In Appreciation of the 1999 Reds

No playoffs -- they're the Reds, after all -- but a ton of fun

This summer, as we watched a Cincinnati Reds team that was clearly flawed, I kept returning to the idea that, despite clear weaknesses (in the bullpen, especially), the team was just fun to watch. For the last couple of decades, despite an Adam Dunn here and a Johnny Cueto there, the Reds haven’t always been fun to watch. As fans of a team who rarely wins, at the very least, we would like to get a team that’s easy to root for and gives us a little excitement occasionally, right?

Among the most fun teams we’ve had the pleasure to watch in the long, long, long slog since the last Reds championship, the 1999 Reds rate highly among most fans. As we discussed that team, it became evident that we now have a generation of Reds fans who have no memory of 1999. Instead of dwelling on the fact that I am aged, let’s look back with fondness at that remarkable season, shall we?

And yes, I’m calling it a remarkable season, despite the fact that — spoiler alert! — the Reds did not ultimately make the playoffs. No surprise, right? These are the Reds we’re talking about after all. But that team certainly passed my two-part test for a fun team: (1) players who are easy to root for, and who (2) give us something to get excited about occasionally. If you don’t remember the ‘99 Reds, you don’t know what you missed.

Since being among the best teams in the league in 1994 (stupid strike) and 1995 (stupid Braves), the Reds had floundered. They finished .500 in 1996, and then won no more than 77 games in the next two seasons. In 1998, the Reds finished in fourth place, fully 25 games out of first. There was very little reason to be optimistic about 1999 as the season approached.

Then, just before pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training, Cincinnati’s general manager Jim Bowden executed a trade with San Diego that changed the course of the season. Going to the Padres was Reggie Sanders, Damian Jackson, and Josh Harris; in return, the Reds received Greg Vaughn and Mark Sweeney.

The big departing piece was obviously Sanders, a former All-Star who had hit .271/.353/.476 with a 118 OPS + over eight seasons in Cincinnati. He’s a deserving Reds Hall of Famer, and it’s ludicrous that he hasn’t been enshrined yet. (Seriously, here’s his case; I will listen to no criticism of Reggie, even though I know some of you are going to come at me on Twitter.) Sanders would go on to hit .285/.376/.527 with 26 homers for San Diego in 1999.

Vaughn, however, promptly went about becoming a Reds legend in just one season. It began when he — along with a bunch of letter-writing fans — convinced owner Marge Schott to end the franchise’s ban on facial hair that had officially been in place for more than three decades, a relic of the Bob Howsam-era Big Red Machine. But according to Redleg Journal, the last Reds to actually wear facial hair were Jack Beckley and Tom Daly, all the way back in 1903.

With that controversy in the rear view mirror, Vaughn proceeded to mash baseballs all across the land, hitting .245/.347/.535 with 45 home runs and 118 RBI, and providing leadership to a team that had been floundering. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

More than 55,000 fans crowded into Riverfront Stadium (yes, I know it was Cinergy Field at that time; deal with it) for the Opening Day contest against San Francisco, only to see the Reds’ bullpen blow a lead on the way to an 11-8 loss. There were, however, some bright spots. Center fielder Mike Cameron, who came over in an off-season deal with the White Sox for Paul Konerko, homered. Sweeney hit a three-run pinch-hit homer in his very first plate appearance for the Reds.

Sean Casey also had a home run among his three hits. Before that season, Casey had been a top prospect in the Cleveland organization, and hopes were high that he would stabilize the first base spot for the Reds for many years. In 1999, he began to deliver on that promise, hitting .332/.399/.539 with 25 homers and 99 RBI, ultimately one of the best seasons in his career. Later in the summer, Casey would selected to the first of three All-Star teams.

The losing continued for a couple more games before the Reds finally won a game, shutting out St. Louis behind a complete game effort from Pete Harnisch. (Harnisch would end the season with a 16-10 record and a 3.68 ERA.) The Reds continued to scuffle, however, and after 12 games, the club was just 4-8 and in fifth place.

On April 20, with the team looking like yet another listless version of the Reds, Marge Schott’s 15-year reign as owner of the team came to an end when she sold all but one of her ownership shares to a group headed by Carl Lindner. She had been suspended by Major League Baseball in 1996, and this change in ownership was widely expected. Unfortunately for the Reds, Carl Lindner may have ended up being the single worst owner in the history of Cincinnati baseball. (He has some competition, of course.)

Nothing much changed for the rest of April, and the first half of May. On May 15, the Reds were 14-18, and firmly in last place. But then Cincinnati caught fire. A win over San Diego was the first of five in a row, and eight of their next nine games. One of those victories was a wild afternoon in Colorado, when the Reds beat the Rockies 24-12.

It was a crazy outburst: the Reds scored six runs in the first inning, one in the third, four in the fourth, two in the fifth, five in the sixth, and six runs in the ninth inning. A bunch of records were broken or tied that day:

  • Cincinnati had 15 extra-base hits (nine doubles, six homers), tying the National League record.

  • Cincinnati’s 28 hits tied the modern club record, set 97 years prior.

  • The teams combined for 81 total bases, breaking a record that had stood since 1923.

  • The Reds had 55 total bases, tying the club record set in 1893 (the modern club record was 48, in a game against the Cubs in 1957).

  • Seven different Reds had three or more hits; that tied a modern major league record.

  • Sean Casey tied the individual record for most times reaching base in a nine-inning game without making an out. Casey was 4-4 with two homers and three walks.

  • Mike Cameron had eight plate appearances, tying the big league record.

  • Jeffrey Hammonds (three homers) and Sean Casey tied the franchise record with five runs scored.

The Reds were off and running. By May 25, the Reds had vaulted to second place, 4.5 games behind the first place Astros. Near the end of the month, rookie reliever Scott Williamson announced his presence on the big league scene with authority. In a home contest against the Dodgers, Williamson struck out all six batters he faced in the final two innings of the game.

That dropped Williamson’s ERA to 1.88 on the season, but he wasn’t finished. The 23-year-old right-hander went to post a 2.41 ERA in 62 appearances, with 19 saves and a 12-7 record. He made his first (and only) All-Star Game, and at season’s end, Williamson was the runaway winner of the NL Rookie of the Year award. No Reds player would win the award for, oh, I dunno, 22 years or so.

An eight-game winning streak in late May/early June put the Reds at 30-22, and Houston’s lead in the NL Central was down to just 1.5 games. With a 2-1 win in extra innings over Arizona on July 1, the Reds moved into first place for the first time all season. The pennant race was on, and the Reds would battle for that top spot the rest of the campaign.

At the July trade deadline, the Reds made a somewhat surprising move, trading BJ Ryan and Jacobo Sequea to Baltimore in exchange for Juan Guzman. Guzman was 32 years old, a former All-Star and a member of those great Toronto teams in the early 1990s. It turned out to be a shrewd move, as Guzman went 6-3 with a 3.03 ERA for a Reds rotation that had been relying on guys like Ron Villone and Steve Avery.

This seems like a good time to mention Trader Jack McKeon, Cincinnati’s 69 year old manager. During a season in which he became the third oldest manager in the history of big league baseball (behind Casey Stengel and Connie Mack), McKeon was masterful in his management of the bullpen especially. In retrospect, McKeon was ahead of his time in how he managed the pitching staff, and by using band-aids and smoke and mirrors, the pitchers helped keep this team in the race.

In early September, the Reds broke out the bats again. In a 22-3 win over the Phillies at old Veterans Stadium, Cincinnati mashed nine home runs, a NL record. Eight different Reds hit home runs: Eddie Taubensee (2), Dmitri Young, Hammonds, Vaughn, Aaron Boone, Mark Lewis, Brian Johnson, and Pokey Reese. Never before in big league history had eight players on one team homered in the same game.

By this time, Reds fans were aware that this was a special offense. The next night, they hit five more homers, and two days later they hit six. The total of 209 team home runs was (at the time) second only to the 1956 Reds. This offense was second to no other Reds single-season offense in a number of categories: runs scored, doubles, extra-base hits, total bases, slugging percentage.

On September 22, however, Cincinnati dropped a game in San Diego which put them 3.5 games behind Houston. Importantly, it also put them 3.5 games behind the New York Mets in the wild card race. Only ten games remained, and it was beginning to appear that this Cinderella run was ending.

Vaughn and company refused to concede. In September, Vaughn tied a team record by smashing 14 home runs in the month, and his vocal leadership in the dugout was credited by observers around the league for changing the Reds from an also-ran to a legit playoff contender. The Reds proceeded to rip off six wins in a row, including a walkoff win in the 12th inning over the Cardinals when Reese hit a three-run homer (overshadowing Mark McGwire’s 60th home run earlier in the game).

The final win of that six-game streak came in Houston. It was the 95th victory of the season, and it gave Cincinnati a one-game advantage in the Central. With four games remaining, the Reds were in control of their own destiny. And then we got smacked by the curse of Cincinnati sports once again.

They lost to the Astros the next day to drop back into a tie, and the Reds headed off to Milwaukee, where they proceeded to lose the first two games against the Brewers. On the final day of the regular season, Cincinnati had to win to have a shot at the playoffs.

Rain poured down all day. The contest was scheduled to begin at 3:00, but the teams waited around for nearly six hours before they were finally allowed to begin the game. When the dust settled, Harnisch and Villone combined to lead the Reds to a huge 7-1 win. Unfortunately, the Astros also won, securing the division championship. But the Reds had tied the Mets for the lone Wild Card spot in the National League. A one game playoff for the spot would take place the next day in Cincinnati.

I don’t remember anything about that playoff game except screw Al Leiter and that’s all I have to say about that.

But if you were fortunate enough to enjoy that season, you know how much fun the 1999 Reds were. I can’t do it justice in one column. Seriously, take a look at that roster. A bunch of guys who were easy to root for, and who are remembered fondly in Cincinnati. A surprising team that came out of nowhere and battled all season long before falling just short of the goal (again: this is Cincinnati, after all).

Sure, I want championships and the 1999 Reds didn’t actually win anything that you can put in a trophy case. But baseball is supposed to be fun, right? For almost every single day, all season long, this team was fun. I’ll take that every year.

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