(This is the third in a series of articles on historic pennant races involving the Cincinnati Reds in the modern era of baseball.)
There are a lot of great memories of 1999.
The Mayor. Greg Vaughn. A heated Division race and a close Wild Card race.
The 1999 Reds re-energized a dormant fan base, brought Riverfront Stadium back to life and was one of the best hitting teams in the history of the Cincinnati Reds. Ultimately, what doomed the ’99 Reds was the same thing that happened in 1956, 1965 and 1969 — not enough starting pitching.
1999 was the year Wayne Gretzky made his NHL debut, President Clinton was impeached (but not convicted) and the Euro made its debut. For Reds fans, it was an exciting summer.
Top 5 Movies of 1999 (according to me)
The Green Mile
Being John Malkovich
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
Best Sports Movie of 1979
Top 5 Albums of 1979 (according to me again)
Brand New Day (Sting)
Supernatural (Carlos Santana)
The Blues (Eric Clapton)
18 Tracks (Bruce Springsteen)
Live at Fillmore East (Jimi Hendrix)
Going into the Season
Expectations were not high for the 1999 season. The Reds were a less than mediocre 77-85 in 1998 and finished a whopping 25 games behind in fourth place. Cincinnati seemed to have a formidable bullpen but the starting pitching was full of question marks and, more specifically, journeymen. General Manager Jim Bowden looked to beef up the starters by acquiring Denny Neagle from the Braves (along with rightfielder Michael Tucker and pitcher Rob Bell) for Bret Boone and Mike Remlinger. Bowden also signed pitcher Steve Avery as a free agent. But then Bowden pulled off two major trades; he got Mike Cameron, a legitimate centerfielder, from the Chicago White Sox for Paul Konerko. The emergence of first baseman Sean Casey made Konerko expendable. Then, Bowden traded Reggie Sanders, Damian Jackson and Josh Harris to the Padres for Greg Vaughn and Mark Sweeney. Reds fans would forget about Sweeney; they would not forget Greg Vaughn.
The Almost Great Eight
The ’99 Reds were mashers. They scored the most runs (865) in their history for one season. They also had the highest slugging percentage (.451) in franchise history. The Reds hit 9 home runs in a 22-3 win September 4th over the Phillies. The Reds could also run, stealing 164 bases. They were an offensive juggernaut.
Several Reds — including Casey (.332, 25 HR, 99 RBI), Vaughn (.245, 46/118), catcher Eddie Taubensee (.311, 21/87), second baseman Pokey Reese and Cameron (.256, 21/66)– had career years. Future Hall of Famer and 1995 NL MVP Barry Larkin played a career high 161 games, batting .293 with 12 homers and 75 RBI’s.
Vaughn was the heart and soul of this 1999 team. He was the undisputed leader and an incredible locker room presence. A physically intimidating hitter at the plate (similar to new Reds Hall of Famer Dave Parker) Greg Vaughn was the catalyst of this baseball team.
Two races in one
The ’99 Reds were not only in a hotly contested Division race with the Houston Astros but in the wild card race as well with the New York Mets. Cincinnati started slow but built up momentum as the summer went on. They didn’t climb over the .500 mark until May 19 when they clobbered Colorado 24-12. Thanks to an 8 game winning streak and another one of 10 in a row, the Reds put themselves in contention and Reds fans bought in, crashing the gates. Casey and Larkin were the most popular players, Vaughn was Vaughn, Reese was a defensive guru at second base and Taubensee was Johnny Bench minus the arm. Still, his performance was the best by a Cincinnati catcher since Bench played the game.
Running out of gas
By the last two weeks of the season, the Reds bullpen, solid most of the year, started to show some wear and tear. The starters couldn’t go deep into games. Of the 5 starters, only one could have a legitimate shot at making the Cincinnati rotation in 2014 — Pete Harnisch. The others wouldn’t stand a chance. Harnisch (16-10, 3.68) was the #1 starter followed by Steve Parris (11-4), Neagle (9-5), Ron Villone (9-7) and Brett Tomko (7-8.). All five would be out of Cincy by the end of 2001. The bullpen was led by closer Danny Graves (8-7, 27 saves) Rookie of the Year Scott Williamson (12-7, 2.41) and durable rubber armed Scott Sullivan (5-4, 3.01).
The Milwaukee Series
With a 90-63 record, the Reds put on a final burst to try and catch Houston, who led virtually the entire season, winning 6 in a row, including a Harnich-pitched 4-1 win over the Astros. But in the next game at Houston, Parris lost just his third game of the season by a 4-1 score and the Reds finished the regular season with a three game series at Milwaukee. On a Friday night, Vaughn and Cameron homered and the Reds took a 3-1 lead behind Neagle after 6 innings. Williamson worked a scoreless 7th but gave up two runs to tie the game 3-3 in the 8th. Sullivan lost it in the 10th inning. That loss was a crusher. Pitcher Juan Guzman, a late trade acquisition by Bowden, was routed the next night in a 7-run third inning and the Brewers won that one 10-6. Harnisch bailed the Reds out with a 7-1 win in the final game of the regular season after a long rain delay. Houston also won that day, which prevented a three-way tie between the Reds, Mets and Astros.
The Reds hosted the Mets in a one-game playoff at Riverfront Stadium (the only one in it’s 32 year history). The walk-up crowd from the game was impressive (54,621) but the Reds weren’t. Parris was hit hard, knocked out in the third inning and the Reds looked like a tired team that was drained from the race. Al Leiter tossed a shutout and the Mets easily won 6-0. Leiter allowed just two hits in the game.
’99 was a special summer for Reds fans. It’s easy to remember that final series in Milwaukee, especially the Friday night game blown by the bullpen. But what really killed the Reds that year was their slow start (not going above .500 until after the sixth week of the season) and their starting pitchers. It was the biggest weakness for that team and wouldn’t improve for the next decade thanks to some bad draft choices and no trades. The Reds lost Vaughn to free agency; the slugger had two decent seasons for Tampa Bay, then injuries finished his career. Bowden traded for Ken Griffey Junior after the ’99 season but Manager Jack McKeon wondered out loud who was going to pitch for the Reds. He was right. Parris’ record in 2000 fell to 12-17 and his ERA ballooned to 4.81, The big pick up was Elmer Dessens (remember him?) who finished 11-5. The Cardinals finished 10 games ahead of the Reds in 2000.
This was the last hurrah for Riverfront Stadium (I refuse to call it Cinergy Field.) The 90s yielded the Nasty Boys and a World Series championship, another strike-shortened promising season (1994) a Division Title in 1995 that included a playoff sweep of the Dodgers and the ’99 Hit Men. But the last three years of Riverfront would be forgettable aside from Junior coming Home. The Stadium that started with Sparky Anderson and an NL pennant finished with Bob Boone and a third place team that finished 15 games behind the Cardinals.
John lives in Galesburg, Illinois and has been a Reds fan all of his life. He is a retired firefighter and a Veteran who served for 32 years but stays active at the local Humane Society. His favorite Reds players include Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Tony Perez, Eric Davis, and Bronson Arroyo. While writing, he frequently listens to the music of Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan. He is flanked in the photo by ever-loyal “Reptar.”