(This is the second in a series of articles on historic pennant races involving the Cincinnati Reds in the modern era of baseball.)
1979 was a year of transition for the Cincinnati Reds. It was the year of John McNamara, a baseball lifer journeyman who was forced upon Reds fans. It was the year of Frank Pastore, an unknown pitcher, who would start the most crucial game of the year in late September. 1979 was a year the Reds lost their starting leftfielder and rightfielder for 25% of the season. And it was their first year since 1970 without Sparky Anderson and the first without Pete Rose since 1963.
Strange days indeed. Gasoline went over a dollar a gallon. The “misery index” was created. The Carter Presidency was doomed. There was, as Carter himself said, a “crises of confidence.”
There wasn’t a lot of confidence on Opening Day of 1979 at Riverfront Stadium. That’s for sure.
Top 5 Movies of 1979 (according to me)
The Great Santini
Escape from Alcatraz
Best Sports Movie of 1979
Top 5 Albums of 1979 (according to me again)
The Wall (Pink Floyd)
In Through the Outdoor (Led Zeppelin)
Breakfast in America (Supertramp)
Damn the Torpedoes (Tom Petty)
Rust Never Sleeps (Neil Young)
Johnny Bench became the all-time leading home runs leader for catchers in baseball history
Going into the Season
To many Reds fans, the off season after 1978 was a disaster. Reds General Manager Dick Wagner fired Sparky Anderson, ostensibly for finishing second to the Dodgers again. The Reds were 92-69 in 1978, finishing second to the Dodgers for consecutive seasons. Worse, Pete Rose signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies. Wagner also dismissed most of Anderson’s coaches. The new manager was John McNamara, the new third baseman Ray Knight and a new leadoff would have to emerge from somewhere. McNamara tabbed Griffey for that role in spring training. Experts picked the Reds to finish third or fourth. Things didn’t look too good.
The new Reds skipper was a low key guy. He never had a history of shaking things up when he managed the A’s and Padres before and he didn’t make bold moves in Cincinnati, either. The Reds suffered three key injuries in 1979 to make matters worse; Griffey (the Opening Day leadoff hitter) suffered a season-ending knee injury in June, George Foster aggravated a muscle pull in the All-Star Game and missed 40 games and #2 starter Bill Bonham was ineffective down the stretch with a forearm problem. McNamara inserted Dave Collins as a starting outfielder and also put him in the leadoff spot; both moves paid off. Knight was a pleasant surprise, batting over .300 and becoming the Reds MVP that year. Wagner signed former Oriole outfielder Paul Blair as a free agent (that move didn’t pan out) and then he traded Pedro Borbon to San Francisco for outfielder Hector Cruz (that one was a bit better.)
The career paths of Joe Morgan and Dave Concepcion started spiraling in different directions. In Morgan’s final season with Cincinnati he batted just .250 with 9 home runs and 30 RBI’s. Wagner seemed to think that career utilityman Junior Kennedy could take over Morgan’s second base position. Reds fans weren’t buying that. Concepcion was the best shortstop in baseball during the 1979 season. He batted .281, hit a career high 16 homers and drove in 84 RBI’s while winning another Gold Glove. With Griffey out and Morgan limited to just 132 games, the Reds offense was built around 5 players — Foster, Concepcion, Knight, Johnny Bench and Dan Driessen, all of whom knocked in at least 75 runs. Collins gave them speed at the leadoff position (.318) and Cruz became a reliable fourth outfielder.
In the Reds Opening Day 11-5 loss to San Francisco, about the only good thing was three shutout innings pitched by a guy named Frank Pastore. The righthander pitched well in spring training (allowing just six hits in 15 innings of work) and kept it up in April (four saves and a win) but was shelled in May and sent back to Triple A. With Bonham out, the Reds called Pastore back and he and Tom Seaver (16-6, 3.14) were the Reds best hurlers down the stretch. Mike LaCoss started off with an 8-0 record but it was very deceiving; The tall lanky righthander skidded back to earth and finished 14-8. Fred Norman was 11-12 and Bonham 9-7 that season. Tom Hume (17 saves) and Doug Bair (18) were the best relievers in 1979 for McNamara.
A New Rival
The two-time defending NL champion Dodgers were never really in the race. They finished in third place with a record of 79-83. The NL West came down to the Reds and Houston Astros. The Reds took the lead in August and had a 2 1/2 game lead going into Houston for a crucial three-game series in the Astrodome on September 23. Seaver and JR Richard locked into a duel that ended with the Astros winning 3-2 in 13 innings. Richard pitched 11 innings (striking out 15 Reds) and Seaver went 9. Joe Niekro won his twentieth game the next night as Houston beat the Reds and LaCoss 4-1 to pull within a half game. It was Frank Pastore who won the biggest game of the year the next night, throwing a complete game 7-1 victory. It stopped the bleeding and the Reds led by 1 1/2 games with a week to go. Five days later, Pastore threw a four-hit shutout against Atlanta that clinched the Division title.
After holding off the Astros, the Reds played an old nemesis, the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the playoffs. This was the “We Are Family” Pirates, led by Willie Stargell and Dave Parker. The first two games were at Riverfront Stadium and the Reds lost each in extra innings. Seaver and Pastore pitched well but Hume and Bair gave up home runs in extra innings and the Pirates took a 2-0 lead. LaCoss was hit hard in Game 3, and the Pirates won easily 7-1. It was the first time ever the Reds had been swept in an NL playoff Series.
In mid-October of 1979, I stopped by Northgate Lanes, a bowling alley in Galesburg, Illinois for a beer. At the bar that night, I saw a well dressed older guy with a distinctive hawk nose. It was John McNamara. What, I asked myself, is John McNamara doing here in Galesburg, 370 miles west up Interstate 74 from Cincinnati?
After downing a beer, I went over to McNamara who was having a cup of coffee and unbothered by anyone. “Excuse me, but aren’t you John McNamara, the manager of the Reds?” I asked. “I sure am,” replied McNamara extending his right hand out for a handshake. Despite what was a disappointing performance in the playoffs, McNamara was glad to talk baseball. We did for over an hour. We talked about the centerfield situation, second base and Frank Pastore, of course. He enjoyed our conversation, and I certainly did. I didn’t bother him for an autograph or a picture; we just talked about the Reds. No one bothered us because no one around here recognized him. It turns out he was on his way to Rock Island (about 40 miles from here) to visit relatives enroute to California.
And how ironic is this? Seven years later when McNamara’s Boston Red Sox were one strike away from a World Series victory over the Mets in Game 6, I was at the same bar. I was rooting for Boston because (1) I like McNamara and (2) I hate the Mets. That’s when the ball went between Bill Buckner’s legs, the Mets won Game 6 and won again the next night.
If you just look at win-loss records, the Reds were slightly worse in 1979 (90-71) than they were in 1978 (92-69.). And that’s what led to Dick Wagner being one of the most hated men in Cincinnati history after he fired Sparky Anderson. Wagner gambled — and was right — that Knight could replace Rose at third base. Collins filled in well for Griffey.
1979 was the end of the Reds most successful decade — ever. There hasn’t been one like it since, not even close. In a way, 1979 was a fitting close of the ’70s; another Division title, another season of two million-plus fans in attendance at Riverfront Stadium and Wagner’s solutions fit at that time; Knight for Rose, Mac for Sparky, Hume and Bair for Eastwick and McEnaney.
But the Reds farm system was starting to dry up. Wagner gambled on players like Paul Householder, Eddie Milner, Gary Redus and Nick Esasky later and came up empty. Within three years, Foster and Griffey were gone. Bench was a third baseman. Knight was traded. The Reds finished in last place in 1982.
Pastore flamed out as well. The 21-year old had a solid season in 1980 (14-7) but that was his high water mark. After his career ended in 1986, Pastore, a former atheist, became the host of a Christian talk radio show in Los Angeles. He died, tragically, in a motorcycle accident on December 17, 2012.
Still, to this day, mention 1979 and I think of Frank Pastore and the way he pitched during the stretch run.
Next up: 1999