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Everyone Underestimated The 1990 Wire-to-Wire Reds, Except The Reds

May 3, 2019

At first glance, the 1990 Cincinnati Reds looked like a brash, young team with tons of talent but no chance to make the post-season, much less win the World Series.

"Nobody picked that team to do anything,'' said Marty Brennaman, the Hall of Fame broadcaster who will retire at the end of the year after 46 years in the radio booth.

If you happen to run into Marty, ask him the question that I did when he was on WVXU's Cincinnati Edition during spring training: Of all the Reds teams you have traveled with and broadcast over the years, which is your favorite?

Some might expect him to say The Big Red Machine, one of the greatest teams in the history of baseball, a team chock full of future Hall of Famers that enabled a young broadcaster named Brennaman to collect two World Series championship rings in his first three years behind the mic at Riverfront Stadium.

If you assume that, you would be wrong. He will, without hesitation, without qualification, tell you that the 1990 Reds team was unforgettable.

"I don't know that I've ever enjoyed a season more than I have enjoyed that one,'' Brennaman said.

A labor dispute and a lock-out by team owners meant the season opened a few weeks later than usual. And it also broke the Reds' long-standing tradition of opening the season at home. They ended up starting the season on the road.

It followed a 1989 that was full of turmoil because of Major League Baseball's investigation of Reds manager Pete Rose, who was ultimately banned from baseball.

Out of that chaos came the hiring of an experienced manager in Lou Pinella, probably the most fiery manager in the history of the Reds, who came into the Reds spring training camp in Plant City, Fla., making it clear to every man in uniform that he did not come to see the Reds lose.

"They had a bombastic, I-wear-my-emotions-on-my-sleeve manager in his first year with the Reds and one of my all-time favorites, Lou Pinella,'' Brennaman said. "And he had the greatest coaching staff that I've ever been around that put on a Reds uniform."

Cincinnati Reds manager Lou Pinella in the dugout in the decisive eighth inning of the National League Championship Series fifth game in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 1990.
Credit Rusty Kennedy / AP

They opened on the road, in Houston's Astrodome. In the 11th inning, future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin tripled with the bases loaded.

"It gave the Reds the win and they never lost it,'' Brennaman said.

And that is why, to this day, the 1990 club was known as the "Wire-to-Wire" team, who led their National League Western Division from the beginning to the end of the regular season, handled the Pittsburgh Pirates in in the National League Championship season, and, amazingly, swept the World Series in four games against the heavily favored Oakland Athletics.

They were the first National League team in the era of 162-game series to go wire-to-wire. The Detroit Tigers – managed by Sparky Anderson, the beloved one-time manager of the Big Red Machine – did it in the American League in their 1984 World Championship season.

It was not all smooth sailing.

The team was 41-42 in the second half of the season, but managed to hang on to the division lead.

A young starting pitcher, Jack Armstrong, spent the early part of the season shaking up hitters throughout the National League and making them look silly at the plate. He was 11-3 through the All Star break, which earned the kid the start in the 1990 All Star game. But, after the break, Armstrong didn't live up to his name, slipping to a 1-6 record.

Armstrong had plenty of company from his team on the 1990 National League team at Chicago's Wrigley Field – Larkin, third baseman Chris Sabo, and relievers Rob Dibble and Randy Myers (two-thirds of the legendary trio of relievers called The Nasty Boys).

Ken Griffey Sr., of the Big Red Machine, was part of the 1990 team for most of the season, but was released in late 1990 because he wasn't producing at the plate, hitting just .206 in 46 games. But the Seattle Mariners picked him up, where one of his teammates was his son, Ken Griffey Jr., who had made his MLB debut the year before at the age of 19.

When the Reds won the World Series, Griffey Sr.'s former teammates made sure he got a World Series ring.

Throughout that season, Brennaman said the thing that impressed him the most was how tight a group they were.

"It was a team that had the greatest chemistry in terms of everybody had everybody's back,'' Brennaman said. "I don't care if you were white, African-American, Hispanic, whatever the case, it made no difference.

"There were no cliques on that club,'' Brennaman said. "Everybody genuinely loved each other."

That was never more evident than when the entire team, out of uniform, went into a recording studio and recorded a rap song, "Reds Hot," that became the theme song of the post-season.

The NL Eastern Division was won that year by a powerful Pittsburgh Pirate team that was considered the favorite in its match-up with the Reds. The Pirates had some true superstars in Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and pitcher Doug Drabek.

The Reds knocked them off in six games.

The most unforgettable moment of that series was in Game 6 when, with the Reds leading 2-1, the Pirates' Carmelo Martinez drilled a ball to right field that looked like it was heading over the wall. But big Glenn Braggs leaped up the wall and snatched it back from becoming a sure home run – one that might have changed the whole result of the NLCS.

The World Series against Oakland, which most baseball people believed was in the process of building a dynasty, started with the first two games in Cincinnati, preceded by a pep rally that drew 70,000 people to Fountain Square.

Riverfront Stadium was jammed with 55,830 fans in the first inning of Game 1 when the powerful Reds outfielder, Eric Davis, one of the leaders of the team, hammered a home run into the left field seats in the first inning.

It set the tone for a surprising Reds 7-0 shutout.

Game 2, also in Riverfront, was a classic. Tied at 4-4 in the top of the 10th, catcher Joe Oliver chopped a base hit over the head of A's third baseman Carney Lansford and Billy Bates – a little-used and little-remembered utility player who was blessed with speed – scored the winning run. 

The series moved to Oakland for games 3 and 4. The Reds won Game 3 handily with lefty Tom Browning picking up the win.

In Game 4, despite losing both Eric Davis and Billy Hatcher to injuries, the Reds hung on for a 2-1 victory and a wild celebration on the field.

Pitcher Jose Rijo had won both games 1 and 4 and was named the World Series MVP.

"I'll never forget in the clubhouse after the fourth win in Oakland and Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan were there,'' Brennaman said.

"Joe, who lives in that area says to me, 'You know the amazing thing about all this?' I said, 'What?' He said that Oakland would play this team right here every day from now until Christmas and they could never win a seven-game series.

"He said it was because the Reds had a bunch of guys who could throw exceptionally hard and he said Oakland simply couldn't handle it."

Brennaman said it still stirs his emotions when he sees that team come together for a reunion.

"It just does something to me emotionally,'' he said. "I just thought it was a very special team who came together, led by a Hall of Famer in Barry Larkin, like Eric Davis. It was just a special year for me."

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

 Read more "Cincinnati Reds At 150" here.