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For the record: When the Reds blasted the Phillies to kingdom come

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Revisiting the day Cincinnati set an NL record for homers in one game.

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Greg Vaughn #23...

On the morning of September 4, 1999, the Cincinnati Reds were in need of a spark. That’s an odd thing to say of a team that had a 76-57 record at the time, a mark that is hardly indicative of a team that is on the cusp of falling apart, but it was true. They had lost eight of their last 11 games, as a pitching staff that had been one of the best in the league had suddenly gone off the rails, allowing more than six runs per game over that stretch, including at least eight runs in five of their last six. That skid had left them 2.5 games back in the NL Central behind division-leading Houston, their widest gap in nearly a month.

Ahead of the second game of their three-game weekend series in Philadelphia, then, future Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, outfielder Greg Vaughn and left-handed pitcher Danny Neagle held a players-only meeting. The message of the meeting, according to a story in the next day’s Cincinnati Enquirer, was “simple.”

“They more or less said to play the game and have fun with it,” outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds said, “and whatever happens, happens.”

There’s no way of knowing for certain whether this next part is true. According to Hal McCoy in a story in the following morning’s Dayton Daily News, Reds equipment manager Rick Stowe approached first base coach Dave Collins after the team meeting and told him, “we’ll hit five home runs tonight.”

Collins, according to McCoy, responded: “Add four to that ... Nine.”

McCoy is as trustworthy of a reporter as there is, and this would be a weird thing for Stowe or Collins to make up. Maybe Collins made balls-to-the-wall predictions like this all the time. But while we don’t know for certain whether the prediction was actually made, we do know for certain what happened next:

The Reds became the first National League team in history to hit nine home runs in a game.

*****

The timing of the record-breaking performance wasn’t exactly a surprise. In the late 1990s, Major League Baseball was experiencing a power surge similar to what it has saw in the late 2010s. Back then, of course, it was the players that were being blamed for being juiced, not the ball itself. Going back to 1920, only five seasons have seen a greater leaguewide home run total get posted — 2000, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. The ball was traveling in a way it never had before, so it’s not a huge surprise that some team out there took advantage of it.

The fact that that team turned out to be the Reds was a bit more of a surprise. They certainly weren’t an anemic power-hitting team — it just wasn’t their calling card. The 1999 Reds racked up high win totals by being pretty good at just about everything. They had the majors’ fourth-lowest ERA, the fourth-highest stolen base total, and the MLB-leading defensive efficiency rating, according to Baseball-Reference. Next to those aspects of the team, the bats were unexceptional. They had the 10th-highest scoring offense in the majors, and finished the year eighth in home run total.

That’s who the numbers said the Reds were. To Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Paul Byrd, they were the Gashouse Gorillas. Byrd was an All-Star selection for the only time in his career in 1999, but in retrospect, he was likely given the distinction due more to his 11-4 record than other pitching credentials. To be clear, he had given a number of terrific starts early in the season for the Phillies, but as mid-summer set in, his luck began to go south. Byrd finished June with a 3.32 ERA. Over his final 16 starts, his ERA was 6.19.

Byrd got an easy 1-2-3 first inning, and opened the second frame with Philadelphia in front 2-0. Just four batters later, that lead was gone, thanks to a three-run homer by Aaron Boone. Boone was in his first full major league season with Cincinnati after being drafted in the first round in 1994, and had been quietly productive, finishing the year with 2.4 fWAR thanks to strong defense at third base. Another young former first round pick, Dmitri Young, hit the second homer of the day for Cincinnati in the second inning, and Hammonds, in his eighth season as a big leaguer after being selected fourth overall by the Orioles in 1992, led off the fourth inning with the team’s longest dinger of the night at 435 feet. Byrd walked two and allowed another single in the fourth before getting pulled from the game in favor of left-hander Billy Brewer.

“It was like they were using aluminum bats,” Byrd told the press after the game. “Every time they swung the bat, the ball landed in the 500 level.”

Philadelphia’s bullpen was no match for the Reds, either. Brewer walked Vaughn before allowing a two-run homer to catcher Ed Taubensee, Cincinnati’s fourth of the day, to start the fifth inning. Brewer exited following the home run, and made just 11 more appearances in the 1999 season before his seven-year big league career came to an end.

The Phillies’ next pitcher was Cliff Politte. The former 54th round pick retired his first hitter before allowing a walk, walk, single, walk, fielder’s choice, and a double. With that, he was out of the game, having allowed as many runs (six) as any other Phillies pitcher that day, but having avoided the homer. Politte lasted seven more years in the majors, playing for four different organizations.

Next up was Chad Ogea, who was in his first season with the Phillies after a five-year career playing the role of swingman in Cleveland. Facing Vaughn with two on and two out, he surrendered the Reds’ fifth homer of the game, one that sealed a nine-run fifth inning for Cincinnati and gave them a 14-2 lead. For Vaughn, who was traded to the Reds with Mark Sweeney from San Diego for three players including Reggie Sanders, it was his first homer in 58 at-bats, and began a tear that would last the rest of the month. After entering September with 29 homers on the season, he would hit 16 homers over his last 30 games, outpacing everyone in baseball in that span, including Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who were playing out the ends of their infamous home run battle.

The next Red to go yard was Pokey Reese. Reese was 26, and in the midst of his best season as a major leaguer. He launched a solo shot against Ogea in the sixth, one of 10 homers he would finish the season with. Armed with one of the best gloves in the sport, he was worth 4.3 fWAR in 1999, making him the team’s third-most valuable position player.

In the top of the seventh, Taubensee struck again, hammering the Reds’ third homer of the game against Ogea. Like Reese, Taubensee spent 1999 enjoying the best year of his career, finishing with 1.6 WAR and a 116 wRC+. His 21 homers bested his previous career high by nine, and at age 30, made him a genuine threat at the plate for a Reds team he played seven of his 11 seasons with. Ogea finished the inning, but made just six more appearances in the majors, his career ending when he was just 29.

Amaury Telemaco’s first assignment, upon starting the eighth inning for the Phillies, was Brian Johnson, a catcher who replaced Taubensee behind the dish as part of a double switch. Johnson saw just three pitches before blasting the Reds’ record-tying eighth homer of the night. It was his fifth and final homer as a Red, as the career journeyman played just two more seasons with Kansas City and Los Angeles before calling it quits.

After three more hits and another pair of runs, Mark Lewis stepped to the plate for the Reds with two on and two out. Lewis was a hometown kid, as a native of Hamilton, Ohio, but his road to Cincinnati was a long one. At Hamilton High School, Lewis was such a standout prep that he won Gatorade Player of the Year, an honor that had been given to just two baseball players before him, one of whom was Gary Sheffield. Cleveland was so enamored with him that it made him the second overall selection in the 1988 draft, choosing from a crop that included future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza (who famously slid all the way to Round 62), Kenny Lofton, Jim Edmonds, Robin Ventura, Tim Wakefield and Luis Gonzalez.

Lewis did enough to get by in the minors, but nothing particularly noteworthy. Still, the Indians advanced him quickly, getting him to the majors at the young age of 21. Once he got there, however, Lewis had a hard time sticking, thanks to a distressing lack of pop and an inadequate glove. After 240 games of sub-replacement level play over four seasons, Cleveland traded Lewis to Cincinnati before the 1995 season, where he performed well as a bench player. His biggest highlight undoubtedly came in the NLDS against the Dodgers later that year, when he became the first player ever to hit a pinch hit grand slam in the postseason.

After the playoffs ended, the Reds sent Lewis to Detroit as the PTBNL that completed their trade for David Wells. Over the next three seasons, Lewis continued to bounce from team to team, his impotent bat and poor defense making him a sub-replacement level player everywhere he went. He found his way back to Cincinnati in 1999, once again taking a role as a bench player, and improbably, hitting another home run for the record books. In the top of the eighth inning on Sept. 4, 1999, Lewis worked a full count against Telemaco before hammering a pitch 375 feet out to left-center, giving the Reds the NL record for homers in a game. Only the Blue Jays, who hit 10 homers against the Orioles on Sept. 14, 1987, have matched the total in the American League. Cincinnati won the game, 22-3.

Telemaco, who looked like a promising swingman with the Cubs and Diamondbacks in 1998, would spend the next three seasons struggling to stay above replacement level in Philadelphia, but he somehow stuck in the organization for seven years. Lewis hit two more homers in his big league career. He retired at age 31, after making a six appearances in 2001 right back where he started — Cleveland.

*****

Indeed, the game turned out to be the spark the Reds needed to get back on track. They won the following afternoon, 9-7, blasting five more dingers to bring their two-day total to an MLB-record 14. The nine-homer game began a streak of 10 wins in 11 games for Cincinnati, but somehow, that wasn’t enough, as the Astros went on a 12-game win streak at the exact same time. The Reds finally caught the Astros with another six-game win streak later in the month, but they burned out over the final week, losing three of their final four games. Despite winning 96 games, they were forced into 163rd game against the Mets to decide the Wild Card spot, and lost 5-0.

As a fan of a team, it’s easy to fall in love with what any given group of players looks like wearing the uniform of the team you cheer for. You want to believe that something like fate brought them together, that these are your guys, and they’re going to stay together for a long time and do great things. In reality, though, we know rosters are ever-changing. Every group of players is simply the result of a front office trying to put together a puzzle on whatever budget has been assigned.

Many of the 1999 Reds came and went in quick fashion, in the way players do. None of them were around for the organization’s next playoff run, which didn’t happen for another 11 years. But on one random night in 1999, they accomplished something together that hadn’t been replicated before or since. It wasn’t what the team was brought together to do, but it’s certainly worth remembering.