On the nationwide level, the report of John McNamara’s death always focused on the 1986 “one strike away” Boston Red Sox.
You know the story. The Red Sox were one strike away from a World Series victory over the New York Mets and then the Bill Buckner error and McNamara managed Boston and several other teams but the Red Sox are their own Nation so we are constantly reminded about that.
But to me—and I suspect a lot of other Reds fans— John McNamara was much more than an error by a first baseman in extra innings of Game 6 of the World Series.
McNamara managed the Reds from 1979 to 1982. Those were turbulent years for a franchise coming off back to back World Championships in 1975 and 1976. It was a transition era away from the Big Red Machine to . . . . something else. No one really knew at the time.
Bob Howsam was gone. Pete Rose left via free agency. Joe Morgan also left via free agency after the 1979 season.
McNamara came to the Reds after General Manager Dick Wagner—a name that will live in infamy to all true Reds fans—fired Sparky Anderson. It would have been tough for any manager to come in following Sparky.
But McNamara had previously managed the Athletics and the Padres and he was a low key sort of guy. Wagner still had the remnants of the Big Red Machine, a team that couldn’t dominate but was very much competitive.
Anderson was fired for the sins of being loyal to his coaching staff and for consecutive second place finishes to the Dodgers. McNamara inherited a very good lineup that still featured George Foster, Dave Concepcion, Ken Griffey, Cesar Geronimo and Johnny Bench.
His pitching staff was Tom Seaver, Fred Norman and fill in the blank. His second baseman was Joe Morgan with a mix of Junior Kennedy. His third baseman was Ray Knight.
And in ’79, the Reds were competitive. They battled the Houston Astros for first place much of the season. Knight was working out well at third. Kennedy so-so. Seaver was Seaver. Dave Collins was a pleasant surprise. And a young pitcher named Frank Pastore emerged.
The Reds won the NL West, winning 90 games and edging second place Houston. Sparky had won 92 the year before. McNamara’s Band then lost two extra inning games at home to Pittsburgh in the playoffs and were swept out of the playoffs. They battled (and lost) to the Astros in 1980 and then had the BEST RECORD in baseball in 1981 during a strike-shortened season.
Not a bad three-year run for McNamara.
It was over after that. Wagner traded Foster and Griffey. Bench moved to third base. Knight was traded. The best years were over for Seaver. The new players, the supposed new stars for McNamara to manage were Clint Hurdle, Gary Redus, Paul Householder and Nick Esasky. Bench’s replacement was a catcher named Alex Trevino. Needless to say, that didn’t work out very well.
The Reds went from the team with the best record in baseball in 1981 to a 100-loss season in 1982 and McNamara was fired somewhere in between.
McNamara came back to manage the Red Sox and Indians and for a brief stint, the Angels, before retiring. He passed away in Tennessee last week at the age of 88.
I wrote earlier in an article for Redleg Nation about meeting John McNamara in Galesburg at a bowling alley a week after the 1979 season ended. I went into the bar to get a beer and there was John McNamara sitting, unbothered, having a cup of coffee and reading as newspaper.
He was on his way to see some relatives in Rock Island. We talked for well over an hour about the Reds and baseball in general.
He was the first Reds manager I had ever met. I think he was shocked that anybody would recognize him.
John McNamara was different than Sparky Anderson. He ordered the bunt too often (at least for me) disdained stolen bases (despite having Griffey, Collins, Geronimo and Concepcion) and his bullpen tended to fail which resulted in a lot of extra inning losses— such as in the NL playoffs in ’79.
But he was also a calming influence; a baseball lifer who knew the game pretty good. He came up the hard way as a player, never getting above Triple A. He was a catcher and most of them knew the game (one exception– Bob Boone).
Mac did a good job of managing the Reds before Wagner destroyed the Reds. I rank him 6th on my Reds managers list starting with Fred Hutchinson’s Era. He’s well ahead of the likes of Boone, Bryan Price, Don Heffner, Russ Nixon and Vern Rapp.