It was a team of upcoming players; young talent in the infield and on the pitching staff, mixed with stable battle-tested veterans known for their leadership. It was team built on power in the outfield and in the infield with a corner infielder MVP candidate; a team with just enough speed to keep the opposition honest.
This upstart team was entering the playoffs playing a veteran juggernaut of it’s era. The veteran team was full of all-stars with a power-packed first baseman, a slugging OBP-minded second baseman, a slick fielding shortstop, and a versatile third baseman capable of high batting averages. The outfield had power and speed with a centerfielder that could cover lots of ground. The pitching staff was relatively young, but still veteran in nature with lots of choices in the bullpen.
Do the teams sound familiar? These teams could be the 2010 Reds and Phillies, but they’re not. I’m talking about the 1976 Reds and Phillies.
The 1976 Reds were THE BIG RED MACHINE, one of the greatest dynasties in baseball lore. The best team of the 1970’s in Major League Baseball’s toughest league and the toughest division at the time. Four times did the Reds face the Pittsburgh Pirates in the League Championship Series, but one time, in 1976, they faced the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of 101 games themselves, one fewer than the 1976 Big Red Machine. And, the Phillies themselves had won seven of twelve games that season from the Reds, the only team to have a winning record against the 1976 BRM.
The 1976 Cincinnati Reds
The Reds had Hall of Famers Johnny Bench at catcher, Tony Perez at 1b, and Joe Morgan at 2b. They had potential future Hall of Famers at shortstop (Dave Concepcion) and third base (Pete Rose). They had possibly the most feared slugger of the mid-1970s in left field (George Foster), perpetual Gold Glover in Cesar Geronimo in center field, and an all-star OBP, high average hitter Ken Griffey in right field. The Reds starting pitching staff was never as bad as the popular view was at the time, or at least manager Sparky Anderson knew how to handle them. Fred Norman and Jack Billingham were wily veterans, Gary Nolan had already re-invented himself into a Cy Young type pitcher twice if not three times, Pat Zachry was Rookie of the Year, rookie Santo Alcala won 11 games, and everyone thought that young Don Gullett was headed to the Hall of Fame. The bullpen led by Pedro Borbon and youngsters Rawly Eastwick, Will McEnaney, and Manny Sarmiento may have been the best in baseball. While everyone remembers their hitting (120 OPS+), even their pitching staff was dead on league average (ERA+ 100).
The 1976 Philadelphia Phillies:
The Phillies may have only one positional Hall of Famer in third baseman Mike Schmidt (in addition to starting pitcher Steve Carlton), but they did have players whom were definite borderline HOFers in first baseman Dick Allen and starting pitcher Jim Kaat. Bob Boone was one of the better catchers in the league, second baseman Dave Cash had become an offensive-minded all-star, Larry Bowa had an ongoing rivalry with Dave Concepcion as the best shortstop in the NL at the time. Greg Luzinski was a big time slugger, Garry Maddox was one of the great flychasers of the 1970’s, and Jay Johnstone played twenty seasons as an offensive-minded right fielder. The Phillies pitching staff featured Carlton, Kaat, former Bosox World Series hero and ace Jim Lonborg, and a couple of young aces in Larry Christenson and Tom Underwood. Their bullpen was also ably manned with Gene Garber, Tug McGraw, Wayne Twitchell, and closer Ron Reed. There was a reason the Phillies won 101 games and it was talent.
2010 Cincinnati Reds vs. 1976 Philadelphia Phillies
This year’s 2010 Reds are comparable to the Phillies at the time. Switch the roles of the corner infielders of the two clubs: Match the Reds’ Joey Votto with the Phillies’ Mike Schmidt who, like Votto, was 26 at the time. Scott Rolen was the veteran performer that Allen was for the Phillies, only Rolen most certainly more known for his work ethic than the often misunderstood Allen. Orlando Cabrera and Bowa are similar offensive types at shortstop (handle anything they can reach); Brandon Phillips and Dave Cash are both good offensive second baseman, but Phillips has more power and a better fielding touch. As far as catching goes, Ryan Hanigan/Ramon Hernandez reminds me a bit of the Phillies Bob Boone/Tim McCarver duo in that Carlton only pitched to McCarver and both sets of catchers are better than average hitting catchers.
In the outfield, Jonny Gomes and Luzinski were both known for power and not their gloves, but Luzinski was a much better hitter. Drew Stubbs is beginning to earn his reputation as a topflight flychaser and has far more power than Maddox, but Maddox was a high OBP type, a skill Stubbs has not mastered. Right field is different, the Reds are using young stud Jay Bruce, while the Phillies were hoping that Johnstone could keep collecting as many hits as he did laughs in the clubhouse.
From the pitching standpoint, the 1976 Phillies, like the 2010 Reds, are a mix of youth and veterans. Now, I’m not going to say that anyone on the Reds matches up with Steve Carlton, but Carlton, Kaat, and Lonborg were experienced veterans who had been through the wars much like Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang. Yes, I know that Harang is not the Harang of a few years back, but the 2010 Reds have more young quality starters than the 1976 Phillies. The ’76 Phillies were grooming Larry Christenson and lefty Tom Underwood and they had stepped up to the plate. Meanwhile, the Reds have developed Johnny Cueto, Travis Wood, Mike Leake, and Homer Bailey to go along with the acquired young arm of Edinson Volquez to make pitching a surprising strength for a team known for its hitting. Reds’ lefty Arthur Rhodes is the Phillies’ Tug McGraw; Nick Masset is the Phillies’ Gene Garber, and veteran Francisco Cordero would be the Phillies Ron Reed. Wayne Twitchell would probably be the closest match to the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman.
2010 Philadelphia Phillies vs. 1976 Cincinnati Reds
On the flipside, the current Phillies are overmatched at catcher in career comparisons to Johnny Bench, but 1976 was one of Bench’s least productive offensive seasons and Carlos Ruiz is a good hitting catcher. Ryan Howard and Tony Perez were both top rbi men, Chase Utley and Joe Morgan were two of the best second basemen of their time, Jimmy Rollins and Dave Concepcion were two of the better hitting shortstops of their time and they could both field. At third base, Pete Rose and Placido Polanco represent hitters with high batting averages, veteran leadership, and two guys playing out of position for the good of their teams. Raul Ibanez was signed for his powerful bat, though age has diminished the comparison to George Foster. Shane Victorino has become the Gold Glove centerfielder to compare with Geronimo. Jayson Werth is a power hitter while Griffey was a speed player, but both are offensive minded outfielders whose skills are indicative of the types of offenses preferred by their respective playing eras.
Now, look at the pitching staffs. The Phillies were anchored by a tremendous starting front three of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels. Gary Nolan was one of the best pitchers in the game when healthy, Don Gullett was still only 25, while Hamels is 26. Pat Zachry (14-7, 2.74 ERA as a rookie) offered promise, but Fred Norman and Jack Billingham typically came up big in big games. It’s not the same, no, but the difference isn’t as great as it may seem. Plus, the Reds had their stupendous bullpen. The 2010 Phillies have a veteran bullpen, but Brad Lidge still makes many people squirm when he’s on the mound but few relief corps have had the same impact as the Reds’ bullpen of the 1970’s.
The similarities are really quite striking.
1976 National League Divisional Championship in Review
While the Reds swept the 1976 Phillies in three games, the Phillies were on their way up the mountain while the mid-70’s Reds had plateaued. After 1976, the Phillies won 101, 90, 84, 91, 59 (strike-shortened .551 winning percent), 89, and 90 games through 1983, finally playing in, but losing in the 1983 World Series to the Baltimore Orioles. The young ’76 Phillies grew into quite a ballclub. So will the 2010 Reds.
Reviewing the three games that made up the 1976 League Divisional Series, the Reds dominated the first two games before winning the Series in a dramatic Game Three.
The Phillies scored the first run of the playoffs on a Mike Schmidt sacrifice fly in the bottom of the first inning. The Reds tied in the third when Pete Rose scored on a Tony Perez sacrifice fly. The Reds took control in the sixth when Johnny Bench homered and winning pitcher Don Gullett singled home a run to give the Reds a 3-1 lead. The Reds made it in 6-1 in the sixth inning when Gullett doubled with two on and then Rose doubled home Gullett. The Phillies scored twice in the ninth off Eastwick to finalize the score at 6-3.
The Phillies scored the first two runs of the second game on a second inning run-scoring single by Bob Boone and a home run by Greg Luzinski in the fourth inning. The Phillies’ Jim Lonborg held the Reds hitless through the first five innings. The Reds then scored four runs in sixth and two in the seventh without an extra base hit, off four Phillies pitchers in taking a commanding 6-2 lead on the way to a Reds victory. Pedro Borbon pitched four innings of shut out ball in relief of Pat Zachry for the Reds.
Game three was the best game of the Series. The game featured four lead changes with the Phillies leading 6-4 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. The Reds had scored four runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to take a 4-3 lead, with Cesar Geronimo’s two-run triple pushing the Reds in front. However, the Phillies reached Reds closer Eastwick for three runs in the eighth and ninth innings to take the 6-4 lead entering the home half of the ninth.
With Ron Reed on the mound for the Phillies, George Foster and Johnny Bench tied the game by opening the inning with back to back home runs. Gene Garber relieved Reed and Dave Concepcion singled off him. Lefty starter Underwood was called on in relief to pitch to the lefty swinging Geronimo, but Geronimo drew a walk, moving the potential winning run into scoring position at second base. Pinch hitter Ed Armbrister sacrificed to advance both runners. Pete Rose was intentionally walked to load the bases, but Ken Griffey hit a high chopper that skipped off first baseman Bobby Tolan’s glove for an infield hit and gave the Reds a chance to win their second consecutive World Championship.
The 1976 Reds, of course, went on to sweep the New York Yankees for the 1976 World Series title, but as age caught up to their team they began to slowly slip away. The Phillies meanwhile improved over the next several years. It will be interesting to see what transpires over the next several days. We’ll see if the spirit of youth can overcome the confidence of veteran success. Over the next few years, the Reds will need to continue the pipeline of talent that has started to fill the current major league roster. As today’s youth becomes tomorrow’s veterans, more youthful talent will need to make it’s way to the roster to give the Reds continued success.