The '99 Reds and their path to Game 163

September 19th, 2019

The accomplishments and brotherhood shared by the 1999 Cincinnati Reds were doomed to end on Oct. 4, when the New York Mets defeated them, 5-0, in a one-game tiebreaker to qualify for the postseason.

Yet just as the sun was setting on the Reds’ sweet, singular summer, they created something that can’t be bought but is often sought: pure, unadulterated inspiration. They inspired fans to sell out Cinergy Field, their home ballpark, for a game that had been scheduled less than 24 hours earlier. 

“I’m getting the chills right now even thinking about that,” first baseman Sean Casey said. “The fans connected with us.”

When tickets for the tiebreaker game went on sale 12 hours before first pitch, fans ultimately bought all 54,621 of them. The sudden sellout was a remarkable development given that the Reds finished 11th in National League attendance.

But as the season progressed, the talented, engaging bunch of Reds had stirred the dormant fan base. Now, 20 years later, the ballclub remains lodged in the collective consciousness of the Reds’ faithful. Like the 1954 Yankees or 1993 Giants, who won 103 games apiece, the ’99 Reds will be remembered as the franchise’s best club not to reach the postseason -- a compelling, yet frustrating what-if that lingers from a 96-67 finish.

Third baseman Aaron Boone, now the Yankees’ manager, called the team the “perfect blend of veterans and youth.” 

“We played with a joy,” he added. “We played with a hunger. There’s no question that 1999 was the most fun year I ever had playing baseball.”

Exemplifying that chemistry and sheer exuberance, the Reds created “the bounce,” in which players huddle to engulf the individual who stroked the game-winning hit (usually a home run) and jump up and down rhythmically. It captivated crowds. 

“People who go to Reds Fantasy Camp ask me about that team all the time,” catcher Eddie Taubensee said.

Added reliever Danny Graves: “Fans that I run into taIk about it and want to know all about it. People remember that year because it was so fun. We were good entertainment.”

The Personalities

Barry Larkin, en route to the Hall of Fame, was the team’s unquestioned leader on what he called “a super-special team.” He commanded respect not only as team captain, but also as a 12-time All-Star and the NL’s 1995 Most Valuable Player. 

Days before Spring Training began, the captain received a capable staff sergeant in left fielder Greg Vaughn, whom the Reds obtained from the San Diego Padres in a five-player trade. Vaughn’s gruff exterior reflected his 24-7, 365-day preoccupation with winning. 

He demonstrated his intent by knocking Twins shortstop Cristian Guzman almost into short left field to break up a double play … in the Grapefruit League exhibition opener. Vaughn’s slide delivered a succinct message.

Said Vaughn, “Whoever comes in here to play us better bring their lunch.” 

The clubhouse atmosphere was perpetually high-spirited due largely to the presence of youngsters such as Boone, Casey, second baseman Pokey Reese and outfielder Dmitri Young. Casey was 24 when the season opened; Young was 25; Boone and Reese were 26. 

They occupied consecutive dressing stalls in the home clubhouse, making it impossible to say hello to just one of them each day. On scheduled off-days or before home night games, Casey and Reese visited various Cincinnati-area landmarks and displayed photos of their excursions in their clubhouse stalls.

Pete Harnisch, ace of the starting rotation, was a peerless leader. Though his humor occasionally strained the boundaries of good taste -- he was a deathly serious competitor whose furious work ethic set an example for other pitchers.

Graves, whose unblemished, angelic visage led to his nickname “The Baby-Faced Assassin,” assumed a part-time closer’s role, having steadily improved since the Reds acquired him from Cleveland in a 1997 Trade Deadline deal. Off the field, Graves liked to talk with anybody about anything. Graves’ open lines of communication kept him in touch with all of his teammates. So it can be assumed he spoke accurately when he said of the ’99 team: “As much of a cliché as it sounds, everybody was for everybody.”

That enthusiasm shaped the Reds’ style of play. Larkin actually had to tell Boone, his neighbor on the infieId’s left side, to try less hard. 

“I remember plenty of times that year having to call Boonie off on ground balls hit a step to my right,” Larkin said. “Everybody was super, super aggressive.”

Casey, the NL’s leading hitter for much of the season, used the same word to describe his offensive approach. 

“I’m going to start being more aggressive,” he told himself.

He employed this plan immediately, drilling an Opening Day home run against the Giants.

The Pitching

Pitching, or the Reds’ lack of it, got their attention immediately. San Francisco scored 26 runs while sweeping the season-opening three-game series. (Incidentally, the Reds never lost more than three games in a row all season.) The starting rotation included Jason Bere and Steve Avery, All-Stars who had been stripped of much of their skill by injuries. They’d be out of the rotation by June and July, respectively, though Bere returned in September to start in four Reds victories. With such erratic pitching, the Reds didn’t reach the .500 mark until May 18 (18-18).

Still stuck at .500 (22-22) as Memorial Day weekend began, the Reds won eight games in a row. They were even more efficient under adversity. After general manager Jim Bowden hinted that he might trade some marketable players to reduce payroll unless the team showed signs of contending, the Reds won 10 consecutive games, including four in a row at Central division-rival Houston. The streak’s final victory came on July 1 and left the Reds a half-game ahead of the Astros.

“We belong here,” Taubensee said, articulating the team’s mindset at that time.

Pitching, which impeded the Reds’ progress earlier, hastened their success as the summer deepened. Injuries limited left-hander Denny Neagle to seven starts through July, but the one-time 20-game winner regained enough effectiveness to win nine of his final 11 decisions. And, for what it was worth, his imitation of a train whistle was spot-on.

Right-hander Steve Parris and left-hander Ron Villone arrived from Triple-A to bolster the rotation. Parris finished 11-4 despite recording 86 strikeouts in 128 2/3 innings. The 31-year-old had appeared in only 41 big league games since turning pro in 1989. 

“That was a guy nobody expected anything from,” Graves said. “His slurve or curve or whatever you want to call it, that was his equalizer. People couldn’t hit it.”

Villone, the powerfully built 6-foot-3, 245-pounder nicknamed “Big Rig” (Primarily due to his initials, as well as his musculature), feared no matchup, which he proved on June 30 by pitching an eight-inning one-hitter to outduel Arizona’s Randy Johnson.

But the pitching staff’s most intriguing novelty was right-hander Scott Williamson, who was 23 years old and seemed capable of throwing 123 mph. Generously listed at six-feet tall, the non-roster invitee amazed observers and bamboozled hitters by throwing fastballs that regularly exceeded 95 mph and split-finger fastballs that seemed to disappear before they reached home plate.

Williamson (12-7, 2.41 ERA, 19 saves) ultimately won the NL Rookie of the Year Award. He strengthened a formidable bullpen that included Graves (27 saves, 75 appearances, 111 innings) and sidewinding right-hander Scott Sullivan (79 games, 113 2/3 innings). Every pitcher was indebted to Reese, who seemingly saved a run per game at second base and earned a Gold Glove Award.

The Power

Offense, however, was the Reds’ hallmark. Mike Cameron (38 stolen bases, .825 OPS) provided a definite presence at the leadoff spot. Larkin scored 108 runs, his second-best single-season total, and surprised himself when he discovered a career best among his statistics: “I played 161 games that year. Damn! I don’t remember that.”

Vaughn (45 homers, 118 RBIs) had his second monster year in a row. Casey (.332/.399/.539, 25 homers, 99 RBIs) established himself as a perennial threat. After a slow start caused by illness, Boone batted .326 from June through August. Taubensee had his most prolific season ever (.311/.354/.521, 21 homers, 87 RBIs).

Manager Jack McKeon somehow found enough activity for outfielders Young (.300), Michael Tucker (11 homers, 44 RBIs) and Jeffrey Hammonds (.279/.347/.523) to keep them sharp when they played.

Cincinnati scored 865 runs, which remains the single-season franchise record in the modern era. The team also set franchise records for RBIs (820), total bases (2,549) and slugging percentage (.451).

On May 19, 1999, the Reds set three franchise marks by amassing 28 hits, 15 extra-base hits and 55 total bases in a 24-12 victory at Colorado. Hammonds hit three homers that afternoon, while Casey hit two.

When the Reds clobbered a NL-record nine homers in a 22-3 victory at Philadelphia on Sept. 4, nobody claimed that the ball was juiced.

Cincinnati’s 209 homers for the season ranked as the second-highest total in franchise history to that point. One, in particular, stood out from the rest.

On the afternoon of Aug. 17, the Reds were preparing for a night game at Cinergy Field against Pittsburgh. Displeased with his swings during early batting practice, utilityman Chris Stynes angrily flung his bat into the empty stands. Hours later, he belted a three-run, pinch-hit homer off Mike Williams with two outs in the 12th inning to forge a 7-4 Reds victory. It was the second and final home run of the season for Stynes, widely considered the team’s 25th man.

McKeon, who typically avoided extreme displays of emotion, seemed moved by Stynes’ clout.

“This,” McKeon said, “was the defining moment of our season.”

The Push

The rest was exciting, albeit bittersweet. The Stynes game kept the Reds tied with Houston atop the NL Central for the fifth day in a row. The next day, the Astros crept back ahead.

The Reds’ month-by-month record peaked in September (19-9). Unfortunately for them, Houston (16-9) nearly matched that. From Sept. 4-13, the Reds won 10 of 11 games, including seven in a row. Yet, they gained just a half-game on the Astros, who sustained a 12-game winning streak from Sept. 3-14.

The Reds had another punch left to throw, and it landed. After losing on Sept. 21, Cincinnati trailed Houston by 3 1/2 games with 10 left to play. The Reds were focused more on outlasting Houston for the division title than on besting the Mets for the Wild Card. They knew a critical two-game series in Houston was looming on Sept. 28-29.

The Reds (94-63) rolled into Houston on a five-game winning streak that had pulled them even with the Astros.

And more than just their winning streak buoyed the Reds as they opened that critical series. They had the ultimate amount of confidence in Harnisch, who was assigned to start the series opener. Harnisch (16-10) needed only 74 pitches to negotiate eight innings while leading the Reds into sole possession of first place with a 4-1 win over 20-game winner Jose Lima.

A similar script unfolded the next evening, except the roles were reversed. This time it was Houston’s Mike Hampton who dominated through eight innings as the Astros triumphed, 4-1. The Reds and Astros were tied yet again.

Now the Reds at least had to contemplate the notion of winning the Wild Card. Their postseason outlook improved on the final Thursday of the regular season. While they and Houston were off, the Mets (93-66) fell to Atlanta and thus dropped two full games behind the Reds and Astros (95-64).

All the Reds had to do was win Friday night at Milwaukee and they’d secure no less than a tie for a postseason spot. 

The (gut) Punch

But if you believe in the baseball gods, then you’ll believe that the Reds teased them -- causing the gods to strike back mercilessly.

It started when Reds players gathered Thursday night at the team hotel to discuss dividing postseason shares among non-uniformed personnel and players who had performed for less than a full season -- even though they hadn’t clinched anything yet.

When they arrived at Milwaukee County Stadium the next afternoon, clubhouse workers had attached a roll of plastic drapes atop each locker stall -- to be unfurled when the inevitable champagne celebration occurred. That was sheer hubris.

“I can tell you that I noticed it,” said Graves. “If you want to say you didn’t notice it, I’d say you’re full of it.”     

For a while, the Reds seemed to be avoiding the jinx. They led Milwaukee, 3-1, six innings into Friday’s series opener. Neagle had thrown 100 pitches and looked strong enough to work at least one more inning. But the situation gave McKeon his cue to put the game in the hands of his capable bullpen. 

“It was the formula he used all year,” Graves said. “It’s hard to second-guess him.”

Williamson blanked the Brewers in the seventh, but the Reds squandered an opportunity to pull away when they left the bases loaded in the eighth. Milwaukee capitalized on its reprieve by tying the score in its half of the eighth on Jeff Cirillo’s two-run single. Graves relieved Williamson, finished the inning unscathed and worked a scoreless ninth. Meanwhile, the Reds left two runners aboard in the both the ninth and 10th innings. In came Sullivan, who yielded Ronnie Belliard’s two-out RBI single that won it for Milwaukee in the 10th. 

Houston also lost, but the Mets won, placing themselves squarely in Cincinnati’s rearview mirror. Hold the champagne.

The next day, right-hander Juan Guzman lost the type of game that the Reds envisioned him winning when they acquired him midseason. He was relieved during Milwaukee’s seven-run third inning that led to a 10-6 loss. Cincinnati (95-66) remained bunched with the Astros (96-65) and Mets (95-66), both winners Saturday. Suddenly, nothing was guaranteed.

While rain drenched County Stadium the next day, both the Mets and Astros won again. Houston thus captured the Central title, forcing the Reds into a must-win situation just to force a Wild Card tiebreaker with the Mets. 

The delay totaled a whopping five hours and 47 minutes, turning what ideally should have been a crisp afternoon affair into a soggy night game. Once it began, it was no contest. Vaughn pumped a three-run homer that fueled a five-run third inning. That complemented Harnisch’s 5 2/3 shutout innings and Villone’s 3 1/3-inning save that sealed the 7-1 triumph.

The game ended at 12:28 a.m. in Cincinnati, which forced baseball officials to move the starting time for the Wild Card tiebreaker from 2:05 p.m. to 7:05 to give the Reds a modicum of rest.

The Play-in

If the Reds needed a jolt of adrenaline, they got it from the Cinergy Field throng, which was the largest crowd ever for a one-game playoff. 

“People were screaming from the time the national anthem ended until the last out,” Graves recalled.

Many of these fans hadn’t been born when the Big Red Machine dominated the NL through most of the 1970s. Now, they had a team of heroes to call their own.

“All of us wanted to give a championship to those people,” Casey said.

But the Mets had other plans. They established control with Edgardo Alfonzo’s two-run, first-inning homer off Parris, who lacked his usual deception. With two outs in the third inning, Parris loaded the bases, prompting McKeon to summon Neagle. This created the lefty-versus-lefty matchup the Reds wanted against Robin Ventura. However, Neagle issued a walk. 

Rickey Henderson added a fifth-inning homer before Alfonzo doubled off Graves to score Rey Ordonez in the sixth. 

“You could tell by then that we were in trouble,” Casey said.

Indeed, the night truly belonged to Mets starter Al Leiter, who surrendered two hits -- Hammonds’ second-inning single and Reese’s ninth-inning double -- while issuing four harmless walks. His 135-pitch complete game ended the Reds’ thrill ride.

Once the disappointment subsided, the Reds believed they had at least set the stage for a fabulous encore in the 2000 season. Expectations were only buoyed when the club traded for Ken Griffey Jr. -- superstar, Cincinnati native and all-around icon. The Reds also obtained the offensively formidable Dante Bichette. 

But team chemistry is a delicate balance that isn’t always achieved by overloading a roster with talent. Personalities are a factor, too. Cincinnati went on to finish second in the Central at 85-77, 10 games behind the Cardinals in the following year. 

“Losing Greg Vaughn and Mike Cameron killed us,” Graves said. “I’m not saying anything bad about Griffey or Dante or Barry, who was our leader. It had nothing to do with those guys. But Mike Cameron and Greg Vaughn were a different breed. They were once-in-a-lifetime players as far as being good teammates and good leaders on the field. Those guys don’t come around very often.”

The Postscript

For several Reds, the long-term impact of that 1999 season was a positive one. It steeped them in success and enabled them to replicate it later in their careers -- though, in most cases, elsewhere.

Nearly 70 years old when the Reds dismissed him after the 2000 season, McKeon took over as the Marlins’ manager in May ‘03 and guided them to a World Series championship. 

Boone seemingly had miles to go before he sleeps in a remarkable career: Traded to the Yankees in 2003, he homered in the 11th inning of Game 7 of that year’s American League Championship Series to send New York to the World Series. Months later, the Yankees released him after he sustained a knee injury playing pickup basketball. He survived open heart surgery in 2009, retired from playing and became an acclaimed baseball commentator for ESPN before the Yankees hired him as manager.

Williamson was beset by injuries through much of his career but was sharp enough to record three saves in the 2003 ALCS for the Red Sox. 

In 2004, Reese joined Boston and started 57 games at shortstop for an injured Nomar Garciaparra, helping sustain the Red Sox’s drive for their first World Series title since 1918.

Cameron, who left the Reds in the Griffey trade, almost immediately became a fan favorite in Seattle.

Casey was named to three All-Star teams and batted .302 over 12 seasons.

Larkin, who retired after the 2004 season, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012.

A reporter caught up with Vaughn, who fled to Tampa Bay as a free agent, shortly after the 1999 season ended and asked him what he believed he would remember most about that year’s Reds club.

“What I’ll remember,” Vaughn replied, “was [that we were] a bunch of warriors.”