1990 The Dynasty Dies Nasty

Led by a vicious bullpen of effective, hard-throwing relievers, the Cincinnati Reds hand Oakland with its second upset defeat in three years at the World Series.

Oakland star closer Dennis Eckersley and catcher Terry Steinbach brood over their limited options late in Game Two of the World Series. The A’s would fall in four straight games to the underdog Cincinnati Reds.

For three straight years, the Oakland Athletics had sped through the American League with a license to dominate. Averaging 102 wins a year with a roster strongly balanced in every facet of the game, the A’s were an equal opportunity destroyer, picking apart postseason combatants and cellar dwellers alike.

The World Series, however, had proven to be a far more frustrating stage for the A’s to get their message across. They were emotionally jarred by one swing of Kirk Gibson’s bat in 1988 and, a year later, their impressive intra-market sweep of the San Francisco Giants took a backseat to the earthquake that nearly cancelled it, leaving a sobering varnish upon their celebration.

Returning to the Fall Classic in 1990, the A’s were anxious to get it right, to prove their supremacy and bask in undisturbed glory without intrusion from improbable heroics or Mother Nature’s fury.

The Cincinnati Reds simply wouldn’t cooperate.

Given an attitude adjustment by a fiery new manager and backed up by a ferocious trio of charismatic relievers nicknamed the Nasty Boys, the Reds came out of nowhere to take the National League flag before upending the almighty A’s in one of the World Series’ most eye-opening upsets.

For much of the late 1980s, the Reds were a talented bunch that always came up short, finishing second in the NL West four straight years under manager Pete Rose. The team all but collapsed in 1989 under the weight of Rose’s betting scandal and, perhaps more critically, a major injury outbreak. With Rose banned after 1989, the Reds brought in Lou Piniella, who immediately had two strikes on him: One, he was a career American Leaguer getting his first taste of the senior circuit; two, the owners’ spring training lockout handicapped any chance for him to get acclimated to his new surroundings.

Once the work stoppage was resolved, Piniella immediately asserted himself. Nicknamed Sweet Lou purely out of sarcasm, the tough-minded Piniella was to be obeyed or else—in stark contrast to Rose, a solid tactician who seldom communicated with his players. Feeling like driftwood in search of guidance from Rose, the Reds embraced Piniella’s relative totalitarianism and proved it by winning their first nine games—a defining pacesetter for a 30-12 start. By July 23, the Reds had the best record in all of baseball—the A’s included—at 59-33, and although they sputtered home with a sub-.500 record the rest of the way, they never encountered a major threatThe Reds finished by five games over Los Angeles and by six over the reigning NL champion San Francisco Giants. within the NL West.

Offensively, a thorough balance was struck as everyone chipped in for the Reds while MVP votes for individual brilliance were cast elsewhere. But the heart of the team’s strength—and its national public image—was set by three wild and crazy bullpen artists. These were the Nasty Boys: Randy Myers, Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble. There was Myers—nicknamed “Psycho”—who when not in uniform often dressed in militia survivalist fatigues, complete with hand grenades (assumed to be disarmed).

Cincinnati closer Rob Dibble, the most vocal and visible of the Reds’ “Nasty Boys” relief trio, shows off his game face after closing down the Pirates in the NLCS.

There was fellow southpaw Charlton, a more good-natured but very active prankster. Then there was Rob Dibble, who was best avoided following a bad outing—as evidenced when he once wrecked havoc on picnic tables during a spring training game. Dibble’s further moments of rage during the regular season—throwing at hitters, precipitating brawls, chucking bats in anger—made him a frequent target of fines and suspensions from baseball’s executive offices.

The Nasty BoysThe relievers borrowed their name from a late-night NBC show following real-life cops in Las Vegas.’ numbers were as feared as their reputations. Working a combined 234.2 innings of relief, the three relievers struck out 291 batters, saved 48 games and allowed opposing hitters to bat just .202. Myers became the full-time closer in the season’s second half—sending an unappreciated Dibble into one of his patented fits—and Charlton was even called to the rescue of an injury-depleted starting rotation late in the year, winning six of 11 decisions with a 2.60 earned run average in 16 starts.

While the Reds triumphantly rebounded from a wretched off-year, the Pittsburgh Pirates—their NLCS opponents—triumphed in the NL East after a wretched off-decade.

Throughout the 1980s, the Bucs were one of baseball’s continuing horror stories, staggered by drug scandals and clubhouse dissension that brought the team to rock bottom by 1985 with a 57-104 record. With nowhere to go but up, the Pirates went up, way up, with a bevy of new and prosperous talents under the intense focus of new manager Jim Leyland.

Unlike the total team effort given by the Reds, the Pirates relied principally on three key stars. Starting pitcher Doug Drabek was the unquestioned ace of the Pirate staff, not so much because he won an NL-high 22 games but because only one other Pirate starter won as much as tenThe Pirate pitching staff featured 13 different starters during the season, and a NL-record 19 players who earned at least one win.. Bobby Bonilla, with 32 home runs and 120 runs batted in, was the most proven offensive threat, but opponents were far more scared of fellow outfielder Barry Bonds. Those opponents’ fears were justified when Bonds, after four years as a raw and unrefined prodigy, broke out and produced baseball’s first .300-100-30-100-50 season: A .301 average, 104 runs scored, 33 home runs, 114 RBIs and 52 steals. With those numbers, Bonds won the first of a record seven MVP awards—with Bonilla finishing runner-up.

Before breaking out in 1990 with the first of many MVPs to come, Barry Bonds spent the first four years of his career struggling to discover himself.

Many believed Bonds and Bonilla by themselves would render the Nasty Boys useless at the NLCSThe Reds and Pirates, who last met in the 1979 NLCS, were the only two NL teams absent from postseason play in the 1980s., giving Cincinnati little opportunity to protect a lead. But three stubborn Red starters—Jose Rijo, Tom Browning and Danny Jackson—performed their end of the bargain and stifled Bonds, Bonilla and the rest of the Pirate lineup. That allowed the Nasty Boys to do their thing. Myers, Charlton and Dibble grouped to throw 15.2 innings, allowing just one run on six hits while striking out 20 batters. In winning the NLCS four games to two, the Reds held the Bucs to a paltry .194 average—with Bonds and Bonilla limited to a combined .179 mark and just two RBIs.

Now it was time for the Reds, baseball’s David, to take on its Goliath: The Oakland Athletics.

For the third straight year, the A’s were an untouchable force in the American League. The starting rotation, injury-free all year, included three pitchers who set career highs in victories: Staff workhorse Dave Stewart (22-11), free-agent bargain Scott Sanderson (17-11) and veteran Bob Welch, whose 27 wins (against six losses) were the most in the AL since Denny McLain’s 31 in 1968. In the bullpen, Dennis Eckersley was the most effective closer of this, or perhaps, any year—producing a stunning 0.61 ERA with 48 saves in 50 opportunities and just four walks allowed in 73.1 innings. At the plate, a more injury-hampered offense was carried by Rickey Henderson, clearly at the top of his game with a .325 average, 28 homers, 119 runs scored and 65 bases stolen.

With 27 wins in 1990, the A’s Bob Welch came as close as anyone to reaching 30 victories since Denny McLain last reached the golden barrier in 1968. Here’s a list of pitchers who got to 25 or beyond since McLain hit 30.

Like putting a bazooka to a fly, the hardly content A’s fattened up an already prodigious lineup late in the year by acquiring sure and steady slugger Harold Baines and Willie McGee, who was leading the NL with a .335 batting averageMcGee’s departure from St. Louis locked in his NL-high batting average, which would not be surpassed by season’s end.. The A’s obviously were out to spare no exorbitance in keeping from being tripped up in the postseason.

For the second time in three years, the Boston Red Sox landed the unfortunate role of trying to unravel the A’s at the ALCS. In the end, it was they who would unravel.

More than ever, the Red Sox lived and died behind Roger Clemens, who won 21 of 27 decisions and produced a 1.93 ERA that would register as the best of his storied career. Clemens’ season, and that of Boston’s, was nearly derailed in early September when a shoulder injury put him on the disabled list. Up 6.5 games at the time in the AL East, the Red Sox quickly saw it vanish when the Toronto Blue Jays rampaged past them, but got it back for good with a week to go when they took two of three from the defending AL East champions—with Clemens coming off the shelf to win a crucial start.

Red Sox batters had led the AL in hitting at .272, but it was a lightweight figure punctuated with the sixth-lowest home run total in the majors. Boston’s lack of muscle contributed to, once again, a four-and-out at the ALCS against Oakland, scoring precisely one run in each game. But Roger Clemens had bigger fish to get fried over. One was Dave Stewart, who since joining the A’s had a 6-0 record head-on against Clemens, and won two more duels against the Rocket in the ALCS. The other was Game Four home plate umpire Gerry Cooney, who bore the brunt of Clemens’ frustration when, after a walk, he ejected Clemens for reciting several of George Carlin’s seven dirty words toward him. After the game, Clemens said he was merely cursing at himself, but close-up television replays of a clearly agitatedIn fairness to Clemens, Cooney initiated the altercation when he challenged Clemens, after the walk, as to why he was shaking his head at him. Clemens firing one expletive after another towards Cooney made his story hard to believe.

The A’s were amazed with laughter at the Red Sox’ implosion, but the grins faded away—and never returned—in the World Series against the Reds.

Cincinnati startled the A’s in Game One at Riverfront Stadium with a 7-0 rout of Dave Stewart, then took a tense ten-inning affair in Game Two, 5-4—scoring the winning run off Dennis Eckersley. Those first two games sent the A’s into a funk as they returned to Oakland, and even as they took early leads in Games Three and Four, the negative vibes had set in as the A’s sensed that, sooner or later, the Reds would find a way to win. It was sooner in Game Three, when the Reds piled on seven third-inning runs off Oakland starter Mike Moore, the one disappointment (13-15, 4.85 ERA) in the A’s rotation, and it was later in Game Four, when the Reds batted around for two eighth-inning tallies to tip the A’s, 2-1. The A’s couldn’t even salvage the finale despite early-inning injuries to the Reds’ Billy Hatcher—a season-long sparkplug who earlier set a World Series record by hitting safely in his first seven at-bats—and Eric Davis, the one and only Red with “superstar” written all over him, though he’d been bedeviled with knee problemsDavis barely hit over .200 for most of the year before the introduction of eye contacts finally launched him on a late-season groove, helping him to finish at .260 with 24 home runs. all year long.

Whether it was the regular season, the NLCS or the World Series, the Reds’ vaunted Nasty Boys—Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton—consistently snuffed out one opponent rally after another with their stunning relief work on the mound.

Norm Charlton, Randy Myers and Rob Dibble continued to be Nasty, Nastier and Nastiest against Oakland, firing a combined 8.2 shutout innings on just six hits. But the Red starters, as they had been in the NLCS, were every bit as tough. Jose Rijo, an ex-Athletic and son-in-law of Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, bragged and pitched as if he was lobbying to apply for a Nasty Boys membership. Rijo helped set the pace for the series with seven shutout innings in Game One, talked up a series upset afterward, then after allowing an early run in Game Four set down 20 straight A’s before Randy Myers closed it out in the ninth.

The totally frustrated A’s, who in four games hit .207 and scored just eight runs—none after the third inning—couldn’t believe they had been soundly beaten by a definitive underdog and looked for a higher cause. They found it in the inability of star slugger Jose Canseco, whose sloppy defense and 1-for-15 effort at the plate made him a public scapegoat by disgruntled teammates and manager Tony La Russa—even as Canseco played with a beat-up back and sore wrists.

The A’s franchise that had begun back in Philadelphia in 1901 had twice before won three straight AL titles—in 1929-31 and 1972-74—and in both cases it had further proven its dominance at the World Series. But for the A’s of 1990, being swept by the Reds finished a bittersweet chapter in which another three straight AL pennants had been answered with a disaster-obscured triumph sandwiched in between two major upset losses. This dynasty could not be claimed.

For A’s fans, it was a Nasty shame.


1991 baseball historyForward to 1991: From Worst to First Out of nowhere, the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves leap to the top and put on one of the most memorable World Series.


1989 baseball historyBack to 1989: Of Triumph and Tragedy In the glow of its renaissance, baseball gets burned by a series of unwanted events.


1990s baseball historyThe 1990s Page: To Hell and Back Relations between players and owners continue to deteriorate, bottoming out with a devastating mid-decade strike—souring relations with fans who, in some cases, turn their backs on the game for good. Recovery is made possible thanks to a series of popular record-breaking achievements by "class act" stars.


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1990 Standings

National League East
Pittsburgh Pirates
95
67
.586
---
New York Mets
91
71
.562
4
Montreal Expos
85
77
.525
10
Chicago Cubs
77
85
.475
18
Philadelphia Phillies
77
85
.475
18
St. Louis Cardinals
70
92
.432
25
National League West
Cincinnati Reds
91
71
.562
---
Los Angeles Dodgers
86
76
.531
5
San Francisco Giants
85
77
.525
6
Houston Astros
75
87
.463
16
San Diego Padres
75
87
.463
16
Atlanta Braves
65
97
.401
26
American League East
Boston Red Sox
88
74
.543
---
Toronto Blue Jays
86
76
.531
2
Detroit Tigers
79
83
.488
9
Cleveland Indians
77
85
.475
11
Baltimore Orioles
76
85
.472
11.5
Milwaukee Brewers
74
88
.457
14
New York Yankees
67
95
.414
21
American League West
Oakland A's
103
59
.636
---
Chicago White Sox
94
68
.580
9
Texas Rangers
83
79
.512
20
California Angels
80
82
.494
23
Seattle Mariners
77
85
.475
26
Kansas City Royals
75
86
.466
27.5
Minnesota Twins
74
88
.457
29

1990 Postseason Results
NLCS Cincinnati defeated Pittsburgh, 4-2.
ALCS Oakland defeated Boston, 4-0.
World Series Cincinnati (NL) defeated Oakland (AL), 4-0.


It Happened in 1990

The Year of the No-Hitter
A record eight no-hitters are thrown in the majors in 1990. The number does not include a six-inning, rain-shortened no-hitter thrown by the Chicago White Sox’ Melido Perez, but it does include two tossed on the same day (by Oakland’s Dave Stewart and Los Angeles’ Fernando Valenzuela, on June 29); a combined no-hitter (seven innings by Mark Langston and two by Bobby Witt for the California Angels on April 11); Nolan Ryan’s sixth; Randy Johnson’s first; one thrown by the New York Yankees’ Andy Hawkins which ends in a 4-0 loss at Chicago on July 1, when three walks and three wind-affected errors result in four unearned runs; and, after numerous prior frustrations trying to clinch that final out, Toronto’s Dave Stieb, who finally gets nine-innings of no-hit ball in on September 2 at Cleveland.

Hey George, How’s It Look From the Cellar?...George?
The Yankees hit rock bottom in the midst of their 15-year drought between World Series appearances. Their 67-95 record is the worst in the American League and the franchise’s worst since 1913—the year it was first officially known as the Yankees; they are 0-12 against the AL champion A’s, the first time in franchise history they have failed to win a single game against a league opponent; and even a no-hitter thrown by one of their own ends in defeat (see Andy Hawkins, above).

But the most troubling development in Yankeeland comes off the field. Owner George Steinbrenner is banned from baseball by Commissioner Fay Vincent after an investigation uncovers Steinbrenner’s relationship with Howard Spira, a “known gambler” with links to the mob. Steinbrenner had initially commissioned Spira to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, whom Steinbrenner had grown to despise; Spira asked for $40,000 in return—and $110,000 more when he wasn’t satisfied with the $40,000. The banishment is indefinite, but Vincent will ultimately allow Steinbrenner back to the top of the Yankee power structure in 1993.

The Obligatory Chronic Work Stoppage
Major league owners, upset with the lack of urgency the players’ union is showing in negotiating a new Basic Agreement, put the padlocks on spring training camps and attempts to force a settlement. Management wants to clamp down further on arbitration, which has been as responsible for spiraling salary increases as free agency.

In a virtual replay of the short-lived 1985 strike, there is division within the union as many older players, not subject to arbitration, argue that the issue isn’t worth canceling games over; owners believe they have a potentially divided union against the ropes; and yet again, as baseball commissioners have been apt to do, Fay Vincent intervenes and forges a compromise to avoid having the blood of a work stoppage on his hands, infuriating the owners. The baseball season begins a week late because of the lockout, but missed games are made up throughout the season.

Here Comes the Son
In a 7-5 Seattle victory over the California Angels at Anaheim on September 14, 40-year-old Ken Griffey connects on a home run for the Mariners; the next batter is his son, 20-year-old Ken Griffey Jr.—and he also nails one over the fence. It is the first time back-to-back home runs have been hit by a father-and-son duo. The elder Griffey, traded to Seattle earlier in the year from Cincinnati, hits .377 with three homers and 18 RBIs in 21 games alongside Junior, who hits .300 with 22 homers in his second big league season.

Cecil B. DeSlugger
On the regular season’s final day, Cecil Fielder of the Detroit Tigers hits two home runs at Yankee Stadium to finish the season with 51. Big and strong but too cumbersome for the tastes of the Toronto Blue Jays (where he mostly sat on the bench from 1985-88), Fielder in 1989 found a taker with Japan’s Hanshin Tigers—where he hit 38 homers in 384 at-bats—before being allowed to make good on his second chance in the states with the Tigers. Fielder is the first major leaguer to hit 50 homers since George Foster in 1977, and the first AL player to do so since Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris dueled well past 50 in 1961.

Thigpen the Bullpen Kingpin
Bobby Thigpen of the White Sox is the latest closer to raise the bar on the all-time save record, but his 57—in 65 opportunities—will hold as the standard for nearly two decades before Francisco Rodriguez breaks it in 2008.

The Ryan Express 300
Nolan Ryan, already the career leader in strikeouts and no-hitters, adds yet again to his impressive Hall-of-Fame résumé when he collects his 300th victory at Milwaukee on July 31 against the Brewers, 11-3. The 43-year-old Texas Ranger ace allows one earned run and strikes out eight in 7.2 innings.

Double Your Displeasure—Or Even Triple It
Having historically shown that good contact hitting combined with slow-footed runners is a recipe for too many double plays, the Boston Red Sox take matters to utter extremes throughout 1990—and over two consecutive games in particular. On July 17 at Fenway Park against Minnesota, the Red Sox become the first team to ground into two triple plays in one game—and on the very next night against the Twins, they tie an AL record by hitting into six double plays. It may be embarrassing to the Red Sox, but the mass erasures don’t hurt them; they win both games, 1-0 and 5-4. For the year, Boston hits into an all-time record 174 double plays, which also doesn’t hurt; the Red Sox win the AL East.

Gloves Above Others
Feats of defensive perfection are established by two marquee players. Ryne Sandberg of the Chicago Cubs sets a major league record by playing 123 straight games at second base without committing an error. Meanwhile in Baltimore, Cal Ripken Jr. goes errorless in 95 consecutive games at shortstop to set another mark. Both records will eventually be surpassed; ironically, Ripken’s will be broken in 2002 by his Oriole successor, Mike Bordick.

Pass Intensive
The Cincinnati Reds want little to do with Cub slugger Andre Dawson on May 22, so they intentionally walk him five times to establish a major league record. There is an asterisk to discuss; the game lasts 16 innings and Dawson receives three of his free passes after the ninth. The Reds finally run out of luck when, right after Dawson is given his fifth walk, Dave Clark singles home the winning run to win the game, 1-0.

Does Mother Earth Have Something Against Us?
Playing at Candlestick Park against one another for the first time since the earthquake-scarred World Series six months earlier, the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s experience an eerie encore from the faultline barely a minute into the game when a tremor hits. The April 6 quake measures 4.5 on the Richter scale, causes no damage and doesn’t delay the game—but it rattles a lot of nerves.


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