1990 The Big Sweep
The dauntless Reds socked it to the vaunted A's in one of the most dazzling upsets in World Series history
by Steve Wulf
Issue date: October 29, 1990
Stunned fans, media and A's looked like so many bobblehead dolls, nodding and shaking their heads, as the Reds cavorted on the field of the Oakland Coliseum at 8:14 Pacific Daylight Time. The A's had won 103 games in the regular season and had breezed into their third straight Fall Classic by sweeping the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. The Reds had won only 91 regular-season games and had struggled to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the playoffs. No team with so few victories had ever swept a World Series. The only other time a team had swept an opponent that had at least 12 more wins during the regular season was in 1954, when the New York Giants took four straight from the Cleveland Indians.
"The A's have the best talent in baseball," said Reds first baseman Todd Benzinger. "But we have the best team." Despite the bravado, some of the Reds were a little surprised by how easily they had won. Outfielder Billy Hatcher, whose seven consecutive hits established a Series record and whose .750 batting average (9 for 12) broke a mark for a four-game Series set by none other than Babe Ruth (.625 in 1928), said afterward, "We never let 'em get out of the box. I'll tell you something, though. I wouldn't want to be in their division next year. If we come back to the Series, I hope and pray we'll be playing the Red Sox or somebody else. I don't want to play them again. They're scary."
As disappointed as they must have been, the Athletics were gracious in defeat. Several came over to the visiting clubhouse after the game to offer their congratulations. Oakland manager Tony La Russa embraced Cincinnati , manager Lou Piniella, an old friend and teammate from their Tampa American Legion Post 248 team, and said, "It was almost enjoyable to see."
The Series, short though it may have been, was memorable. It featured a newborn son, a torn father-in-law, a First Lady, a pooch and a third baseman nicknamed after a pooch. The Reds, not the A's, played BillyBall, their Billys being Hatcher and Bates. The A's, not the Reds, became Nasty Boys, pointing fingers at one another and bashing fellow Bash Brother Jose Canseco.
In addition to the family dramas, there was plenty of suspense, especially in Games 2 and 4. But then, as pitcher Tom Browning, who had a rather interesting week, put it, "We've had people on the seat of their pants all season."
That wasn't the only malaprop of the Series. Reds owner Marge Schott dedicated the Series to "our women and men in the Far East." (She meant the Mideast, of course, but she also might have said Midwest.) And during an off- day interview session, Hatcher told reporters, "There wasn't an empty house in the seat." As it turned out, those were about the only mistakes the Reds made all week.
The Series began on Oct. 16 in Cincinnati, and most of the nation's baseball press brought along stone tablets on which to etch the chronicles of those Dynasty Boys, the Athletics. The citizens of Porkopolis and their beloved Reds would have none of that talk, however. At a noontime rally in Fountain Square, the emcee told a crowd of 7,000 fans, "We have to play a team that everyone says is unbeatable." After an appropriate chorus of boos, he said, "I guess you don't believe in that theory." Schott, accompanied by her St. Bernard, Schottzie, then led the crowd in the singing of Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
As the two teams took the field at Riverfront Stadium for Ball Game 1, there was hardly an empty house in the seat. Before the Series, Schott suggested that her players wear their Schottzie caps (Reds hats with long, floppy dog ears) in the first inning, to which pitcher Jose Rijo said, "I wouldn't pitch like that. No way, Jose." True to his word, Rijo, a former Athletic, wore a conventional cap for his matchup with his onetime mentor, Dave Stewart.
As it turned out, the Reds could have worn nearly anything and still have won. In the very first inning, leftfielder Eric Davis hit a Pat O'Brien-seeking missile near the CBS studio in left center to give Cincinnati a 2-0 lead. (DAVIS STUNS GOLIATH read the headline in The Cincinnati Post the next day.) Hatcher's double in the third, his first hit of so many, keyed a two-run rally, and his double in the fifth started a three-run rally off reliever Todd Burns. Rijo pitched seven shutout innings before turning the game over to the ever-charming, pea-throwing Nasty Boys, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers.
This was a game the A's were supposedly ordained to win, what with big-game hunter Stewart on the mound and all, yet Cincinnati came out on top 7-0. Having knocked the Athletics' blocks off, the Reds revealed a few chips on their own shoulders. "Everybody's gonna say that this is the only game we're gonna win," said Dibble. "Everybody's gonna say the A's will come back."
Said third baseman Chris Sabo, who had a two-run single in the fifth, "People who make predictions are people who never played." When Davis was asked if the Reds had shown the nation how good they were, he replied, "The nation doesn't concern me. The nation ain't in this clubhouse." A quick look around revealed that he might have been wrong about that.
The one Red who seemed to be having a good time was Rijo. He had gotten into some hot water in the playoffs when he declared, after Cincinnati had taken a three-games-to-one lead over the Pirates, that "it's over." Asked after Game 1, "Is it over?" Rijo answered, "No, no, no, no, no, no. Jogi's right: It's not over till it's over." Then, in explaining why there's less pressure in the Series than in the playoffs, Rijo uttered his own Jogi-ism: "When you get here, you're there."
The victory gave Rijo a leg up on his father-in-law, Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, whose only World Series appearance had been four shutout innings in Game 4 of the San Francisco Giants' 1962 Series with the New York Yankees he had to leave that game when Whitey Ford hit him on the hand with a pitch. Marichal was in Cincinnati as the analyst for Major League Baseball's Spanish-language broadcast, but he is also director of Oakland's Latin- American scouting. "I wanted Jose to pitch well, but I wanted the A's to win," said Marichal. "My daughter Rosie ((Rijo's wife)) doesn't understand that I have to root for the A's."
Game 2 had a family angle as well. George Bush had been the probable first- ball pitcher but had to cancel budget crisis, you know. So Barbara Bush was named to replace him, which immediately got Schott to thinking, Why not bring Millie to play with Schottzie? Millie, the White House springer spaniel, couldn't make it, however budget crisis, you know. So the First Lady took the field solo to throw out the first ball. Said her catcher, Cincinnati's Joe Oliver, "She had a pretty good fastball, good movement. I'm glad I had a sponge in my mitt."
After the throw, the First Lady gave Oliver a peck on the cheek, and the next thing anyone knew, she was bussing Piniella and La Russa, Schott was kissing La Russa and Piniella, and La Russa was down on his knees talking to Schottzie, who was wearing a Reds cap. One could only imagine what La Russa, an ardent animal-rights activist, was saying to the Saint Bernard. ("You don't have to let yourself be humiliated like this, you know. Let me take off your collar. Now run, girl, run. . . .") La Russa later described Schottzie this way: "She was gorgeous. The highlight was definitely getting to Schottzie. She's a great lady."
Oh yeah, the game. Cincinnati won 5-4 in the 10th inning of one of the most exciting games in World Series history. The A's finally scored a run, in the first on a Rickey rally: Henderson singled, stole second, went to third on a sacrifice and scored on a groundout. But the Reds came right back with two runs in the bottom of the first off 27-game winner Bob Welch: Hatcher doubled in a run and scored after a fly-out and groundout. The A's recaptured the lead in the third, chasing starter Danny Jackson with three runs, the first of which came on a solo homer by Canseco. Cincinnati closed the score to 4-3 in the fourth on a pinch single by Ron Oester that Piniella later called "the turning point of the Series."
The real turning point came in the bottom of the eighth. Even though the A's had a one-run lead and closer Dennis Eckersley was warmed up, La Russa let Welch start the inning. Hatcher the name comes up a lot in stories about underdog teams beating the A's in the World Series (viz., Mickey Hatcher of the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers) led off the inning with a fly ball to right that Canseco misplayed. The resulting triple broke the Series record of six consecutive hits, held by Goose Goslin (1924) and Thurman Munson ('76). Hatcher could have scored when Davis flied to right, but for some reason he froze at third. Fortunately for him, he did tie the score when pinch-hitter Glenn Braggs grounded to short.
In the bottom of the 10th, La Russa finally called on Eckersley. He got Davis out on a grounder, and Piniella, running out of players, turned to little-used, little-sized infielder Billy Bates. Bates, who had been added to the postseason roster only because Bill Doran was injured, had a grand total of three hits in the majors. He was so expendable that the Reds offered him up in a race against a cheetah during a late-season promotion for the Cincinnati Zoo. Bates won, but the cheetah had stopped to pick up the cap that had flown off Bates's head.
Eckersley, perhaps the greatest relief pitcher of all time, got two quick strikes on Bates. He fouled off another strike. Then he swung, barely catching the top half of the ball. It took a crazy bounce to the left of the mound. Third baseman Carney Lansford couldn't handle the ball, and Bates was on first. No problem. Righthanded hitters batted .152 against the Eck this year, and the next two batters, Sabo and Oliver, hit .235 and .179, respectively, against righties.
Problem. Sabo singled to left on a pitch Eckersley thought Sabo should have hit for a home run to put runners on first and second with one out. Oliver bounced a ball down the third base line that Lansford might have gotten had he been playing closer to the bag and certainly would have gotten had the game been played on grass. But the ball skittered past him, and Bates raced the cheetah home and was nearly hit by a huge white streamer that fell to the ground. Bedlam ensued.
Afterward La Russa uncharacteristically questioned the play of his rightfielder, Canseco. Even more in question, though, was La Russa's strategy. If La Russa had sent Eckersley into the game to start the eighth inning, the outcome might have been entirely different. Little wonder some newspaper columnists described La Russa as "Man Asleep," a takeoff on Men at Work, George Will's best-selling baseball book, which includes a laudatory chapter on La Russa's managerial acumen.
The Billys could have been goats, but they were the heroes. "To tell you the truth," said Bates, "things happened so quickly, I didn't even realize this was a World Series game." Said Oester of Bates, "He's sort of like the mascot of the team."
Hatcher is such an unassuming sort that when he was told of the record he had broken, he said, "Thank you." He also said personal records didn't mean anything to him: "I want a ring. When I was with Houston, Yogi Berra used to show me all those rings, and I want one. They're pretty."
Unbeknownst to the 55,832 people in attendance, another drama was unfolding underneath the stands. Debbie Browning, the wife of Tom, went into labor during the game her contractions were coming one batter apart and she left her seat in the fifth inning to drive herself to the hospital. A van, however, was blocking her car, so she went into the Cincinnati clubhouse to get help. Word of her predicament was passed to her husband. Browning, who was scheduled to start Game 3, figured he wouldn't be needed, so he left to drive her to St. Elizabeth South without telling anyone. "She was in the driver's seat," said Browning later, "and I just asked her, 'Can I go?' " The Brownings, who have two other children, Tiffany, 6, and Tanner, 3, arrived at the hospital in 20 minutes.
In the meantime, Piniella was running out of pitchers and asked pitching coach Stan Williams, "Where's Browning?" Williams didn't know. Eventually, the Reds, thinking that Browning was en route to a nearby hospital, had radio broadcaster Marty Brennaman put out an APB on Browning, a bulletin that was picked up by Tim McCarver on CBS, who passed it along in the ninth inning. That's when Browning, who was watching the game in a hospital waiting room, got the message. "When I heard that, I panicked," he said. "But I decided I wouldn't leave Debbie until I knew she and the baby were all right."
He was still dressed in his uniform, of course. "I looked kind of goofy, like some sort of crazy fan who had wandered into the hospital," he said. The doctor made him get rid of his chaw, and he had taken off his hat, but there he was in his scrubs as a Caesarean section was performed on Debbie. The game ended at 11:57 p.m., and Tucker Thomas Browning came into the world at 12:37 a.m., weighing six pounds, 11 ounces. "He came out crying, 'Win! Win!' " said Tom.
By the time all parties had arrived in Oakland on Thursday, the A's were being hit over the head with all those stone tablets the writers had brought. Canseco, in particular, was hit hard. He had become the symbol of the Athletics' failure in the first two games. Even Stewart had criticized his play. To be fair, Canseco was hurt, with both a sore back and a sore forefinger on his right hand. Still, La Russa thought he should have a heart- to-heart, or toe-to-toe, talk with Canseco as the other A's worked out.
For their part, the Reds were talking about Browning, who had boarded the charter with one hour's sleep and was scheduled to pitch in 24 hours. The lefthander patiently recounted his adventures for the press time and time again as Rijo patrolled the outfield dressed in a T-shirt that read: IT'S OVER.
If Game 2 was one of the best games in Series history, Game 3 might have been one of the worst, at least as far as Oakland is concerned. Stewart threw out the ceremonial first ball in recognition of his Roberto Clemente Award for community involvement, but Mike Moore made the first pitch, and he had nothing. He dodged a bullet in the first, giving up three singles and no runs, but in the second he served up a solo homer to Sabo. The A's took the lead in the bottom of the inning on a two-run homer by Harold Baines, but in the top of the third, Moore allowed five more runs, two on Sabo's second homer. Mark McGwire made an error in the inning, and centerfielder Dave Henderson made an egregious throw to third that enabled a runner to advance a base.
When Scott Sanderson took over for Moore, the game was over. Just to make sure, Sanderson gave up a double to Oliver, a single to Mariano Duncan and a triple to Barry Larkin. All in all, 11 Reds came to the plate in the third, and seven of them scored. A solo homer by Rickey Henderson in the third ended the scoring at 8-3. Canseco had a chance to get the A's back into the game in the fifth when he came up with two men on and two out, but he flied out to right.
Oakland fans who left early to beat the traffic were excused. The stadium speakers played B.B. King's The Thrill Is Gone. And for a minute, fans thought Oakland catcher Terry Steinbach was wandering around the upper deck in full armor. It turned out to be an imposter, but such was the state of things that had it really been Steinbach, the crowd would have understood.
Browning was not overwhelming, but he did give Cincinnati six innings before giving way to Dibble and Myers. Hey, he was still a little foggy from lack of sleep. "I can't tell if the last 48 hours were heaven or hell," said Browning. He is so down-to-earth that he took "that railroad, the BART" to the Coliseum with Reds equipment manager Bernie Stowe and Stowe's son Rick. "I don't know how he's even standing on his feet," said the younger Stowe. "The phone started ringing at seven this morning."
Besides hitting what Rickey Henderson called "key home runs," Sabo also set two Series records: errorless chances in a game at third base (10) and lifeless responses to postgame questions (75). Sabo, who's known as Spuds for his resemblance to a certain beer hound, didn't seem to be enjoying himself. Said Sabo after Game 3, "I don't have much to say. I like to do my job. I get no satisfaction getting publicity. I'd rather have my teammates appreciate me."
And they do. Said rightfielder Paul O'Neill, "A storybook game. He hit two home runs, he got on base, he made great defensive plays on a field he has never played on. He kind of took us on his shoulders and played the game for us."
Sabo also cautioned his teammates not to get overconfident. "Anybody here who thinks it's over, I oughta slap 'em around a bit," he said. Little wonder that Rijo was walking around with his mouth taped shut. Taking the tape off for a moment, Rijo said, "It's not over. But it's close."
Of the 17 teams that had trailed three games to none in the World Series, only three had won the fourth game, and none had won the fifth. So the odds were against the A's coming back. Still, they did have Stewart on the mound for Game 4. And what's this? La Russa surprises everybody by starting Willie McGee, who hadn't started in Games 2 or 3, in right instead of Canseco and Jamie Quirk behind the plate instead of Steinbach.
In spite of the last-minute lineup changes, or maybe because of them, the mood was hardly festive in the Coliseum last Saturday evening. One banner, its creator trying hard to get on CBS, referring to the size of a certain contract, read: CANSECO BAGS SERIES $23 MILLION? Overhead, a plane carried a streamer for Amnesty International that included a phone number and the message STOP TORTURE. One of the few hopeful signs read: IT'S NOT OVER 'TIL MARGE SINGS.
Stewart sent a message albeit inadvertently to the Reds in the first inning, when he hit Hatcher on the left hand with a pitch. Hatcher had to leave the game an inning later and go to the hospital for X-rays, which were negative. The A's scored their only run in their half of the first. McGee hit a sinking liner to left center, and Davis dived for it. He caught the ball, but upon rolling over, he dropped it and bruised his ribs and a kidney. Davis, too, left the game after the first inning to go to the hospital, where he was to stay for five to seven days. With two out, Piniella had Rijo walk Baines with first base open. That curiously conservative ploy backfired when Lansford singled in McGee.
Rijo walked two batters in the second, but after that he was literally perfect. Mixing in what he called his best slider of the year with a fastball clocked at 90-plus mph, he set the A's down in order in the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth. Stewart worked out of jams in the third, fifth, sixth and seventh, although he later said, "Those jams were cake."
The cake crumbled in the eighth. Or rather, the balloon popped. At the start of the inning, a yellow balloon came wandering across the infield behind the mound. Stewart walked over to the balloon and playfully spiked it. Said Dibble, "In the bullpen we knew immediately that Stewart had done a stupid thing. He had burst his own balloon."
Larkin led off with a single. Herm Winningham, who had replaced Hatcher, laid down a two-strike bunt that neither Stewart nor Quirk could field in time. When the next batter, O'Neill, laid down another bunt, Stewart picked up the ball and threw wide of first. First base ump Randy Marsh said the throw pulled Willie Randolph off the bag, although replays showed that he was wrong and that O'Neill was out. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Braggs, who had replaced Davis, grounded into a force play at second, and Larkin scored the tying run. Then Hal Morris hit a sacrifice fly to deep rightfield, and suddenly the Reds were ahead 2-1.
Rijo caught Dave Henderson looking to lead off the bottom of the ninth for his 20th straight out, but with the lefthanded Baines coming up, Piniella went out to the mound. Said Piniella later, "I asked him if he wanted to stay in, and he said, 'That's up to you.' When a pitcher tells me that, I know it's time."
So he summoned Myers in from the bullpen. La Russa countered with this sounds funny pinch-hitter Jose Canseco. Canseco grounded out to Sabo, and Lansford popped out to Benzinger. Thus ended the game, the Series and the dynasty. "It's over big time," said Rijo.
Said Schott, "Wasn't it nice of the men to let me win one? My only regrets are that the fans in Cincinnati and Schottzie couldn't be here to celebrate with us." Then, patting her left side, she said, "I did bring something of Schottzie with me." Inside her dress, apparently, was some hair of the dog.
Though the Reds couldn't share the celebration with many fans, they did party late into Saturday night on the Coliseum field with family and friends and scores of TV crews. Drinking something out of a Gatorade container sparkling cider, no doubt Browning said, "I can't wait to tell Tucker that he was born while we were becoming world champions."
Browning then tilted his head back, laughed the laugh of a madman and said, "World champions. Kind of has a nice ring to it, don't you think?"
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