Though it now feels like a lifetime ago, the 1990 Cincinnati Reds brought home a World Series trophy in one of the more unexpected fashions, going wire to wire and stunning the powerhouse Oakland Athletics with a sweep to wrap the season. It marked the franchise’s fifth title, the first since the end of the Big Red Machine glory days.
But while that full hand of titles is a plenty well respected number, that means that Cincinnati - the first home of professional baseball - has seen its fair share of duds, heartbreaks, and near misses over the years, too. The early 60’s saw the club post 93 and 98 wins in back to back years without bringing home a trophy, while the early vestiges of the BRM lost a pair of World Series and an LCS in the span of just four years.
We’ll be diving into some of those misses in the coming days, as well as a few more recent examples of Reds heartbreak. Today, though, warrants a highlight of one of the more electric clubs we millennials were able to follow as youths, a club that had the rug ripped out from underneath them before ever having the chance to claim what could have been the 6th title in team history.
The 1994 Cincinnati Reds won fewer games than did the 2016, 2017, and 2018 Cincinnati Reds, and you’re all quite familiar with the collective duddery of that last trio. Those three rebuilding clubs played full 162 game slates, of course, while the 1994 edition of the Reds had their season cut woefully short, a 2-0 defeat to the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 11th marking the final time they’d suit up for the season.
The very next morning, the labor dispute that had been going on for years between MLB ownership groups that were in favor of instituting a salary cap and an MLBPA led by Donald Fehr came to a predetermined head, and the strike officially began. While there was initially some hope that it would be resolved in reasonably short order, the lack of progress (in part due to the lack of a full-time commissioner at the time) eventually resulted in Bud Selig cancelling the remainder of the season for good on September 14th.
At the time of the strike, the Reds held a half-game lead over the Houston Astros in that, the still newfangled National League Central division. The old East/West format had been scrapped after the 1993 season, with the additions of both the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies helping usher in a new trio of senior circuit divisions. The Reds record stood at 66-48 when the strike halted play, a record that while impressive actually was underperforming what their Pythagorean record (68-46) suggested, as they’d pounded out an NL-best 609 runs in that shortened season while allowing a meager 490.
As has been the case so often in Reds history, the 1994 club was led by their hitting. The team’s .286 batting average was the best in the NL that season, with each of Hal Morris (.335), Kevin Mitchell (.326), and Bret Boone (.320) ranking among the Top 7 in the NL that year. While sabermetrics hadn’t yet become a public talking point, the 1994 Reds bats are remembered fondly the advanced metrics, too - the club led the NL in team fWAR (21.6) and wOBA (.346), while their 107 wRC+ trailed only the Astros.
Perhaps what also made the ‘94 club so enticing was the freshness with which the roster resonated. Mitchell was in just his second year with the club, though his 1993 season was limited to the point where he still felt like a new addition. Boone, too, was a newly minted Red having just come over from the Seattle Mariners following the ‘93 season. 3B Tony Fernandez played his lone year with the Reds in 1994, Eddie Taubensee was acquired in a rare April deal to begin his Reds tenure, and even Roberto Kelly - who’d only been a Red for just over a year - was shipped off in a May deal with Atlanta to bring Deion Sanders to Cincinnati for the first time. Pair that with Morris’ brilliance and one of the healthier seasons of Barry Larkin the club ever had (he played in 110 of 114 games that year), and the lineup was just about as potent as at any juncture in recent Reds history.
Of course, that’s been the story with many Reds clubs over the years only for the pitching to fail to back them up. That was far from the case in 1994, however.
Jose Rijo wrapped his second Top 5 finish in NL Cy Young voting in 1993, and backed that with an MLB-best 26 starts of 136 ERA+ ball in 1994, a year in which he finished ranked among the Top 10 in all MLB in IP (172.2), ERA (3.08), and fWAR (4.1). John Smiley (109 ERA+) and Erik Hanson (102 ERA+) flanked him in the rotation, but it was again the club’s vaunted bullpen that deserved many of the pitching accolades in a cap-tip to their Nasty Boys brethren from 1990’s brilliant run.
Jeff Brantley had signed as a free agent with the Reds after the 1993 season and immediately became the anchor of the pen, firing 65.1 IP of 168 ERA+ ball in the closer’s role. He was far from the only effective arm down there, however, as the club’s overall 3.39 ERA from the bullpen ranked as the single best mark in all of baseball. Hector Carrasco (2.24 ERA, 188 ERA+ in 56.1 IP) and Chuck McElroy (2.34 ERA, 180 ERA+ in 57.2 IP) were the primary backers to the Cowboy, while a cheeky April 7th waiver claim of lefty Pete Schourek from the New York Mets ultimately helped bolster both the bullpen and the team’s rotation down the stretch in ‘94 (and beyond, in Schourek’s case).
Obviously, simply being potent during a shortened season was no guarantee of World Series success. The 1994 season saw impressive runs through the National League from both the upstart Montreal Expos and Houston Astros, while the Atlanta Braves were in the midst of their decade and a half run of dominance, one that ultimately saw them claim a World Series title when play resumed in 1995. Over in the AL, the New York Yankees under Buck Showalter had begun their Renaissance after the very un-Yankee run of the late 1980s had leaked into the start of the 1990s, their 70-43 record when play stopped a bit of a harbinger of what they had in store for the back-half of the decade.
Still, the 1994 Reds were a well-built combination of power, speed, and strategic pitching, one that had the classic talents of Larkin and Rijo surrounded by a newer cast of characters than the one we’ll forever remember taking home the 1990 title. Were they the best club in baseball that year? That’s debatable, certainly, and it’s easy to suggest they might’ve only been among the game’s best handful - but that’s certainly what we thought about that 1990 club, too, and all they needed was a chance in the postseason to prove their worth. The 1994 club never got that chance, unfortunately, and I think that’s why they’ll forever stick in my craw.