Reds' Castellini Is a Man of the People

Sketch out the ideal profile for the owner of the Reds, and behold the desire for a local with money to burn and the passion to back it up. After six years of Carl Lindner, who fired the odd silve

Jerry Dowling

Sketch out the ideal profile for the owner of the Reds, and behold the desire for a local with money to burn and the passion to back it up. After six years of Carl Lindner, who fired the odd silver bullet only to take it in the foot, two out of three isn't bad.

Robert Castellini is 64, grew up in Cincinnati loving the Reds, grew the family produce business into a national colossus, promises a winner and wants to be called Bob. Any time the Reds' owner wants to win as badly as the fans, it might happen. Marge Schott won that way — in a much different time.

It remains to be seen, though, if Castellini is any more resourceful than the garden variety Reds fan who can't drum up $10 million for a good veteran pitcher. As he introduced himself on Jan. 20, Castellini told reporters the payroll would hang around $60 million to $65 million for the coming season, hardly cause for celebration 16 years after the last flag went up on the riverfront.

But let's celebrate with Castellini anyway, because he appears genuinely happy to own the Reds, as any of us would be, whatever their challenges. He smiled broadly as he wore the Reds show jersey before cameras like he worked all his life for the robes. Maybe he has.

Castellini was only 25 in 1967 when Bill DeWitt sold the club to a group headed by Francis Dale. Not until now has a controlling opportunity arisen for a prospect from outside the limited partnership framework that passed control to the Nipperts, the (older) Williams Brothers, then Schott, then Lindner.

Most encouraging, Castellini went a long way to make all this happen. A year ago, the Reds increased their payroll out of the blue, which has become the telltale sign of a sale. As it turned out, a group of limited partners wished to sell their stakes. Not until Castellini approached Lindner did the old man seriously consider letting loose his controlling shares.

Can you identify with Bob Castellini? Of course you would have done the same if you were a wealthy local power broker who loves the Reds and hates seeing them deteriorate to their longest sustained losing in half a century. You would have plied Lindner to sell his control to you.

Maybe Bob Castellini is rich and you aren't. But he's a Reds fan and so are you, and if you were rich and Castellini weren't he'd pull for you to own the club because you all want the Reds to win. Or at least care passionately about it.

Casellini introduced himself with the story of every kid's introduction to baseball back in the days before so many kids lit their bedrooms with cable TV. He listened to Waite Hoyt on a bulky Crosley portable radio under his pillow when he was supposed to rest for school the next day. One night, the radio with its hot tubes set his sheets on fire while he slept.

Some of us are a couple decades younger, and our radios weren't so dangerous. Neither were the Reds. In those days when Castellini approached his teens, the Reds were even worse than they are today.

And he still grew to love baseball so much that he later joined the younger Bill DeWitt's ownership group with the St. Louis Cardinals. And he might like and respect Lindner, but he also unloaded his season tickets not long after that dreadful 2003 fire sale. So his stomach turns while the Reds sink into the standings and show little clue or inclination about fixing it.

He has the means to do something about it, so he's doing something about it. So would you.

A man has come along to say the Reds matter and he's walking it, just when everyone else knows the Reds don't matter because they can't do anything about it. But Castellini can do something about it, so he stood before the city and Reds fans everywhere last week to proclaim that he's doing something about it. And he's already made a significant move, firing General Manager Dan O'Brien.

Where's the money? That question is never going away. But the passion doesn't have to go away, and it has. Now, it's back.

"In that very personal and special way a kid loves a baseball team, the Reds became part of my life," Castellini said about his childhood in Cincinnati. Schott couldn't have said that with the same conviction, and neither could Lindner. But Schott, whatever her flaws, became that Superfan because she loved winning, too. Lindner never made the transformation.

Castellini, by all the accounts, loves winning. Maybe Lindner loves winning, but he loves the prize much more. The prize is money, which he was unwilling to lose in exchange for winning.

Whether he was 8 or 80, Lindner never came to love the Reds "in that very personal and special way a kid loves a baseball team," which is how so many love the Reds. Or used to.

Just as Castellini once unloaded his season tickets in disgust, thousands more have simply foregone their purchases of single game tickets in the past three years since the Reds slapped them across the face during the first season of a taxpayer-supported stadium. But that's not all of it. The Reds have given their fans reasons to leave for more than 10 years, and winning alone doesn't change their minds, as the 1995 and 1999 season reveal.

A generation of fans is practically lost to the Reds, and even older generations once in their thrall feel cheated and betrayed. Not to mention powerless.

Castellini is everything those fans are, without the impotence. Perhaps he's the franchise's great redeemer. That's the hope. More concretely, that's the promise.

Remarkably, promises are even made. Castellini said straight out that he wants to win this year, that $60 million to $65 million should be competitive while still breaking even and that he'll take a chance if the Reds look like a winner come July. He understands the fans enough to know what it means to have that out there. Imagine what it'd mean if all that actually occurs.

Can Castellini bring back all the Reds fans? Well, he's one and he's come back. He speaks their language.

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