This time of year the excitement is usually building for the impending Cincinnati Reds season. Pitchers and catchers are reporting, the Grand Marshal is being announced for the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade, and spring is on the way. However, I think it’s safe to say that this year feels a bit different. These days it seems to be all about the glory days when it comes to the Cincinnati Reds. Marketing a former player’s bobblehead day or a celebration of a past world series puts butts in seats for the Reds, and it was what the Cincinnati Kids hoped would put butts in seats in 1978.
No, we’re not talking about the Kings Island-themed episode of the Brady Bunch titled “The Cincinnati Kids”. We’re talking about the Cincinnati Kids of the Major Indoor Soccer League owned in part by Reds legend Pete Rose. “The Cincinnati Kids?” – you might be wondering. “I’ve never heard of them?”. That’s because the story of their short-lived existence is all too tragic. It is a story that we’ve seen play out many times as Cincinnati sports fans and here’s just how it unfolded.
The Cincinnati Kids were officially unveiled on Thursday, October 5, 1978 at the Maisonette in front of a modest crowd. One of the six inaugural teams of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL), they joined the ranks of the Cleveland Force, Pittsburgh Spirit, Philadelphia Fever, Houston Summit, and New York Arrows in the campaign. Kids part-owner Barry Mendelson excited fans over the prospect of the newly created sport of indoor soccer and announced that games would be played at the Riverfront Coliseum. A month later the first advertisement for the Kids would appear in the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The KIDS Are Coming!”, it announced. Season tickets could be purchased for $72 with single game tickets going for only $2.50. “A true inflation buster”, for those interested.
As the season grew closer and closer Mendelson continued to market the team as Pete Rose’s soccer team, the original Cincinnati Kid. Rose himself had this to say of the project, “If it’s good for Cincinnati, I want it. It’s exciting, isn’t it? I watch the German soccer games on Saturday nights, and our game’s going to be more exciting, more scoring.” Rose would then go on to explain how with 50,000 youth soccer players in the area the game should practically sell itself. Then came the beginning of the end for the Kids. Two days after Rose’s interview on the Kids ran in the Enquirer, he signed a record deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. This deal would be announced as the Kids were trying to build excitement and boost sales with the inaugural game only two weeks away. Rose assured the public that this would not affect his ability to manage the Kids. Time would tell if this would be true.
The Monday that followed Rose’s departure to Philadelphia, he arrived in person to watch the first practice for the Cincinnati Kids. The practice became a press conference of sorts as reporters, unconcerned with the soccer team, hounded Rose for comments about his move to the city of brotherly love. Rose, ever the showman, continued to deflect and explain that he was here to “watch the cats on the field”, not answer questions about his baseball future. Nevertheless, a date was set for the home opener for the Cincinnati Kids: December 27. Against who else than the Philadelphia Fever. It was poetic in a convoluted Cincinnati sports kind of way. When asked if he would be in attendance Rose responded that he would be dishing out the “first kick” for the game.
Behind the scenes, the Cincinnati Kids continued to add players to their roster. On December 6th more than 65 local soccer players came out to Riverfront Coliseum to try out for the newly formed team. In attendance was none other than the elusive mastermind of the recently defunct Cincinnati Comets, Nick Capurro. Offices went up in Carew tower for the Kids and a press conference was scheduled to announce Kids head coach Len Bilous. Yet, come the day of the press conference, the drama of the Reds would once again steal the limelight from the Kids. As Mendelson was preparing to take the stage to announce the coaching hire a coaching fire across town was made public. Longtime manager of the Reds Sparky Anderson had been fired after leading the Reds to a 92-69 record the previous year. The Kids would once again have to wait for their big moment to arrive.
Eventually, the opener would be announced: December 22nd against the New York Arrows. The game would be played at the Arrow’s home stadium, the Nassau County Coliseum, meaning the Kids would open on the road. With Mendelson’s lead marketing chip moving to another city and his positive press being spoiled, he knew he had to act fast to ensure the Kids could still succeed in Cincinnati. Thus he made one of the oddest and most lopsided trades in Cincinnati sporting history. The Kids GM had an interest in New York Arrows player Mario Garcia. A trade would be initiated between the two teams and in return, the Kids would offer none other than Pete Rose. In return for Garcia, the Kids would send Rose to New York to do an inaugural “first kick” prior to the one that would follow for the Kids’ home opener against Philadelphia.
The deal was done and Rose flew to the Nassau County Coliseum on his private jet to complete the kick on December 22nd. The night did not go as planned for the Kids who lost to the Arrows 7-2. After the game Rose was asked for his thoughts on the newly formed game of indoor soccer by reporters. He answered that he had never played and, in true Pete Rose fashion, claimed that if he did play, he would be a goalie because “that’s the position that makes the most money.” He would go on to applaud the style of the game claiming, “It’s nothing like outdoor soccer. That would be like comparing college basketball and the pros. Outdoor soccer is all defense. 1This is all offense. People like high-scoring games.” Rose ended the interview by explaining that he wasn’t in it for the money. Instead, he was just a fan like everyone else. In fact, he claimed he might be the biggest sports fan in America. These were interesting words from a player who had recently chosen to chase the money to Philadelphia and who was known for marketing himself to the extreme.
The Kids would have a chance at redemption on December 27th when they would take on the Philadelphia Fever at Riverfront Coliseum in their home opener. Once again Pete Rose would be in attendance and once against he would offer up the first kick. However, this first kick would be a rather unconventional one as Rose kicked the ball from midfield up into the stands, not at the net. The Kids would win the night topping the Fever 6-5. For Rose, the Kids’ victory wasn’t the only win on the night. Rose would join the Philadelphia television booth to promote his upcoming season with the Phillies, endearing himself to his new city.
The rest of the season went quite well for the Kids. They would finish 16-8 and solidly in third place. In playoff play, they would be knocked out by the New York Arrows in the semi-final round, booking their season with defeats at the hands of the Arrows. All in all, the Kids season was a success. The team averaged 3,191 fans per game, placing them fourth in the league in that category. Yet, despite these positive signs, the team folded after one season. Mendelson and the other part-owners never offered an answer to the cancellation. Rose would go on to log a .331 batting average in his first season in Philadelphia before returning to Cincinnati as a player-manager in 1985.
So why did the Kids fold after one season? Perhaps it was the Sunday afternoon game time, making it hard for Riverfront Coliseum workers to change the stage from the hockey ice of the Stingers to the astroturf of the Kids. Perhaps it was the money. Mendelson and Rose both alluded to the fact that they would not make money for a long time with this venture, yet insisted they were just fans wanting to promote the sport. Maybe the reality of the financial situation finally hit them? Finally, perhaps it was the loss of local-legend Pete Rose. The story that the Cincinnati sports fan has seen play out too many times. The great player leaves the city for greener pastures. While Rose would eventually return to Cincinnati, his time in Philadelphia continues to this day to be plagued by scandals and allegations. With the main marketing chip leaving right at the beginning, the Kids were doomed to fail no matter how they played. They were a lame duck waiting to fold. Despite only existing for one season, the value that the Kids played in the evolution of soccer in Cincinnati and the United States can not be understated. Like it or not, we owe a debt of gratitude to America’s self-proclaimed biggest sporting fan Pete Rose and the rest of the owners of the Cincinnati Kids. Without them, we may not be where we are today. Here’s to hoping Pete Rose might still suit up between the pipes one day to display his goalkeeping prowess.