The entire season was building up to this moment. The Pirates spent much of the 1980’s as a laughing stock in the MLB and the Reds were rebuilding the Big Red Machine. The series was filled with nostalgia, drama, and star power, but more importantly it reignited a rivalry and the passion for baseball nearly forgotten in the home cities of these storied franchises.
Let’s set the scene, the combatants were legendary rivals and two of the oldest franchises in the sport. Both were sure, at least it seemed, to be the sacrificial lamb to the juggernaut Oakland A’s. The Pirates had a young core of position players and a brash coach named Jim Leyland who always pushed the right buttons, while the starting pitching set the pace for the club all season. Doug Drabek had just wrapped up a Cy Young season and Barry Bonds paced the offense as the original Killer B’s took root.
The Reds were led by a powerful offense featuring Barry Larkin, Chris Szabo, and Kevin Hatcher. Not to be outdone they also possessed possibly the most fearsome backend of the bullpen ever assembled – The Nasty Boys. Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, and Randy Myers, revolutionized the way bullpens were constructed. If you were losing after six innings, your chances of shaking hands after the ballgame were extremely slim. Couple that with solid starting pitchers and they had everything to make a baseball horror story for opposing squads.
On top of that, the two teams were meeting in the NLCS for the first time since 1979 when the Famalee took the series and went on to take World Series as well. Rivals separated by only 290 miles but inexplicably separated in East and West divisions set up this showdown a decade in the making.
I was 12 years old, too young to understand much of that to be honest. I didn’t see the significance of the rivalry. Wasn’t able to grasp how rare playoff baseball would become and sat down to watch the first game with my friends. Bob Walk started game 1 for the Pirates against Jose Rijo, and the matchup clearly favored the Reds who took an early 3-0 lead in the first inning. My friends and I didn’t really get the gravity of the situation at the time, but we were still shocked. After all we had seen the Pirates win 95 games that season. All we knew was the Pirates only had six innings to get back into the game before the Nasty Boys took over.
The Bucs scratched across a run in the third and Bob Walk shut the door setting up Sid Bream (yup, that Sid Bream) to hit a game tying homerun in the fourth inning. The score remained tied until the seventh inning and on came the first of the powerhouse bullpen for Cincy; Norm Charlton. Gary Redus found his way on base and Andy Van Slyke hit a routine flyball that somehow Eric Davis misplayed, allowing Redus to score. 4-3 Bucs, and they went on to win their first playoff game in over a decade.
The Reds would go on to take the series 4-2 and eventually defeat the A’s in the World Series. This series set the stage for a hungry and young team to continue to rise as they would reach the NLCS each of the next two years. The Reds however had come to a close, and the new Red Machine would begin the dismantle process. For a time that October it felt like the seventies were transplanted forward and the entire baseball world was focused on the birthplace of the game.
The Pirates didn’t manage to even reach a World Series during this run in the early 90s, but it did spawn a whole new generation of Pirates fans. Some of us have never let go of the feeling and have watched the game evolve to make the challenges of winning baseball in Pittsburgh grow exponentially. The wildcard runs recently experienced were nice as was the Divisional Series against the Cardinals earlier this decade, but unless you’ve experienced it, describing the feeling of knowing your club is two wins away from the World Series is impossible. It’s a monkey many of us have never stopped chasing, despite the hopelessness felt as the management team continued to swing and miss on prospect after prospect.
When you think back to the late 80s, one can remind themselves of a young team that had some interesting pieces and a superstar ready to emerge named Barry Bonds. To take the team to the next level the Bucs had to trade an icon named Tony Pena, who loved this city and team almost as much as we loved him. They had to trade their ace pitcher Rick Rhoden in order to get the ace of the future Doug Drabek as well. We fans were desperately angry with both moves. It was impossible to imagine this team improving by moving on from two of the best to play in Pittsburgh for the entire decade, but it’s exactly what was needed.
Now as we sit on the verge of a new management team making similar choices is it possible, we could also see similar results? Time will tell, but team building, and reconstruction is often painful.
Things have changed and the change is summed up best by Mr. Vernon Law – “I wouldn't trade my life with anybody else. I played during the golden day of baseball, back when it was a game and when it was fun.”
It can still be fun, but the game is more of a business than ever. The fun of rooting for young teams is the fact that youth has not provided the opportunity to become jaded by the business aspect of the sport. For the Pirates to one day reach the promised land again, they will have to learn to make the two coexist. If they do, a hungry city will be prepared to embrace them with everything they’ve got.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007