The Best Reds Team of my Lifetime
Probably not 2022, right?
For many years, I’ve been saying that the 1995 Cincinnati Reds are the best Reds team of my lifetime. Now, I will concede that it’s not technically true. I was in diapers for the 1975 and 1976 World Series championship seasons, after all. Of course, I was 17 years old at the time, but…I kid! I was literally a baby. It was a joke. Stop looking at me like that.
But I think it’s arguable. The ‘95 Reds finished with a record of 85-59, a winning percentage of .590 over the 144 game season. If you were around back in those days — the late-1900s, as my kids like to say, always accompanied with a mocking grin, of course — you remember that the season started late thanks to the late-1994 strike that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series. That strike was a brutal blow to teenage Chad, since the 1994 Reds were clearly on their way to a second championship in five seasons.*
*By the way, I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that the Reds are always a good team every single time MLB has a work stoppage. Seriously, it’s uncanny.
1972 strike: Reds 95-59, lost in game 7 of the World Series
1973 lockout: Reds 99-63, lost in NLCS
1976 lockout: World champions for the second time, Sugar Bear
1980 strike: 89-73, but finish 3.5 games out of first
1981 strike: Best record in baseball, screwed out of the playoffs
1985 strike: 89-72, second place in NL West
1990 lockout: Wire to Wire, baby
1994-95 strike: Reds are in first place when players strike in 1994; division winners in 1995
2022 lockout: Never mind. The Reds lost 23 of their first 28 games. This was fun for a while.
Anyway, back to the question at hand: which Reds team was the best of my lifetime? First, the parameters. I’m sticking with post-1980 Reds teams. Yes, I was born in the 1970s, the greatest decade for baseball and movies. But I don’t remember any baseball in the 1970s. It’s all Ken Burns-style ancient video in my mind. Big Red Machine, Watergate, Lew Alcindor, I dunno. It’s in the history books, man.
Now, truth be told, I don’t remember any baseball before 1982, so maybe I should exclude the 1980 and 1981 Reds from this exploration. But I’m not going to. Because…reasons. I just want to focus on post-BRM. It’s my Substack and I’ll cry if I wanna. Or something. Sheesh, this thing is going off the rails quickly. Please don’t unsubscribe.
So…post-1980s. Let’s first tackle the elephant in the room: the 1990 Cincinnati Reds won the World Series. If you are of a certain vintage, you’ll never forget Todd Benzinger in foul ground behind first base, catching a pop up that sealed a sweep of the Oakland Athletics. It’s still in my top five of sports memories of my lifetime*, even though I was sitting in my parents’ living room at the time, going nuts. Surely, this is the best team of my lifetime, right?
*It’s probably top two, and it was number one for a long time. But then I was in the arena for this, and got to experience my alma mater win a national championship two days later. That’ll always be number one.
Well, maybe not. The 1990 team “only” won 91 games. That’s pretty good for the post-2000 Reds, but it’s not elite. Let’s look at winning percentages:
1981 Reds: .611
2012 Reds: .599
1995 Reds: .590
1999 Reds: .589
1994 Reds: .579
2010 Reds: .565
1990 Reds: .562
1992 Reds: .556
2013 Reds: .556
1985 Reds: .553
1980 Reds: .549
1988 Reds: .540
I guess this argument rests on whether you give more credence to regular season results or post-season success. Other than 1990, the Reds have had almost no post-season success since 1976. They won two playoff series in 1990, one in 1995…and that’s it. Yikes. That’s almost a half-century of baseball games. I’m getting depressed.*
*Not really. I’m still writing about the Reds despite the horrific results of recent years. There is nothing this team can do that would depress me. I’m a sucker.
I mean, look…I love the 1990 Wire to Wire Reds. But they weren’t the Big Red Machine. They were a good but flawed team that got hot at the right time. I can’t say they’re the best team of my lifetime.
You can make a real case for the 2012 Reds as the best Reds team. I remain firmly convinced that those guys were the best team in the league that season. So much fun, and so many wins (97). Joey Votto. Johnny Cueto. Bronson Arroyo. Brandon Phillips. Aroldis Chapman. Jay Bruce. Mat Latos. (Ummm…okay, we're trying to forget Latos.)
Probably, the real answer here is the 1981 Reds. Best record in baseball, in case you haven’t seen the banner:
Those ‘81 Reds were really the final gasp of the Big Red Machine. In 1979, post-Sparky Anderson, Cincinnati won the NL West. In 1980, they were in the mix and still a good team. They still had BRM stars like Johnny Bench, George Foster, Davey Concepcion, and Ken Griffey. Mario Soto emerged as a star. The best player on the team was a future Hall of Famer named Tom Seaver.
If not for the fact that the players’ strike caused the 1981 season to be split in two, the Reds would have been in the playoffs and…who knows? Perhaps they would have been seen by history as the third world champion of the Big Red Machine era. Instead, they didn’t even get to play in the post-season. (I’ll write about it at some point, but until then, here’s the story.)
So why do I like 1995? Well, by winning percentage, they’re one of the top three teams since 1980. They ran away with the National League Central.
Baseball betrayed me in 1994. I was obsessed with the sport and the Reds before the strike that wiped out the season. That strike destroyed me. But then the 1995 Reds came into my life. Many baseball fans will say the Sosa/McGwire home run battle of 1998 is what brought them back to baseball. For me, it was Larkin and Sanders and Gant and Schourek and Smiley who brought me back, almost immediately. They reminded me why I loved baseball, and why I loved the Cincinnati Reds.
Okay, maybe it’s not the best Reds team of my lifetime. It’s arguable. But the 1995 Reds are almost certainly my favorite Cincinnati Reds team.
What I’m reading
Over at The Magazine, Brandon Wuske profiles Great American Ball Park executive chef Gary Davis. “If you’ve ever cut into a cooked-to-order steak at the Diamond Club, loaded up on California rolls at The Handlebar, or had the privilege of dining in a well-stocked private suite while taking in the ballgame, you’ve tasted Davis’s handiwork. The 37-year-old has been training for this job for most of his life.”
Pat Brennan was there as FC Cincinnati clinched its first MLS playoff berth. “In the end, and after a season of contributions from unexpected members of the team, FC Cincinnati got its playoff push across the finish line through the play of its most potent scoring options.”
Jay Morrison on the Bengals’ offensive woes, head coach Zac Taylor’s questionable playcalling, and the necessity of using Tyler Boyd more often ($). “Taylor has been asked multiple times since his first season in 2019 about the idea of ceding the play-calling duties, and the question resurfaced Monday following another head-scratching script and wheel-spinning performance.”
Joey Votto is an international delight, and C. Trent Rosecrans charts Votto’s 2022 Cincinnati tour ($). “The high school football game between the city’s two biggest-named high schools was just another tour on the Joey Votto Tour de Cincinnati 2022. Since his season-ending shoulder surgery, Votto’s been a regular in the Reds broadcast booth, including a stint in Tuesday’s penultimate game of the season against the Cubs. He’s been to the Cincinnati Zoo with teammate Tyler Stephenson and his wife Carolyn. He’s taken walks downtown by himself, discovered a new favorite restaurant and even took in a Reds game from the stands.”
Doug Gray asks if the Reds are already giving up on competing in 2023? “It sounds like the Cincinnati Reds front office is already letting the fans know that 2023 isn’t going to be a season in which they plan on trying to compete.”