To say the 1990 Cincinnati Reds entered the season with question marks would be an understatement The team endured a tumultuous 1989 surrounding the banishment of then-manager Pete Rose for gambling. Certainly no one expected 1990 would end with Cincinnati’s first World Series title since the Big Red Machine Days of 1975 and 1976.
That’s because the early question marks didn’t involve the on-field talent. Rose’s teams had finished second in the NL West each year from 1985-88. New manager Lou Pinella just needed to harness the horses and get the focus back on the field.
Centerfielder Eric Davis finished with a .347 OBP, a .486 slugging percentage, could run and played electric defense. Davis was the most complete player on a team that included a future Hall of Famer at shortstop in Barry Larkin, along with rightfielder Paul O’Neill, who later become a beloved player with the Joe Torre Dynasty championship teams in New York from 1996-2000.
There were steady contributors up and down the lineup. Third baseman Chris Sabo finished with a stat line of .343 OBP/.476 slugging. Mariano Duncan posted a .345/.476 line at second base. Rookie first baseman Hal Morris stepped in at .381/.498 line and saw his playing time gradually increase. The Reds finished fifth in the National League in runs scored.
With the second-best pitching staff in the National League it was enough to win. There was more balance in the rotation. Jose Rijo delivered a 2.70 ERA and won 14 games. Tom Browning won 15 and Jack Armstrong settled in with 12 wins and a 3.42 ERA. Danny Jackson rounded out the rotation with a 3.61 ERA.
But this team is ultimately remembered for its bullpen. Randy Myers was at the back end. Rob Dibble, with his 1.74 ERA was the setup man. Norm Charlton swung in and out of the rotation, but made most of his appearances in relief. They could all throw gas and were known collectively as “The Nasty Boys.”
The opening of the regular season set the tone. The Reds won their first nine games and by Memorial Day were up seven games on the traditionally strong Los Angeles Dodgers and were plus-14 games on the defending NL pennant-winning San Francisco Giants. The margin in the NL West (where Cincinnati and Atlanta inexplicably resided until the realignment of 1994 and subsequent creation of the NL Central) grew as high as eleven games shortly after the All-Star break.
The NL West title was never in serious jeopardy, although the Reds did provide some anxious moments. They lost eight of eleven on a West Coast trip that included San Francisco and Los Angeles and saw the Giants whittle the lead down to 3 ½ games before suddenly collapsing. The Dodgers kept nudging away, winning a pair of September series against the Reds. But LA never got closer than 4 ½ games and with five days left in the regular season, Cincy finally clinched.
An old rivalry was renewed in the NLCS. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were regular sparring partners in the 1970s and the Pirates who won the NL East. The Reds opened the series at home because of a rotation system that decided homefield advantage.
After scoring three runs in the bottom of the first to stake Rijo to a Game 1 lead, Cincy only got two hits the rest of the night and the Pirates chipped away to grab a 4-3 win. On the ropes the following afternoon, Browning outdueled Cy Young winner Doug Drabek to win 2-1. .
The Cincinnati bats awoke in Game 3, with Billy Hatcher and Duncan each homering in a 6-3 win. Rijo came back on short rest to win Game 4, with help from a two-run blast by Sabo that broke a 2-2 tie in the seventh. After losing a close fifth game, the Reds came home and clinched in Game 6. They won a nerve-wracking 2-1 pitchers’ duel behind Jackson.
As a matchup with the defending World Series champion Oakland A’s, the heavy favorite to repeat, loomed, MLB observers were thinking sweep. But the one they got wasn’t expected.
The rotation system gave the NL homefield advantage and Davis set the crowd on fire immediately when he homered to dead center in the first inning. Rijo shut down the powerful Oakland lineup in a surprise 7-0 win. More unlikely heroes delivered an extra-inning win in Game 2. Utility infielder Billy Bates beat out an infield hit and scored on a double by light-hitting catcher Joe Oliver.
Cincinnati still had to go to Oakland for the middle three games, but any expectation of an A’s rally was quickly quashed. Sabo homered twice in a Game 3 rout. Rijo capped off a World Series MVP performance with another brilliant outing in a Game 4, a 2-1 win that sealed the championship.
The decisiveness of the win—the sweep, with two of the games being blowouts, mark the 1990 World Series as one of the all-time great upsets in sports. It remains the most recent title for the franchise and for the city of Cincinnati.