The Oakland A’s seemed to have an encounter with destiny lined up at the 1990 World Series. They were the defending champion, aiming to become the first repeat Series winner in twelve years. They had won three straight American League pennants. They were clearly the most dominant team in baseball and multiple titles would seal their place in baseball’s pantheon.
But if the A’s had a date with history, the Cincinnati Reds had a date with destiny and their ultimate triumph was arguably the most stunning outcome in the long history of the Fall Classic.
You can read more about the season-long paths to the A’s and Reds took to their respective division titles, about their key players and their League Championship Series triumphs at the links below. This article will focus squarely on the games of the 1990 World Series.
The rules of the time meant that homefield advantage was set on a rotation system rather than merit. 1990 was the National League’s turn. So the 103-win A’s went on the road to old Riverfront Stadium to open up against the 91-win Reds.
Oakland might have been on the road, but they had one of the great big-game pitchers of his era in Dave Stewart ready to roll for Game 1. Cincinnati countered with their own young ace, Jose Rijo. And it didn’t take long for the Reds to send a message that they weren’t rolling over for anyone.
After Billy Hatcher worked a one-out walk, Cincy’s star centerfielder Eric Davis unloaded with a home run to dead center. The Reds had a quick 2-0 lead.
Oakland had action going against Rijo in both the top of the second and the top of the third, getting two on with two out each time. On both occasions, Rijo got the key out, one of them a strikeout of Mark McGwire. It kept the 2-0 lead intact for when the Reds got back to work against Stewart in the bottom of the third.
Again, it started with a walk, this time to Barry Larkin. Hatcher followed with an RBI double. When the throw home allowed Hatcher to take third, he was able to score on Paul O’Neill’s ground ball. 4-0 Reds.
Even with Stewart out after four innings, no one in Cincinnati could get comfortable. Over the last three years in the ALCS, the A’s had routinely spotted opponents leads, then rallied back. And they loaded up the bases in the fifth for McGwire. The slugging first baseman missed another opportunity, popping out to end the threat.
In the bottom of the fifth, the Reds blew it open. Hatcher doubled again. O’Neill worked a walk. Davis lined an RBI single into center. After a productive ground ball out moved the runners to second and third, Cincinnati did what Oakland was not doing tonight—get the big two-out hit. A single from Chris Sabo plated two runs and made it 7-0. That’s where Game 1 ended.
The first punch thrown by the Reds was a surprise, but there was no reason for alarm in Oakland or to doubt the ultimate outcome of this Series. All the A’s really needed to do was pick up a road split anyway. And their rotation was deeper. Bob Welch was a 27-game winner and would win the Cy Young Award in 1990. That was Oakland’s #2 starter. Danny Jackson went for Cincinnati in Game 2.
The A’s quickly went to work. Rickey Henderson led off the game with a single and stole second. Carney Lansford bunted him up and a ground ball out from Jose Canseco picked up the run. McGwire and Dave Henderson each hit two-out singles, but Jackson kept the score at 1-0.
And once again, the Cincinnati bats wasted no time in making themselves heard. Larkin and Hatcher hit back-to-back doubles to start the first. The first Oakland lead of the Series was gone as quickly as it had arrived. Productive outs from O’Neill and Eric Davis gave the Reds a 2-1 lead.
Jackson created his own problem in the top of the second with a throwing error that put a runner on second with no one out, but he pitched around it. The Cincy starter was not so fortunate in the top of the third. Canseco homered to tie the game 2-2. McGwire’s single was followed by two walks. There was only one man out. Ron Hassey gave the A’s the lead with a sac fly and Mike Gallego’s two-out single put Oakland ahead 4-2. Jackson was given the early hook and the inning ended there.
The top of the Cincinnati order was locked in. Larkin and Hatcher immediately answered with a single and double to start the bottom of the third, and there were runners on second and third with no outs. But Welch buckled down. He got O’Neill on a fly ball to shallow to allow the speedy Larkin to tag up from third. Welch got Eric Davis to bounce out back to him. And he got Hal Morris to escape.
Cincinnati did get one run back in the bottom of the fourth. Joe Oliver doubled and veteran utility infielder Ron Oester, batting in the pitcher’s spot, came up with the key two-out RBI hit. Jack Armstrong came out of the Reds’ bullpen and quieted the A’s down with three shutout innings. Welch also settled in. The 4-3 Oakland lead still stood in the bottom of the eighth.
Hatcher wasn’t just hitting, he was finding gaps. This time with a leadoff triple. After a walk to O’Neill, Eric Davis got one in the air. But this was another fly ball to short to score a fast runner. Oakland manager Tony LaRussa summoned Rick Honeycutt, his lefthanded setup man, to face the lefty Morris.
Cincinnati skipper Lou Pinella countered by sending up righthanded hitting Glenn Braggs and Braggs was able to deliver the productive out that tied the game.
This was now strength on strength. The Reds’ bullpen—the “Nasty Boys” of Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton and Randy Myers was the best part of their team. The A’s had Dennis Eckersley, the top closer in the game. Dibble tossed two shutout innings. Eck worked the bottom of the ninth without incident and got the first out in the tenth.
Then utility man Billy Bates, the unlikeliest of possible heroes, beat out a slow roller. A single from Sabo put runners on first and second. And for the second time tonight, Oliver doubled. This one won the game, 5-4.
Cincinnati now had the nation’s attention. Hatcher had set a World Series record with seven consecutive hits over these last nights. The Reds led this World Series 2-0 as the action headed west for the weekend.
Mike Moore was Oakland’s starter for a Game 3 they now had to play with desperation. Tom Browning was going for Cincinnati. For the third straight game, the Reds started hitting right away in the first inning. But this time, three singles were wrapped around a double-play grounder from Hatcher, so nothing went up on the board.
Sabo led off the second with a home run. The A’s countered in their half of the second with a double from Dave Henderson and a two-run blast from Harold Baines to get a 2-1 lead. There was still reason for Oakland fans to feel positive over where this Series might go over the next few days.
But the Baines home run was actually the last time that A’s fans could feel really good in the 1990 season. The top of the third was the most stunning moment yet in a Series already filled with unexpected moments.
With one out, a Hatcher single and McGwire error, put the Reds in business. Eric Davis singled to tie up the game 2-2. The throw home put runners on second and third and allowed Morris to give Cincy the lead with an RBI groundout. Sabo uncorked his second home run of the night. Suddenly it was 5-2. Todd Benzinger singled and LaRussa was coming to get Moore.
And even though there were two outs, this inning wasn’t over. Oliver was turning into a doubles machine, delivering another two-base hit that scored a run. Mariano Duncan’s single made it 7-2. Duncan stole second and scored when Larkin tripled. 8-2 Reds.
Rickey Henderson hit a leadoff home run in the bottom of the third, allowing for thoughts that the potent Oakland lineup wouldn’t go quietly. But they did. Browning allowed just two hits the rest of the night. The 8-3 score held up.
Saturday night’s Rijo-Stewart rematch, with both pitchers on short rest, was now taking place under circumstances no one would have remotely considered. I’m sure that somewhere in the country, some prescient handicapper might have predicted that the Reds would pull the upset in this World Series. No one in their right mind talked about a Cincinnati sweep. But that’s what was at hand on Saturday night.
In the bottom of the first, Willie McGee doubled for Oakland. Eric Davis made a noble effort at a sliding catch, but it was a costly one. He tore his kidney in four places. The great player not only had to leave Game 4 and be returned to Cincinnati, but he would never be the same player after the injury. In a week of baseball where everything otherwise went right for the Reds, this was a decidedly sour note.
McGee was brought around on a two-out base hit from the ever-clutch Lansford. But that was the last hit the Oakland A’s would get this season.
Stewart looked like he might make it stand up. Oliver hit his fourth double of the Series to lead off the third, but Stewart pitched around it. In the top of the sixth, the Reds had runners on the corners and no outs. Stewart got O’Neill to pop out and Morris to hit into a double play. Stewart pitched around another leadoff double in the seventh, this one from Sabo and kept it a 1-0 game. The A’s starter had the reputation as a gamer and he lived up to that reputation tonight.
But with Rijo in complete control, it wasn’t going to take much. Larkin singled to start the top of the eighth. Herm Winningham dropped down what was supposed to be a sacrifice bunt, but he beat it out. O’Neill bunted and Stewart muffed it. The bases were loaded.
Braggs grounded into a forceout at second, but the tying run came in. Morris had a chance to atone for his missed chance in the sixth. This time, he got the ball in the air. The fly ball to right was deep enough to bring in Winningham. The Reds had barely touched Stewart, but now they led 2-1.
Rijo got the next four hitters out. Myers came out of the Cincinnati bullpen to finish the job. When he got Lansford to pop out to Benzinger behind the first base bag, the improbable Reds upset was complete.
There were no shortage of heroes for the Reds. Sabo went 9-for-16 and homered twice in the Game 3 win that all but sealed the championship. Larkin and Oliver had six hits apiece over the four games. Dibble and Myers combined to work nearly eight innings of shutout ball. But the debate over 1990 World Series MVP really came down to two men–Hatcher and Rijo.
Both had Series that were better than any number of players who have won MVP down through the years. Hatcher went 9-for-12 with five extra base hits. Rijo beat Stewart twice and allowed just one run to the most feared lineup in the sport over 15-plus innings. If I had a vote, I would have leaned Hatcher, given how many of his hits came in the first two games when the Reds were taking surprise control of this Series. But I have no issue with the people who actually did have votes choosing Rijo for the honor.
The history of major league baseball is filled with postseason upsets. If Cincinnati had won this Series in a riveting seven games, it would be one of many postseason surprises. But the Reds won the Series in a sweep. Two of the games were blowouts. This was simply a turn of events no one could have foreseen. It’s what makes the 1990 World Series not just one of the great upsets in baseball history, but one of the great championship upsets in all of professional sports.