A sports dynasty is a team that wins multiple championship with the same core players. When the topic comes up in barroom conversations, discussion often turns to the 1960s Boston Celtics, the San Francisco 49ers and Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, the 1950s Yankees, the Big Red Machine and a few others. A dynasty might be identified by a singular player, such as Michael Jordan’s Bulls or Tom Brady’s Patriots or the head coach or manager, like Vince Lombardi’s Packers.
But there’s a different kind of sports dynasty. It’s when ownership of a professional team passes from one generation of a family to another. Fans of the NFL team that plays down the street from Great American Ball Park know it well. But it’s becoming apparent that Cincinnati Reds fans should also start thinking about ownership succession for our team and what that will mean. Because that transition is headed our way, if it hasn’t already started.
Bob Castellini turns 80 this September. 2021 marks 15 seasons that Castellini has been principal owner of the Reds. It’s already the third-longest ownership stint in the franchise’s history and the lengthiest since Powel Crosley Jr. died in 1961. Crosley had rescued the Reds from the brink of bankruptcy in 1933 coming out of the Great Depression.
Although no succession plan for the Reds has been announced, conventional wisdom puts Phil Castellini next in line. It would mark the first time in the club’s 150-year history that ownership passes from one generation of the same family to the next, in this case father to son.
While the local baseball franchise staying all in the family might be a first for Cincinnati, it’s happened elsewhere. The Illitch family in Detroit, Pohlads in Minneapolis, Lerners in Washington and, of course, the Steinbrenner family in New York are examples of baseball ownership-turned-dynasty.
How much longer Bob Castellini makes decisions for the Reds isn’t up to stockholders or a board of directors. In fact, the list of people who have no say includes Joey Votto, Nick Krall, beat writers, local business leaders, the Mayor of Cincinnati, the Governor of Ohio or the state legislature. Even the President of the United States is powerless. So are fans of the club. Especially the fans. Barring a major scandal (think: Marge Schott) the question of who owns and runs the Reds is up to Castellini. That’s the … virtue? … of a privately held family business. You can tell everyone else to butt out.
Regarding that business, win-loss standings may indicate otherwise, but the Reds financial bottom line has been championship-caliber. According to estimates by Forbes, the Reds franchise has increased in value from $270 million when the Castellini ownership group bought the club in 2006 to $1.085 billion in 2021. That’s a gain in assets and wealth of more than three-quarters of a billion dollars for the families who own the Reds.
Knowing when to call it quits
Deciding when to retire is often one of the toughest decisions a person makes and we confront it in different ways. Some of us count down the days in eager anticipation, with motivation ranging from weary bones to travel plans. Others of us may have no choice, with occupational mandatory retirement policies dictating the time. And there are others among us who feel a skin-tight identification with our jobs or business and view quitting as akin to death. The folks in this group cling to work as long as possible, health permitting.
Maybe Bob Castellini will take the opportunity of his milestone birthday this fall to announce his son has moved from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box. Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Considering the elder Castellini is still at it as he nears his ninth decade, it’s safe to assume he’s in the hang-on-forever category.
There’s ample precedent for elderly owners in baseball. Mike Illitch ran the Tigers until he died at 87. Carl Pohlad was 93. Ted Lerner retired at 92. Charles Johnson in San Francisco relinquished control of the Giants to his son at age 86. Jerry Reinsdorf, more than half-way through his 80s, is still making moves like hiring his pal Tony La Russa.
We tip-toe around the subject of aging and competency. It’s an issue that can cause awkwardness and even strife within families. Transitions in a family business can be smooth or rocky, with every situation different. Elders can hold on longer than frustrated younger generations think they should.
The good news is that Phil Castellini has gotten to know the Reds. He’s not a distant heir who would arrive out of the blue to take over the family business. He has run the non-baseball half of the Reds organization for years with great success. The stadium experience is wonderful and community engagement significant. His deep involvement makes it more likely the transition from his father will be relatively untroubled. Then again, as a private business, emphasis on private, Reds fans may have no way of judging.
The cost of hesitancy
One way for families to avoid the discomfort of succession is through inaction. They choose or tolerate lack of clarity about who is making decisions. While this strategy of ambiguity puts off unpleasantness around the dinner table, it also leads to paralysis in handling business affairs.
Needless to say, inactivity or passivity are not ideal qualities for a Major League Baseball franchise. We don’t know if the Reds leadership is going through something like that now. But the club has seemed rudderless and increasingly insular since the end of the 2020 season.
- Sacrificed front office brainpower by not replacing Dick Williams
- No player extensions even though the timing was perfect to sign Jesse Winker, Tyler Mahle and maybe others.
- Didn’t acquire a shortstop even though they say they cut relievers from the payroll to afford one.
- Didn’t make sure the bullpen was sound. Signing guys who have been released from other teams isn’t a plan.
- Let a division rival trade for a shortstop last week at a reasonable price.
Indecision, or waiting to see how things play out, is an especially bad fit for an organization that also says it can’t afford to pay market prices. Moving at the right time, often early, is the way to get good deals that work for both parties.
Castellini family dawdling may seem like a writer’s dystopian fantasy. But it was less than four years ago when Reds ownership couldn’t bring itself to trade Matt Harvey at the deadline because the pitcher represented “positive momentum.”
Just yesterday, general manager Nick Krall gave an interview (Bobby Nightengale) and when asked about the club’s plans for upcoming months replied: “We’ll see how it goes.”
Instead of reassuring Reds fans that ownership and the front office were using ahead-of-schedule revenues from GABP attendance to look for ways to improve the club, the public face of management was ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
That’s right. “See where it goes” is the Reds plan the next few weeks.
Paralysis like that, whatever the cause, will be fatal in a division where other teams have aggressive, smart leadership willing to embrace change. Each bit of Castellini family hesitancy sacrifices an increment of competitiveness the Reds can’t afford.
Worse than being adrift
The rewards of being the owner’s kid are substantial. While Phil Castellini has largely stayed out of baseball decisions, there are indications his influence is becoming more prominent. His emergence has coincided with the subtraction of the strong voice of Dick Williams in the organization.
Soon, Phil Castellini may be calling the shots and he’s a blank slate when it comes to intentions. Beyond the risks of inaction during the transition period, new ownership would raise fundamental questions:
- Would Phil Castellini sell the team? Maybe he has a different set of priorities for what to do with a billion-dollar return. He simply may want a different career, or with all that wealth, no career.
- If he keeps the team, will Phil Castellini be more frugal, less frugal or committed to the same break-even policy as his father?
- Will Phil Castellini intervene as much, or even more, in Reds baseball decisions? Would he be old-school or be open to new ideas and change?
And that brings me to the main reason I have a healthy dose of apprehension about the Reds future.
It’s not the frugality. Even with the payroll cutback and despite having a smaller economic footprint, the Reds outspend a third of the major league teams. For example, the Reds rank in the middle of 2021 payroll spending in the NL Central at $129 million. The Cardinals ($167m) and Cubs ($160m) spend more. The Brewers ($99m) and Pirates ($47) less.
My concern is there are worse courses than being rudderless.
A new owner could accept retrenchment. We don’t know who has Phil Castellini’s ear. He may gravitate to old voices that long to move the club backward to the familiar. Or to old thinking that jeopardizes the team’s current commitment to modern baseball.
There are folks with large platforms who would take the Reds back to serial bunting. Back to intoning the word “analytics” as though it was a slur instead of a synonym for information. Back to an all-too-recent time when former Reds players commented about how they received much more helpful data from their new teams. Back to stalled pitcher development. Back to crippling ownership involvement. Back to bias against change.
Lest we forget, it was only a few years ago when Bob Castellini believed Walt Jocketty — Walt Jocketty! — was the right guy to lead the team into a rebuild and the future. The Cardinals had fired Jocketty in 2007 because he wasn’t receptive enough to the fundamental changes taking place in the sport.
I understand frustration and anger directed at the payroll cutback. It was shortsighted and counterproductive. It deserves criticism as a colossal and unforced blunder. But let’s not take our eye off the far more important long-term, looming threat to the Reds success — the future quality of ownership decision-making.
The club’s principal owner is hanging on at an age when he may have entered – here we are, tip-toeing again – his decline phase, to borrow industry jargon. It’s a term usually reserved for the ball field but applies as well to the boardroom.
We fans have no information on the Castellini succession plan or even if there is one. That kind of drama may be entertaining for an award-winning HBO series, but it isn’t helpful when it comes to beating the Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers. The single-family grip evokes more red flags than Reds pennants. For fans, outsiders who derive pleasure or pain from that business, it’s troubling because without transparency there is no accountability.
For those hoping for new ownership, good luck. The first three letters of ownership spell own. The Castellini family owns the Reds and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Meanwhile, huge decisions need to be made and consequential actions taken.
That means Reds fans are left to just, you know, see how it goes.
Featured image: https://twitter.com/Reds/status/582604128880218112/photo/1