Friday, March 24, 2006

And This One Belongs to the Reds...

A good author should provide some background on himself or herself, especially in an "autobiographical" sense. Given that provision, allow me to introduce this journal post by beginning in the beginning.

My love for the Cincinnati Reds goes back more than 20 years, with my earliest memories of the teams from the 1984-1985 seasons. I recall with great admiration when Peter Edward Rose, the "king" of Cincinnati baseball, broke the unbreakable record for all-time hits -- 4,192 -- that year. Of course, he would go on to establish the new record (likely unbreakable for some time) of 4,256 hits in his long career -- a career worthy of Hall of Fame induction. Regardless of your personal feelings on Mr. Rose's personal misgivings, his career accomplishments merit induction. However, I will digress on that subject.

My first vivid memories of Reds' baseball came during the 1987 season, when I attended my first professional MLB games at the now-demolished Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. That year was an incredible year for me to watch my "local" team play for the NL West crown versus a tough San Francisco Giants club. It is hard to believe that in 18 short years, the Reds now play in the NL Central versus a very different set of teams (like the Cubs and the Cardinals).

The star of that 1987 team, without a doubt, was Eric Davis, arguably the best all-around player of that year (comparing quite favorably versus Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, et. al.). Given Eric's performance and declining health due to injuries in subsequent years, the 1987 season was the pinnacle of his career. Other stars were just beginning to shine, such as Barry Larkin, while others were fading into the sunset, like Davey Concepcion. This was a transitional team made up of established players (Concepcion, Dave Parker, Tom Browning, while moving further away from the Big Red Machine era. The Pete Rose managerial era was, without a doubt, an interesting one.

The 1990 season, in my memorable lifetime, was the best as a Reds' fan. Unquestionably, the year stands out for many reasons, not the least of which was the last (through 2004) World Series Championship for Cincinnati. Less obviously, I was born at the apex of the Big Red Machine era (1976), so, given the history of more "seasoned" Reds' fans, I would not deny them that 1975 and 1976 were the best in Reds' history. However, the 1990 team did things that those teams did not. Most significantly, the Reds established themselves as the only National League team (along with the 1984 Detroit Tigers, managed by Sparky Anderson, in the American League) to win a Championship in wire-to-wire fashion (never dropping out of 1st place during the entire season). This team was undeniably special.

The starting rotation of 1990 was anchored by Jose Rijo and Danny Jackson, as well as additional starters Jack Armstrong, Scott Scudder, Rick Mahler, and a cast of thousands (a sign of things to come). The strength of this team was clearly the bullpen, with the "Nasty Boys" of Randy Myers, Rob Dibble, and Norm Charlton. This trifecta rarely gave up a lead when given one ... especially when sequenced in the 6th / 7th innings through the 9th from Charlton (LHP) to Dibble (RHP) to Myers (LHP). The lefty-righty-lefty sequence worked very well, and the manager of that club -- "Sweet" Lou Piniella -- was this fan's dream come true.

The 1989 season had been a debacle in so many ways. Pete Rose, as the manager of the team, was indicted on tax evasion and gambling charges -- leading to his subsequent banishment from MLB indefinitely by Bart Giamatti (a respected baseball man / historian). Giamatti descended in the line of MLB commissioners from the days of Kennesaw Mountain Landis and the 1919 Black Sox scandal to take a very hard stance of baseball's no-tolerance gambling policy. However, during this same time period, baseball had more than its' share of behind-the-scenes drug problems from major stars (such as Darryl Strawberry or Steve Howe) that seemed to be pushed aside. This does not even begin the consider the *likelihood* of steroid use / abuse starting to be present within the league during that same time period (e.g. Jose Canseco on the WS Champion Oakland Athletics that same year). The 1989 World Series was marked by tragedy -- as the Bay Series between Oakland and San Francisco was delayed by a disastrous earthquake that fall. Needless to say, MLB needed some *positive* news the following season to re-generate fan interest and involvement.

The 1990 Reds featured a very capable starting line-up. Eric Davis continued to anchor the outfield, along with established talent in Paul O'Neill and Billy Hatcher and "lesser" talents in Glenn Braggs, Rolando Roomes, and Herm Winningham. Arguably, team leadership had transitioned from Davis (almost exclusively) to the starting shortstop, Barry Larkin. Larkin was the field general, and this team's infield was rock-solid. Chris Sabo played the hot corner (third base), Mariano Duncan manned second, and Todd Benzinger / Hal Morris platooned at first. Todd Benzinger, Bill Doran, Ron Oester, et. al. were solid platoon / bench players who played multiple positions as needed.

Expectations for this team were NOT high. In fact, the 1989 Reds had been so bad that most "experts" felt the Reds would be a mid-pack team in the NL West. Not only were they wrong in that regard but also wrong against the slightly favored Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS (with Bonilla, Bonds, and Van Slyke in the outfield). Then, the World Series came, where the Reds should have "crumbled" against the heavily favored, defending Champion Oakland A's. It didn't happen ... as history shows us, it was a four-game sweep by the Reds with highlight performances by Eric Davis, Billy Hatcher, and WS MVP Jose Rijo (winner of 2 games in the series, including the finale). Although the series itself lacked much drama (the Reds crushed the A's in many ways), the David versus Goliath element of the lowly Reds versus the "dynasty" A's was compelling.

Not once in the intervening years from 1990 to present (2006) have I ever denied my passion and commitment as a fanatic of MY Cincinnati Reds. There have been good years (1995 and 1999 were notable) and multiple bad years (too many to mention). Through it all, this fan has remained loyal to the team (and it's many players) who have provided indelible memories for my lifetime.

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