Pete Rose had returned to the Cincinnati Reds with much fanfare, as player-manager late in 1984 season. Rose broke Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record on the field, and in the dugout, he turned out a struggling franchise. The Reds went from cellar-dwellers to three straight second-place finishes from 1985-87. The 1988 Cincinnati Reds continued that string—but by now, second place was a disappointment and a tumultuous year was the precursor to the eventual end of Rose in baseball.
Cincinnati had a core of outstanding young talent. Barry Larkin was 24-years-old, and a future Hall of Famer at shortstop. But if you looked at the Reds in 1988 and knew there was a future inductee in the lineup, Larkin wouldn’t have been your first choice. Maybe even not the second.
Eric Davis was a dynamic centerfielder, who finished with an on-base percentage of .363, hit 26 home runs, stole 35 bases and made highlight defensive plays. Kal Daniels was a rising star in left, a .397 OBP, 18 home runs and 27 stolen bases.
Paul O’Neill wasn’t on a par with these two young players, though he ultimately had the longer-lasting career. And Chris Sabo, the 26-year-old third baseman, stole 46 bases. The group of five—Larkin, Davis, Daniels, O’Neill and Sabo made the Reds one of the most exciting young teams in baseball and the lineup finished fifth in the National League in runs scored.
The young talent wasn’t confined to the everyday lineup. Danny Jackson, a 26-year-old lefty was atop the rotation and he won 23 games with a 2.73 ERA and logged 260 innings. Tom Browning was an 18-game winner and worked 250 innings. Cincinnati acquired Jose Rijo in the offseason and in 162 innings, he won 13 games with a 2.39 ERA.
Depth hurt the rest of the rotation though. Jackson and Browning were the only pitchers to make at least twenty starts, and Rijo was the only one Rose tried that worked out. Veterans Mario Soto and Dennis Rasmussen struggled, as did young Jack Armstrong.
The bullpen as pretty good though, with John Franco being one of the best closers in the game, saving 39 games with a 1.57 ERA. Rob Murphy and Frank Williams were solid middle relievers and another rising star was in the pen, a flamethrower named Rob Dibble, who posted a buck-82 ERA. Cincy’s staff, along with its lineup, ranked fifth in the National League.
In spite of this talent, the Reds struggled out of the gate. After muddling along for much of April, more or less in the race, they hit a disastrous stretch. From April 26 to May 8, they went 4-8 and allowed the Los Angeles Dodgers to get separation in the NL West. Six of the losses came to the New York Mets and the real disaster came in one of those losses—Rose argued a call with umpire Dave Pallone, deliberately bumped into the umpire and was suspended for thirty days.
The rest of the spring and the early summer didn’t go a whole lot better. Tommy Helms served as the interim manager and by Memorial Day, the Reds were 23-25, 5 ½ games back of Los Angeles. They went 1-5 against the Dodgers in June and fell as far as 10 ½ games back, before winning seven of the last ten prior to the All-Star break and closing back to 7 ½, with a record of 42-45.
Cincinnati started to make a little move in August. They beat Los Angeles four times in six tries, including a thriller on August 11. They trailed 8-6 in the bottom of the ninth, before scoring twice to tie it and then winning on a Davis base hit in the 10th. Their deficit in the NL West was six games, but even though they went 14-8 after that win, the Dodgers were able to hold serve and on Labor Day, the deficit was still 6 ½ games, even if Cincinnati’s record was now 71-64.
On September 9, the Reds were in Los Angeles for a three-game set. The following weekend would be a return series in Cincinnati. This was the last chance to make a move. Jackson got the road series off to a good start with a complete-game win on Friday night. The Reds faced Orel Hershiser on Saturday, and the Dodger ace was in the midst of his major league record 58 scoreless innings streak. The game, of course, ended as a shutout loss, 5-0.
But if Cincinnati could win the Sunday rubber match, they would still be alive. Browning handed a 3-2 lead to Franco in the ninth inning. With two on and two out, an infield hit tied the game and a walkoff home run won it for the Dodgers. The race was all but over.
The pennant-race drama was stripped from the final Reds-Dodgers series at old Riverfront Stadium, but Browning made sure to give the fans something—he threw a perfect game in the Friday opener. And the Reds did win 10 of their last 13, to finish 87-74, again in second place.
But the second-place finishes were starting to get old in Cincinnati. One year later, the problems Rose had with the commissioner’s office in 1988 would seem like child’s play—it was 1989 that he was banned for life for gambling on his own team and it turned into one lost season for the franchise. Rose, of course, has never come back, but the Reds weren’t far from better days—they won the World Series in 1990.