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WITH HELP ON THE WAY, DISINTEGRATING REDS AREN'T DUNN

Certainly the New York Mets and Texas Rangers are near the top of everybody's lists for the season's biggest disappointments. Same for the Chicago White Sox and Oakland A's, who are making desperate charges from horrendous starts to try to dispel the notion that they were one-year wonders.

But where's the game's biggest circus? Cincinnati. And just think: Marge Schott isn't around to blame. Baseball's oldest franchise might challenge its 1982 version for the worst record in its century-plus history (61-101).

What the Reds have endured this season is downright comical. Add a 9-26 home record to all the sideshows and fans at Cinergy Field have been surly most of the season.

Players openly snipe at General Manager Jim Bowden. The team doctor and Bowden had a public blowout this month after Bowden said Ken Griffey Jr.'s spring training hamstring injury was misdiagnosed. Bowden then backtracked from those comments. Another low point came this week when coaches Tim Foli and Ron Oester got into a fight in the coaches office while arguing over whose strategy was working the best.

Oester, the former Cincinnati infielder, remains bitter that he's not the team's manager. He felt the Reds were negotiating with him to replace Jack McKeon last winter when they suddenly turned and hired Bob Boone.

Things got even dicier when longtime broadcaster Joe Nuxhall ripped longtime shortstop Barry Larkin on the air last Saturday night in Houston after Astros infielder Julio Lugo beat out an infield grounder to Larkin.

"I hate to say it. Barry is losing it, folks," Nuxhall told listeners. "It hurts to say that, but Barry Larkin makes that play anytime. Not anymore."

Larkin, battling a strained groin all year, wasn't amused.

"The gist of it, and you can write it, is I don't give a bleep what people say," Larkin told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "I'm doing what I can."

Pokey Reese and Dmitri Young both appear to be on the trading block. When pitcher Rob Bell was dealt last week, Young said he was the "luckiest man in the clubhouse" for getting out of town.

Two years ago, the Reds won 96 games and were a one-game playoff loss to the Mets away from making the postseason. But their deep bench has been traded away and injuries to Griffey and several pitchers ruined their season.

The Reds have been banking on their 2003 move to a new stadium, to be known as Great American Ball Park, as a panacea for their ills. They'd like to lock up first baseman Sean Casey to a long-term deal but negotiations have not been going well.

At least there's hope on the farm. Buffalo fans who watched the Herd's series against Louisville had to be impressed with 21-year-old RiverBats outfielder Adam Dunn, by far the best young prospect in the International League. Through Thursday, Dunn was batting .344 with 16 homers and 44 RBIs in 36 Triple-A games.

A couple of weeks ago, Bowden said he was close to calling up the 6-foot-6 Dunn, a former University of Texas quarterback who had not been above Class A ball until this year. He's since backed off that stance, but the prospect is likely to see Cincinnati this summer. That's long before his ETA aside Griffey in left field in 2003.

"I've played with good hitters and managed a lot of good hitters but you just look at the numbers and go, 'Wow,' " said Louisville manager Dave Miley. "We're still in June. It's to the point where you run out of adjectives when you see a guy like this on a daily basis. He believes in himself. He's hitting left-handers, right-handers, young Triple-A pitchers, big-league pitchers down in Triple-A, everybody."

Dunn and several other prospects at Louisville and Double-A Chattanooga give the Reds hope for the future. Hope that the opening of their new ballpark won't be the on-field bust it's been for the Tigers and Pirates.

But while the future may be brighter, it's the dark present the Reds and their fans must endure.

"When you go through a tough stretch like we did during the month of May (6-22) and the first weeks of June, that's tough to take, especially when you have a lot of pride," John Allen, the Reds' chief operating officer, told the Enquirer. "You don't like to see some of the frustrations that come out, but, by the same token, it shows that they care."

Herd it through the grapevine

Don't figure on seeing Deion Sanders come to Buffalo with the Syracuse SkyChiefs. Syracuse doesn't hit town until a four-game series Aug. 2-5. By then, Sanders will likely have given up on baseball and reported to some NFL training camp. . . . Long-time observers were stunned by the crispness of the Bisons' 11-7, 12-inning loss to Louisville on Sunday, a game that took just 2 hours, 57 minutes to complete. In fact, had Buffalo held its 7-6 lead in the ninth, the game would have been completed in under two hours. Thumbs up to quick-working pitchers and hitters, as well as umpires with fair strike zones. There's something to be said for umpires with fair strike zones. . . . The Bisons' ticket sales are quickly improving on weekends (11,181 sold over the last six dates on Friday, Saturday or Sunday). But the team is taking a hit on Thursday because of the huge crowds drawn to the concerts at Lafayette Square. Average for the last two Wednesday business person's specials: 8,336. Average for the two Thursdays immediately after them: 6,603. . . . Sean McNally was second on the Bisons in home runs and RBIs but was sent to Double-A Akron on June 9 because he was leading the IL with 71 strikeouts. Two days later, the Cleveland Indians gave up on McNally, trading him to Arizona for a player to be named later. He's batting .260 with no homers at Triple-A Tucson.

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