Second-place finishes in 1985 and 1986 had been welcome breaths of fresh air in Cincinnati, coming off a run of four bad years. It was looking like Pete Rose was going to be a success in his new gig as a manager. The 1987 Cincinnati Reds came into the season with high hopes. They had one of the most dynamic young players in baseball with Eric Davis. They were expected to step up and win the old NL West. But while Davis was good as advertised, the team as a whole was a disappointment.
Davis’ play was electric, highlight-reel stuff at a time when ESPN’s daily highlight packages were just starting to become a thing. He was the Michael Jordan of baseball, hitting 37 homers, stealing 50 bases, making great defensive plays in centerfield, putting up a .399 on-base percentage and a .593 slugging percentage. The only downside? His aggressive play led to injuries and limited him to 129 games.
Kal Daniels was a similar exciting young player and the left fielder had both 26 homers and 26 steals. His stat line was even better than Davis’, at .429/.617. But his injuries were an even bigger problem, and Daniels only played 108 games.
Nick Esasky provided power at first base and got his injuries out of the way early. Starting his season in May, Esasky played 100 games and hit 22 homers. Dave Parker, the veteran rightfielder, added 26 more home runs.
Dave Concepion, the proud veteran shortstop of the Big Red Machine era in the 1970s, was being phased out for another up-and-coming talent in Barry Larkin. But Concepion still played 104 games and posted an excellent .377 OBP. Third baseman Buddy Bell’s on-base percentage was .369. Tracy Jones was the outfielder who got playing time thanks to the injury problems, and Jones had a respectable stat line of .333/.437.
All of which is to say that Cincinnati could score runs, third-most in the National League. The injuries could have been overcome. But the pitching was lacking.
Tom Browning was the biggest disappointment. A generally reliable lefthander, both prior to this season and after, Browning struggled to a 5.02 ERA in his 31 starts. Ted Power made 34 starts and his ERA was a mediocre 4.50. Bill Gullickson was similarly mediocre and was traded by late summer. Rose didn’t have anyone reliable in the rotation.
The bullpen was pretty good. John Franco was the closer and the lefty saved 32 games with a 2.52 ERA. Frank Williams and Rob Murphy both logged over 100 innings and ERAs of 2.30 and 3.04 respectively. The pen kept the pitching staff from completely falling off the cliff. But they couldn’t overcome the rotation problems and the Cincy staff ERA ended up ninth in the 12-team National League.
What’s more, the standards for making the postseason prior to the realignment and playoff expansion of 1994 were much higher. Each league was split into just two divisions, an East and a West and only the first-place finisher could qualify. Cincinnati, along with Atlanta, was miscast in the NL West, joining Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Houston (a National League team prior to 2013).
The expectations were high and the early part of the season was exciting. Houston was the defending NL West champ and the Astros came to old Riverfront Stadium for a four-game set in mid-April. It would be the Eric Davis Show.
Davis had three hits in Friday night’s opener, while Parker drove in three runs. The Reds won a 9-8 slugfest. Davis came back the following afternoon and homered, tripled and drove in three more runs. The Reds coasted to an 8-0 win. After dropping the opening game of Sunday’s doubleheader, it was time for Daniels to do his thing in the nightcap. The leftfielder doubled and homered, while Jones added a two-run blast of his own. Cincinnati’s 6-2 win capped off a successful early series.
When the Reds went to Houston for the rematch, Cincinnati ripped off a three-game sweep. They were 14-5, and the talk of baseball in April.
But May was mediocre. Losing a home series to the lowly Braves quelled the momentum. The Reds lost three straight in St. Louis, where the Cardinals were embarking on what would be a pennant year. By Memorial Day, Cincinnati’s record was down to 23-20. They were in second place, three games back of San Francisco.
The Reds found their mojo again in the early summer. They won nine of twelve out of the Memorial Day holiday, including a series win over the Cardinals. Cincinnati reclaimed first place and nudged out to a three-game lead. The momentum again slowed when they went 6-8 in a stretch of games against NL West opponents. In late June, the Reds paid a visit to San Francisco for a key three-game set.
Parker and Concepion, the proud vets, had two hits apiece in Tuesday night’s opener. It was enough for starting pitcher Ron Robinson, who worked into the seventh inning, and the bullpen closed out a 4-1 win. Davis resumed his highlight film on Wednesday with a three-hit night. The last of those hits was a single that began the 10th inning of a 4-4 game. When a pickoff throw went awry and bounced around, Davis circled the bases with what proved to be the winning run.
Thursday’s finale was no less dramatic. Davis had three more hits, including a home run. His ninth-inning double led to the go-ahead run. The bullpen was given a 6-5 lead. In a rare lapse, the pen coughed it up and the 7-6 loss cost Cincinnati a sweep. But it was still a big series win, that was followed up by sweeping a two-game set in Houston.
When the All-Star break arrived, the Reds were 47-40. The NL West was the weaker of the two divisions in the National League this season, so that was good enough for first place. Cincinnati was up 2 ½ games on Houston and plus-three on San Francisco.
That lead nudged as high as four games in the immediate aftermath of the All-Star break. But the bats can only carry you so far in baseball. August is known to be a cruel month for teams that can’t pitch. And so it was for the 1987 Cincinnati Reds.
A four-game series in San Francisco didn’t go as well as the June trip. This time, the offense only scored seven runs for the entire series. Cincinnati lost all four games. This was the start of a brutal 6-18 stretch that included being swept at home by St. Louis and on the road by lowly Pittsburgh. That four-game lead turned into a six-game deficit by Labor Day. The record dipped under .500, to 68-69.
It was San Francisco who was taking over, and the Reds still had five games with the Giants in September. But Cincinnati lost three of those five, and, quite frankly, it didn’t matter. With a week and a half to go, the Reds were still on .500, with a 77-77 record. It took a nice closing week to end up at 84-78 and move past the collapsing Astros to finish in second place.
Cincinnati’s final record was fifth-best in the National League and 11th-best in the majors. Depending on how you want to look at it, you could argue that were playoff-caliber by the standards of today. But barely. And more to the point, they weren’t playoff-caliber by the actual standards of 1987. In fact, a year that began with such promise, saw regression.
While no one would have guessed how ugly the ending of the Pete Rose era was actually going to be, this 1987 season was at least a hint it wasn’t going to end with champagne in October.