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Throwback Madness: Round 2 / Game 3

1990 vs. 1995

Cincinnati Reds Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Team: 1990

Seed: 3

Record: 91-71, finished 1st in 6-team National League West. Beat Pirates in 6-game NLCS. Swept 4-game World Series over the A’s.

Did this team matter?: At the risk of overemphasizing two personal details, I think the answer to this has to be Yes. Risk #1: this remains the only championship by the Reds in my sentient lifetime. Risk #2, I had not yet entered high school when this season concluded, meaning baseball was still occupying as large a place in my brain as it ever would. So, I think it was a big deal that the underdog Reds swept the heavily favored A’s. I think it was a big deal that the jingoism of 1990 was portrayed via American flag patches on the uniforms. I think Billy Hatcher and Jose Rijo and Randy Myers and Eric Davis’s kidney were big deals. I also think that baseball maybe held a bigger place in the national zeitgeist pre-1994 strike, pre-internet, pre-cord cutting. It feels like a very distant and different place, 1990. And so I think I elevate the importance of that season accordingly.

Performances to remember: 1990 was a championship season and based on a strict bWAR ranking, Barry Larkin was that team’s second best player. He was still just 26 years old at season’s end, was an excellent defender as the full time shortstop, and had been named to three straight all-star games. And of course, we can look back on Larkin’s full career and note that he was elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Here were Larkin’s cumulative career stats at the end of 1990: .293/.344/.408 (105 OPS+), 91 doubles, 20 triples, 38 HR, 109 SB, 314 runs, 221 RBI in 2,347 PA. Not a ton of power, not an exceptional number of walks, not even an exemplary batting average. Speed and defense. The point is not to slam on Larkin, but to suggest you would have been hard pressed to find too many fans and students of the game who would have nominated Larkin as a likely future hall of famer in 1990. Longevity and a much better hitting profile (more power, more walks) throughout the 90’s cemented Larkin’s eventual residence in Cooperstown.

Wikipedia says: “Starting with a club best nine straight wins to open the season, as well as holding the top spot in the National League West every game during the season, the Reds went 41-21 after 62 games, splitting the remaining 100 games 50-50 to end up with a 91-71 record.”

Uniform notes: These uniforms are the wind-down of the Riverfront Stadium era of jerseys: pullovers with the uniform number over one side of the chest and the wishbone C logo over the other. The only practical difference between the 1990 version and the 1972 version (when this style first appeared) is the addition of red and white stripes down the pant leg. The inclusion/addition of the American flag patch (as best as I can remember) was introduced for the World Series.

My fashion-conscious, non-baseball-fan tween of a daughter says: “I like the American flag <giggles>.”

Team: 1995

Seed: 6

Record: 85-59, finished 1st in 5-team National League Central. Beat the Dodgers in a 3-game sweep in the inaugural NL Division Series. Swept by the Braves in the ensuing NLCS.

Did this team matter?: Yes, but not for what happened on the field. The Reds only played 144 regular season games in 1995, as the player’s union strike that canceled the 1994 postseason lasted into early April, thereby necessitating a truncated season. The Reds were leading the NL Central division when the strike struck and they followed up in big fashion, winning the division by nine games. The good baseball being played masked the sea change in economics that 1995 marked the starting point of:

Payroll Trend

Year Reds payroll rank Reds payroll as % of MLB leader
Year Reds payroll rank Reds payroll as % of MLB leader
1995 6th 85%
2000 21st 50%
2005 18th 30%
2010 19th 36%
2015 17th 42%
2019 19th 48%

I’m assuming this is what the plot of the Left Behind series was about.

Jim Bowden was the GM 1992 to 2003, so his tenure covers the transition from upper class to lower-middle class. It’s a complicated legacy; the Reds were a damn fine team in 1999 and generally got good marks for winning a respectable number of games with a lower than average payroll. But I’d love to see the alternate timeline where the Reds had a more…disciplined GM during the most turbulent economic turnover in MLB history.

Performances to remember: Barry Larkin’s MVP season (1995) was not the best season of his career (1996). That’s fine, it happens. Barry Larkin was not the best NL player in 1995 (Bonds, Maddux), but won the award anyway. That’s fine, it happens. Larkin’s 1995 was really good (134 OPS+, 51 stolen bases, Gold Glove at shortstop) and to connect this blurb to the 1990 section higher up on the page, 1995 was almost certainly a strong catalyst to Larkin’s ultimate hall of fame election.

According to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, Larkin is the 13th most deserving shortstop of immortality in baseball history. Solidly above a reasonable in/out line. What I find interesting, in this case, is Larkin’s placement relative to Derek Jeter, who ranks #12 on the same scale.

Larkin’s career numbers: .295/.371/.444 (116 OPS+) over 19 seasons.

Jeter’s career numbers: .310/.377/.440 (115 OPS+) over 20 seasons.

The differences are that Jeter accumulated 3,500(!) more plate appearances than Larkin and that Larkin was good on defense. Jeter’s longevity and durability was otherworldly, so no complaining here that Larkin “only” played 2100 games. I don’t generally think of the two players as similar, but I think the comparison makes some sense, minus the level of media fawning.

Wikipedia says: “The Cincinnati Reds’ 1995 season was a season in American baseball.”

Uniform notes: A callback to the uniforms of 1958-1960, with pinstripes (both on the jersey and on the cap) and sleeveless vests over red undershirts. On a personal note, the 1995 style coincided with my high school years, which means that I can see old photos of an awkward scrawny me wearing a sweat-stained pinstriped Reds hat. Not a fan of that, Bubba.

My fashion-conscious, non-baseball-fan tween of a daughter says: “<raised voice> I don’t like the sleeves! Ew.”


Better 90s uniforms?

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