[This post is the first in a series by John Ring about the 1999 Reds, celebrating the 20th anniversary of that season.]
After a sensational– but ultimately disappointing– 1995 season, the Cincinnati Reds were mired in three years of mediocrity.
They were 81-81 in 1996 and that was followed with a 76-86 record in 1997. The 1998 season showed a one-game improvement at 77-85 and the Reds had to win 8 of their last 10 to achieve that. At one point, they were 30-49.
1998 featured losing streaks of 11 and 8 games. The Reds were weak on pitching, weak in the bullpen and there wasn’t a lot of promise.
Then General Manager Jim Bowden liked to make headlines and was flashy. So he did the thing he always did– pulled the trigger on some major trades in the off season
First, Bowden traded Bret Boone and Mike Remlinger to the Atlanta Braves for Rob Bell, Denny Neagle and Michael Tucker. The objective was to beef up the Reds thin pitching staff with Bell and Neagle. Tucker was a throw in. But it was a high price to pay as Boone led the Reds in home runs and runs batted in the year before. But he batted just .266 and the Reds desperately needed pitching.
Bowden then swapped first baseman Paul Konerko for Mike Cameron, who was a solid centerfielder who played for the White Sox. With Sean Casey at first, Konerko was expendable. Bowden and the Reds then signed free agent pitcher Steve Avery into the fold.
But Bowden wasn’t finished. On February 2, 1999, he traded Reggie Sanders, Damian Jackson and minor leaguer Josh Harris to the Padres for Greg Vaughn and Mark Sweeney. Sanders was a reliable outfielder but Bowden wanted more power with the loss of Boone and Vaughn fit that, despite being on the last year of his contract.
Bowden also brought back former Red Hal Morris, who he signed as a free agent.
With these moves, the Reds prepped for the 1999 season. Manager Jack McKeon built his pitching staff around Brett Tomko and Pete Harnisch and hoped to augment them with Avery, Bell and Neagle.
Tomko started on Opening Day against the San Francisco Giants. Riverfront Stadium was, naturally, sold out. But the Giants shelled Tomko and led 6-2 after four innings of play. The Reds rallied in the 6th inning, big -time. Sweeney hit a pinch-hit three run homer and Casey added a two-run shot and the Reds rallied to take an 8-6 lead.
Unfortunately, relief pitchers John Hudek and Gabe White were hit hard and the Giants rallied to win 11-8. With two runners on in the 9th inning and just one out, Eddie Taubensee grounded out and Morris struck out to end the game.
The Reds staggered through April and didn’t show a lot of promise. In their last game of the month, they were 9-11 and John Smoltz threw a brilliant one-hit shutout against Cincinnati, striking out 5 and walking just one hitter in a 3-0 Atlanta win. Avery pitched well for the Reds but took the loss. The only hit was by Taubensee.
The Cincinnati Reds were treading water. As April closed, they had a 9-12 record. Their didn’t seem much of a spark, no ace pitcher, no real signs of life.
Was this a fourth straight year of mediocrity or worse, at or below the .500 mark?
Then came a turning point in the month of May. It happened in the most unlikely of places.
And it was stunning.
Photo of Riverfront Stadium by Blake Bolinger. It was slightly modified to fit the site. You can see the license for the photo here.