Marvin Lewis is about to speak at his weekly Monday news conference, and he’ll try to explain why the Bengals lost to the New York Jets the day before. He might giggle away the questions he doesn’t want to answer. He might get defensive at times. More than likely, he won’t say anything noteworthy or enlightening.

No point in attending that shindig.

Instead, you’re Downtown sitting on an oversized boulder at the corner of Walnut Street and Freedom Way East. The Freedom Center is to your back, the John A. Roebling Bridge and the river it runs over lies in front. To the east is Great American Ball Park, which has never played host to a postseason run by the Cincinnati Reds. To the west is Paul Brown Stadium, which has hosted just one Bengals playoff game in its existence.

It’s nice up here, a little overcast with a refreshing breeze. Up here, a man can think.

Much better than sitting inside the press conference room in the bowels of the Bengals home. Much better than thinking about the Reds limping their way to an eighth-straight losing season. Indeed, much better than fostering hope that you’ll see a Cincinnati franchise play in a championship game during your lifetime.

This spot is where the professional sports fans of this city find themselves today. To the east, a pitchers’ graveyard that seated 2,058,632 paying souls this year. To the west, a monument to Hamilton County taxpayers that has sold out every game since Nov. 16, 2003. You’re stuck in the middle.

It’s been 18 years since the Reds swept the favored Oakland Athletics to win the World Series. Soon we will mark — and lament — the 20th anniversary of the last Bengals appearance in a Super Bowl. A generation of Cincinnatians have no memory of players reaching for a championship ring. And when ESPN calls on viewers to vote for “Title Town USA,” it’s a cruel joke on us.

So, what’s the point of attending these games and rooting for these teams? Why bother spending the money and the time cheering for clubs that only have disappointed you this century?

There are plenty of questions to ask, but really there are only two answers. Reds fans can hope. Bengals fans can mourn.


REDS: REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

First, look to where Major League Baseball’s original team plays. Yes, the Reds are facing their own 20-year drought and, yes, they’re working on a long streak of sub-mediocrity. But look closer into next year. This is a team possibly — just possibly — that could draw some interest.

“I know the fans aren’t settling for mediocrity,” says Reds right-hander Aaron Harang, usually one of the better starting pitchers in the National League, but who struggled to a 6-17 record this season. “Of course, they want us to win, and we want to win, too. It seems like each year, we haven’t had the right pieces of the puzzle throughout the season. Guys getting traded, or we go on a bad run and not score runs or the pitching wouldn’t be there. The whole thing comes down to being consistent. We haven’t gotten that consistent play all the time.”

This, of course, is what happens when, in a span of eight years, you have two owners (Carl Lindner and Bob Castellini) who have employed four general managers (Jim Bowden, Dan O’Brien, Wayne Krivsky and Walt Jocketty) and six managers (Jack McKeon, Bob Boone, Dave Miley, Jerry Narron, Pete Mackanin and Dusty Baker). Hard to win if the philosophy you were adhering to yesterday is a distant memory today.

“You have to have some stability with your manager, your coaches, your front office,” Harang continues. “We haven’t been able to find that. Now, with Castellini, they’ve figured that out and are really trying to turn the page, getting a big-time manager and a good GM with a good reputation. That’s where it all starts.”

Actually, it starts at the top of the food chain with the CEO. If he cares about winning and will spend the money to do it — of course, we’re not talking about spending New York Yankees money — the trickle-down effect soon will be evident. Under a more frugal Lindner, that wasn’t likely to happen.

But in the press conference introducing Castellini as the new owner in January 2006, he made it clear he wanted to win and he wanted to win immediately. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s not for a lack of trying.

He replaced O’Brien with Krivsky, who fired Narron and helped hire Baker. Castellini fired Krivsky early in the 2007 season and replaced him with the well-regarded Jocketty, who traded Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn, the two faces of the organization for the past half-decade.

It’s not change for change’s sake. It’s change by Castellini to better the organization.

“He’s always preaching winning,” notes first basemen Joey Votto, a rookie who became one of the team’s stars this year. “Every time I’ve spoken to him or heard him speak, he’s always preached winning, how to create a winning team and how to be optimistic and bring championship-style baseball here in Cincinnati. For an owner to talk and act like that, it’s infectious and it should spread throughout the team.”

Especially for a team in the middle of a youth movement. This year, fans waved goodbye to Griffey and Dunn while making acquaintances with 21-year-old Jay Bruce, 22-year-old Johnny Cueto, 24-year-old Votto and 24-year-old Edinson Volquez. You probably liked what you saw from those youngsters some of the time. Other times, you might have cringed a little.

Yet, this is the route the Reds — who, unlike the Yankees, won’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars for high-priced free agents — must take. The core Reds are young, but they also have talent.

“I feel very good about them,” Dusty Baker says. “We still have some work to do, we still have some pieces to add. Like my dad told me, you have to eat that elephant one bite at a time. That’s what you have to do; you have no choice unless you go out and spend a bunch of money and add a bunch of free agent players, like some teams do. We don’t have those resources, so we have to build from within and make some proper decisions.”

The future, though, still isn’t set. Part of the road ahead winds through the minor leagues. Here, though, is an honest-to-goodness Reds strength. The farm system produced Bruce, Cueto and Votto this year, and don’t forget about Homer Bailey, Drew Stubbs, Ryan Hannigan and Yonder Alonso, all of whom could impact the club within the next season or two.

“There are a lot of reasons the Reds have struggled the past two decades, but one of the big things you look at is after they produced Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns, they went through a stretch where the farm system was absolutely barren,” observes J.J. Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America. “They really were emphasizing pitching, but until Cueto came up this year, who was the last good — or even solid — pitcher the Reds had produced? You can go back to Tom Browning probably.

“Going forward, they had one of the best farm systems in the game because they had impact guys ready,” Cooper continues. “They had Cueto, Bruce and Votto ready to go. This year, they don’t have as many guys, but they have a lot of guys at Class AA and higher that will be big leaguers. There’s less of a nightmare scenario where you have to fill holes and you don’t have guys to fill them. They were there for a while.”


BENGALS: WOE-BE-GONE


The Bengals are still in a nightmare scenario, having passed their sixth 0-6 start since 1991 and finally dodging a winless season with a narrow victory over Jacksonville in their ninth game.

Look away from Great American Ball Park and toward the west — if you dare — and realize the major problem with this Cincinnati club seems to lie with one person: team owner Mike Brown.

Sitting in his office inside the stadium that bears the name of his legendary father, he frets about the state of his team. Or he doesn’t. Brown actually doesn’t care about how low the Bengals can slouch. Or he does. He just wants to make money; no, he passionately cares about winning.

You don’t know for sure because, with the exception of an annual preseason luncheon, Brown doesn’t consent to interviews. Back in 2001, he wrote a guest column in The Enquirer, defending the sales tax for the Bengals’ new stadium, opening with: “To briefly state the obvious, the Bengals have greatly disappointed Cincinnati’s football fans in recent seasons. We have greatly disappointed ourselves, too. We are determined to do better, and we understand the frustration felt by loyal and enthusiastic fans.”

That was seven years ago. Perhaps Brown has been mum again because those exact same sentiments — and promises — still stand.

That leaves others to talk about him. From radio talk shows to web sites such as MikeBrownSucks.com and WhoDeyRevolution. com, the mood of football fans has turned from outrage to total abandonment and calls for mass game boycotts.

So, Gregg Doyel, is there any reason for optimism about the Cincinnati Bengals?

“Only in the sense that the law of averages says the Bengals can’t suck forever,” says the CBSsports.com national columnist who lives in Fairfield. “That’s certainly not tangible or concrete. That’s the theory that what goes up must come down. But the Bengals are not going up until Mike Brown is six feet under.”

Among sports analysts and journalists, the consensus is clear: Brown is the biggest obstacle to Bengals success. He won’t spend the money or relinquish control for a general manager. The team’s scouting department is tiny in comparison to most NFL teams. This summer, Brown destroyed any shred of credibility Marvin Lewis held when, despite Lewis’ public objections, the Bengals re-signed troubled receiver Chris Henry.

“He (Brown) really thinks the Bengals are better with an idiot who probably will be arrested before this story is published,” Doyel remarks. “He’s just really bad at what he does. We all should be born with such genetics that we are born into an NFL team.”

Paul Brown was the Hall of Fame coach who founded the Bengals and ruled the organization during its two Super Bowl runs (1981-82 and 1988-89). He died in 1991 just before his 83rd birthday, and his son, Mike, took over immediately. Since then, the Bengals have made the playoffs once. The team’s regular season winning percentage since he took over is under .350 — and dropping.

Today, the Bengals’ front office remains a family affair. The general management is said to be a troika: Brown, his daughter, Katie Blackburn (executive vice president), and her husband, Troy. Pete and Paul Brown are vice presidents for player personnel.

And the operation is tightly knit. If any of the third-generation Browns disagree with dad’s decisions, they’re not broadcasting dissension to the public.

Dave Lapham, the team’s radio analyst who played with the Bengals from 1974-83, is in a similar tight spot. Known for his candor while assessing the team’s performance on the field, he measures his words more carefully when talking about the owner-manager.

“Honestly, since Paul Brown has been out of the picture, Mike hasn’t had a great track record of success,” Lapham allows. “Let’s face it, they went to the playoffs one time. They had a built-in general manager with Paul Brown. He knew personnel, and he knew how to evaluate as well as anybody I’ve ever seen. As an owner, this guy was a coach. Paul was a rare breed. It was a structure where he could wear many hats himself. In this era, you’re never going to see that.”

In other words, Mike Brown doesn’t have his father’s acumen for spotting and managing talent. Yet he hasn’t admitted a need to hire outside help, or relinquish some power. At age 71, he could be in charge for another decade or more.

Still, the players in the locker room seem upbeat and optimistic. Talk to offensive lineman Bobbie Williams, usually found with a smile on his face, and he’ll tell you Bengals fans have reason to hope. For anybody not playing on the team, though, that might be a stretch.


THE PROFIT MOTIVE


To the west of where you sit, the sun sets on a fan base that continues to buy tickets and game jerseys — although many predict the run of sold-out games is about to end. The losses on the field may keep piling up, but the Brown family is still flush with money.

“The bottom line for Mike Brown and some of the older family franchises (in the NFL) is that this is their only asset,” Lapham points out. “They run it to make profit. They run it as a business. Mike wants to make profit. Wins and losses have to occur within that business plan.

“Will Mike ever do business differently? No.”

Paul Daugherty, national award-winning
Enquirer
sports columnist and host of a talk show on WLW-700 radio, hasn’t hesitated to criticize Brown’s insistence on controlling both the Bengals business and football operations. “I think he still truly believes he knows how to run the team,” Daugherty says. “Back in the darkest ages, he really believed they were hitting a bad patch or getting bad luck — not that he was doing anything wrong.”

But the evidence of wrongdoing abounds. “He (Brown) has said in the past that we don’t need a big scouting department because we get the same information as everybody else,” Daugherty points out. “They belong to the same scouting services. He’s right, but what they don’t do is interpret it properly.”

As for Katie Brown Blackburn, the second in command, Daugherty sees her in the same way as her father: two lawyers who don’t know football. “She handles the salary cap stuff, and they haven’t handled the cap stuff real well either,” he notes.

A day of reckoning is approaching. Remember that one of their arguments for the new stadium was the necessity of having more private luxury suites. The leases for those 114 comfy party rooms (costing $73,000 to $165,000 per season) are renewed every five years, and the current deals expire at the end of the 2009-2010 season. Will the corporations, law firms and other leaseholders pony up the big bucks again to experience perpetual losing?

The last time those leases were up, Mike Brown injected a dose of emergency optimism into fans by signing Marvin Lewis. “The only hope is that Mike will realize people are unhappy and he might lose some box owners,” Daugherty says. “He’s going to go to have to do something in the off season to convince people that things will be better.”


HAUNTED STADIUM?


From the moment in 1995 when Brown threatened to take the Bengals to another town if he didn’t get a new stadium, the grand complex on the river named after his father is a daily reminder to Greater Cincinnatians: of promises, disappointments and costs.

By all accounts, the Brown family is enjoying one of the most lucrative leases of a publicly financed facility in all of professional sports. An
Enquirer analysis in 2000, when Paul Brown Stadium opened for business, found that the total 27-year cost of the complex, including interest on tax bonds, will exceed $1 billion.

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune sued the Bengals after NFL revenue data, revealed in 2001, indicated that Brown had greatly exaggerated the financial distress he used as leverage for the stadium. But the case was thrown out on a technicality. That courtroom loss chilled the county’s zeal to hold Mike Brown to this pledge, which he made at a media luncheon in 2001: “We owe something back to the people of Cincinnati and Hamilton County with the opportunity they’ve given us with the new stadium. We know the best way to say thank you is to put a winning team out there.”

For all the Bengals critics around, few stood behind Portune. The team ownership went after him “with a vengeance,” he notes. “They did what they do best and out-lawyered people.”

Portune and other county commissioners fret that the economy will further depress revenue from the half-cent county sales tax that’s paying for both new sports palaces. “The stadium fund is slated to go into the red in 2013,” he points out. Moreover, the county is on the hook for future stadium maintenance enhancements that could add hundreds of millions in more costs by the time the Bengals lease expires in 2026.

Even a fan boycott probably wouldn’t make a difference, Portune adds. The owners make so much from NFL revenue -sharing that stadium seat sales are almost irrelevant, he says. “I’d hope they’d do the right thing by the community simply because it’s the right thing to do.”

Sports fans like Paul Daugherty insist that losing the team is not the answer. “You have to ask yourself: Is bad football better than no football? To this day, I still would have voted for it,” he says about the stadium tax. “I think professional sports in a smaller city is really important. I don’t have buyer’s remorse.”