mild aneurysm while being photographed by local media after the game. Doctors suggested a less strenuous job for Coombs, who finally relented in December and joined the UC football staff. ©