2013 is looking good so far.
Despite injuries to their #1 starter, starting leftfielder and cleanup hitter and catcher, the Reds are thick in the race for the Division as Memorial Day awaits. Their MVP is a Boy Named Choo, Votto is hitting like Votto and Bruce looks like he is in the beginning of one of his streaks. And you know that can’t be bad.
It was Bruce’s division-winning home run in 2010 that symbolized the end of the decade of mediocrity that had plagued the Reds since 2000. There’s been a few seasons of pain and anguish here at the Nation.
Everyone remembers ’75, ’76 and ’90. And 2010 and 2012. Those are easy. Those are the great ones.
Here are some that are also hard to forget. I omit 1994, the year of the strike, because that truly damaged all of baseball, not just us here at the Nation. I even have a Canadian friend here in Afghanistan that firmly believes the strike was meant to ensure the Montreal Expos would not win the championship that year. But the heartache and anger that I felt are listed in the five seasons listed below:
When Pete Rose made his return to the Reds as a player/manager in 1984, his first goal was to get the Reds out of last place. He did it. After last place finishes in 1982 and 1983, the Reds nudged up to 5th in 1984. Cincinnati then put together a string of second place finishes from 1985-1988. They were never strong enough to win, but they were competitive and some life came back to Riverfront Stadium. Better yet, young stars from the farm system—like Paul O’Neill, Chris Sabo, Eric Davis, and Barry Larkin— were playing in Cincinnati.
Eric Davis was the best player in baseball in 1987. Sabo was Rookie of the Year in 1988. Tom Browning and Danny Jackson gave the Reds two potent lefthanders in their rotation. Jackson was pitching so well in 1988 that he looked like he would be the first Reds pitcher ever to win the Cy Young award— until Orel Hershiser went on his shutout binge and broke Don Drysdale’s record for consecutive scoreless innings. Things were looking good for the Reds.
It all fell apart in 1989. The Reds finished with a 75-87 record, 17 games behind San Francisco and in 5th place. The team was torn apart by the Pete Rose betting scandal which ultimately led to Rose’s banishment from the game on August 24. Tommy Helms then took over as the Reds manager for the rest of the season. Injuries played a key role in the Reds horrible year as Larkin played just 97 games and Sabo was limited to 82. Davis had a solid year (34 home runs, 131 RBI’s) but the pitching staff wasn’t deep at all. Browning (15-12) and Rick Mahler (9-13) anchored the starting pitchers and John Franco had 32 saves for the Reds.
Thankfully, this year’s pain was diminished by the arrival of Manager Lou Piniella and The Nasty Boys in 1990.
From a won-loss standpoint, this season was good. But the terrible off season was nothing short of a disaster and it was orchestrated by Dick Wagner. Wagner was an assistant to former GM Bob Howsam. He was basically Howsam’s henchman and hit man and the worst GM the Reds have had in the last forty years.
Cincinnati finished with a 92-69 record and finished just 2 and ½ games behind the Dodgers. But it was the third time in five years the Reds had finished runner up to LA and Tommy Lasorda’s Bleed Dodger Blue teams. And after the season finished, the Reds jetted to Japan for a 14-game exhibition tour sanctioned by MLB which was probably the last thing manager Sparky Anderson and his team wanted to do. They went, they played and finished with a 12-1-1 record.
Shortly after their return is when Wagner shocked the baseball world and fired Sparky Anderson. Reds fans, understandably stunned and angry by this turn of events, then watched Pete Rose leave as a free agent to the Philadelphia Phillies. Rose was coming off a season in which he not only batted .302 and collected his 3000th hit, but had a 44-game hitting streak that challenged Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game record established 37 years before. The Streak had a bitter ending; the Reds lost to Atlanta 14-1 and the Braves closer, Gene Garber, struck out Rose to end the game. Garber nibbled at the strike zone, knowing a walk would end Rose’s streak. Rose, knowing this was his last chance to extend the streak, had to extend his strike zone.
Cincinnati’s offense tailed off in 1978. Rose and Dave Concepcion (.301) were the only .300 hitters in the lineup. George Foster led the team in homers (40) and RBI’s (120). Tom Seaver led the Reds in wins (16-14) and he was supported by Fred Norman (11-9) and newly acquired Bill Bonham (11-5). One of the highlights of the year was when Seaver no-hit the Cardinals June 16 in a 4-0 win— one day after Garber was acquired by the Braves from the Phillies.
Rock bottom. How else can you describe the 1982 season?
The Reds finished 61-101, the first triple digit loss in their history. It was their first last-place finish since 1937. Manager John McNamara was fired and replaced by Russ Nixon midway into the season. This recipe for disaster was set in motion when Wagner made a flurry of trades and none of them panned out. In the strike-shortened 1981 season, the Reds had the best record in baseball (overall) but missed the playoffs due to a bizarre split-season format.
Wagner traded third baseman Ray Knight to the Astros for Cesar Cedeno. A notorious Reds killer in the 1970s, Cedeno possessed a terrorizing combination of speed and power. He was a premier centerfielder that could dominate a game. Unfortunately Cedeno was past his prime when he arrived in Cincinnati for the 1982 season. The Reds inserted Cedeno in center and moved Johnny Bench to third base. That didn’t work out, either.
Wagner then traded Foster to the New York Mets for Jim Kern, Alex Trevino, and Greg Garrett. Kern was a relief pitcher who looked formidable with a beard and was 6’6” tall. When he reported to spring training, his had his cut off whiskers in a paper bag and gave them to McNamara. Little else was ever heard from him.
Trevino had the unenviable task of catching after Johnny Bench, the greatest catcher in Reds history. Trevino was one of the worst catchers in Reds history. Garrett was a journeyman starter and long reliever that was never a factor.
Wagner then traded Ken Griffey to the Yankees for pitcher Fred Toliver.
Wagner also counted heavily on young players from the Reds farm system in 1982. One of them was Paul Householder, a switch-hitting rightfielder that looked promising. That didn’t work out, either. Householder was the first of several hot prospects the Reds brought up—including Duane Walker, Gary Redus, Eddie Milner, and Nick Esasky. Redus and Esasky showed some signs of brilliance but neither worked out long term. Redus had blazing speed but fell in love with hitting home runs. Esasky had vertigo and was eventually traded to the Braves.
Mario Soto was one of the few bright spots that year. He won 14 game for a bad baseball team. Danny Driessen was the best power hitter the Reds could offer and he hit 17 home runs.
In 1999, the Reds finished with a 96-67 and made the playoffs a wild card team for the first time in their history. They were an immensely popular team in Cincinnati, with Sean Casey, Greg Vaughn, Barry Larkin, and Pete Harnisch.
And then they made the trade— they got Ken Griffey, Jr., from the Seattle Mariners.
Ninety-six wins and add Junior to the mix. I put a big dent in a 12-pack of Keystone Ice that night. But 2000 was disappointing. The Reds lost Vaughn to free agency; he was their clubhouse leader. The statistics he posted in ’99 and Junior did in 2000 were a wash; Vaughn hit 45 homers in ’99, Junior 40 in 2000. Both drove in 118 runs. But injuries and a weak pitching staff doomed the Reds and they finished with an 85-77 record, good for second place but 10 games behind St. Louis. Pitcher Steve Parris regressed from 11-4 in ’99 to 10-17 in 2000.
Harnisch was injured and finished with an 8-6 record. Scott Williamson (12-7, 19 saves) was a one-year wonder. The Reds #2 and #3 starters that year were Elmer Dessens and Ron Villone. Need to know anything else?
Coming off the heels of a 102-60 record and a World Series appearance, the Reds fell flat in 1971 with a 79-83 record. It came as a jolt to Reds fans and even Sparky Anderson. But the roots of failure for 1971 began late in 1970, extended to a basketball game in Frankfurt, Kentucky and escalated with long slumps by some key players.
The Reds started off 1970 with a 70-30 record. Their starting rotation consisted of Jim Merritt, Wayne Simpson, Jim McGlothlin, and Gary Nolan. Merritt would win 20 games that year, Simpson was hailed as the next Bob Gibson and Nolan would win 18 games. Only Nolan was healthy in October. Merritt and Simpson had arm injuries and McGlothlin suffered a knee injury. This and running into a team with a 14-game winning streak as the World Series started (Baltimore) finished the Reds season in five games.
Then, in January, centerfielder Bobby Tolan tore his Achilles tendon playing in a charity basketball game. He was lost for the year. Anderson initially moved Hal McRae to centerfield and kept Bernie Carbo in leftfield to cover Tolan’s loss. But Carbo regressed from his 1970 season and McRae was not a natural centerfielder. Johnny Bench slumped terribly that year and it would be two years until Dave Concepcion would have his breakout season at shortstop. Merritt finished the season 1-11 (he got his lone win in a relief appearance) and Simpson’s career was basically over although he hung on until 1974. Nolan actually pitched better in ’71 but won just 12 games due to a lack of run support.
The best thing about 1971 was that the final seeds were planted for the last stage in building the Big Red Machine. Young Don Gullett emerged as a starter and had a 16-6 record. The Big Bopper, Lee May, had a great season and this led to the trade that brought the Reds Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, and Jack Billingham from the Astros. And Bob Howsam gave Anderson a vote of confidence that was a true vote of confidence—at least until Wagner fired him after the 1978 season.
Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky’s Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve’s thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.