Monday, May 7, 2018

Cincinnati's 10 Greatest Teams

This week, the Mets are in Cincinnati to play the Reds.

Cincinnati's 10 Greatest Teams

Honorable Mention to the 1869-70 Cincinnati Red Stockings. Baseball's 1st openly professional team went 84-0 before finally losing to the Brooklyn Atlantics on June 14, 1870. It should be noted that, while they continued, in a way, into the National League from 1876 to 1880, they are not the same franchise that began with the American Association in 1882. That Cincinnati Red Stockings team became today's Cincinnati Reds.

It's hard to judge how they would play even in the era of Major League Baseball that began in 1893, with overhand pitching from the 60-feet-6-inches distance; much less in the one that started in 1920 with the rise of the Lively Ball, or the one that started in 1947 with racial integration, or the one that started in 1995 with the return from the Strike. But, in their time, they taught America how to play ball.

Honorable Mention to the 1882 Cincinnati Red Stockings. They won the Pennant in the 1st season of the AA, remained one of the league's better teams, and joined the National League in 1890. Again, like their 1869-70 forebears, the game they played was very different even from the one that debuted in 1893.

Honorable Mention to the 1985-88 Cincinnati Reds. They averaged 87 wins a year over 4 years, but finished 2nd in the National League Western Division every time.

How would they have fared in the current setup? They would have won the NL's 1st Wild Card in 1985 and 1986, its 2nd in 1987, and the NL Central Division in 1988. Alas, they never got closer than 5 1/2 games out in the NL West. Maybe if their manager was smarter, or more focused on something other than gambling and women, than Pete Rose...

Honorable Mention to the 1999 Cincinnati Reds. They did something no other team has done since: They won 96 games but missed the Playoffs proper. They finished in a tie with the Mets for the NL Wild Card, then lost to them, at home at Riverfront. Under today's system, they would have played each other in the Wild Card Game, and it would have counted as a Playoff.

Honorable Mention to the 2005 Cincinnati Bengals. They won the AFC North Division, but lost a Playoff game at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers. And they didn't follow it up. Since 1990, that's been the story with the Bengals: Even when they've been good, they haven't quite been good enough.

Honorable Mention to the Cincinnati Stingers. They reached the World Hockey Association Playoffs in 1977 and 1979.

Honorable Mention to the University of Cincinnati Bearcats. Their football team has won 14 Conference Championships, most recently in the American Athletic Conference in 2014; and 7 bowl games, most recently the 2012 Belk Bowl in Charlotte. (They reached the 2008 Orange Bowl and the 2009 Sugar Bowl, but lost both.)

Their basketball team won the National Championship in 1961 and 1962, and also reached the NCAA Final Four in 1959, 1960, 1963 and 1992.

Honorable Mention to the Musketeers of Xavier University. Their best performances in the NCAA Tournament have been to reach the Elite Eight in 2004, 2008 and 2017.

10. 2009-15 Cincinnati Bengals. A run of 6 Playoff berths in 7 seasons included AFC North titles in 2009, 2013 and 2015. But they lost their 1st Playoff game every time, including home games in the seasons of 2009 (against the Jets), 2013 (the San Diego Chargers), and 2015 (a loss to the Steelers so shocking, comparisons could be made to the pre-Howie Roseman Philadelphia Eagles, or the pre-Theo Epstein Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.)

This is the team that has Bengals observers searching for a source for a "curse" on the team. I'm not sure what it would be. Frankly, I think it's just bad management. Mike Brown might be as cheap as his father Paul, but Paul Brown was committed to finding a way to win. Mike seems like the kind of guy who only cares about owning a team, not about owning a winning team.

9. 1970-75 Cincinnati Bengals. As with his 1st team, the 1946-55 Cleveland Browns, Paul Brown's 2nd team got very good rather quickly. In just their 3rd season, they beat out the Browns for the AFC Central Division title. They had a bad season in 1971, but nearly made the Wild Card in 1972, won another Division title in 1973, fell a little short in 1974, and won the Wild Card in 1975. But they wouldn't win a Playoff game until the 1981 season.

8. 1961-67 Cincinnati Royals. They made the Playoffs 6 straight times. But, despite having 3 Basketball Hall-of-Famers in Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Jack Twyman, they couldn't get past the Boston Celtics' dynasty. In 1963, they beat the Syracuse Nationals in the Playoffs before losing to the Celtics in 7 games. In 1964, with the Nats having become the Philadelphia 76ers, the Royals beat them again, before losing to the Celtics in 5.

The franchise has only reached the Conference Finals twice in the 54 seasons since: In 1981, as the Kansas City Kings; and in 2002, as the Sacramento Kings. They haven't even reached the Playoffs since 2006, now the longest drought in the NBA. Their last NBA Championship was in 1951, as the Rochester Royals.

7. 1981-82 Cincinnati Bengals. In 1981, with the Browns unable to follow up their success of the season before, and the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Oilers starting to get old. the Bengals finally broke through and won another AFC Central title. They won a tough Playoff game against the Buffalo Bills, then won the coldest NFL game ever measured, the Freezer Bowl, over the Chargers at Riverfront Stadium.

But they lost Super Bowl XVI to the San Francisco 49ers, 26-21, despite nearly coming back from a 20-0 deficit. They reached the Playoffs again in 1982, but lost to the Jets. Then they spent a few years in mediocrity before rebuilding returned them to the cusp of a title.

6. 1988-90 Cincinnati Bengals. Like the 1981 edition, the 1988 Bengals went 12-4 and beat Buffalo in the Playoffs to reach a Super Bowl against the 49ers. This time, they beat the Seattle Seahawks in the Division Playoff before beating a Bills team that wasn't quite ready to win the AFC Championship Game.

Super Bowl XXIII was the apex of the Bengal franchise. They led in the last minute before Joe Montana engineered another come-from-behind drive. They missed the Playoffs in 1989, but won the AFC Central again in 1990, and beat the Houston Oilers in the Playoffs before losing to the Los Angeles Raiders. That win over the Oilers, now over 27 years ago, remains their last postseason victory.

5. 1917-26 Cincinnati Reds. This run included their 1st World Championship, in 1919, and, to a man, all the way up until the death of their last survivor, Hall of Fame center fielder Edd Roush, in 1988, they insisted that it wouldn't have mattered if the Chicago White Sox had played to win: The Reds still would have won. They have a case: They won 96 games, to the Pale Hose's 88.

They also finished 2nd in 1922, '23 and '26; and 3rd in 1918, '20 and '25, before fading into irrelevance. Of course, the Reds became incredibly relevant in 1935. Not by winning again, but by putting permanent lights up at Crosley Field, making them the 1st team to do so.

4. 1956-65 Cincinnati Reds. This was the era of Frank Robinson. He came into the majors like a house afire in 1956, putting together one of the best rookie seasons ever, and had the Reds battling the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves for the Pennant until the very end. The Dodgers won it, with the Braves 1 game back and the Reds 2.

The following year, 1957, Reds fans thanked their players for their near-miss by stuffing the ballot boxes, to the point where 7 of 8 starting hitters led the vote for the All-Star Game. This caused the vote to be taken away from the fans until 1970 (when, oddly enough, the game was held in Cincinnati).

It took them another few years to put together another run, but Robinson had an MVP season in 1961, and the Reds won their 1st Pennant in 21 years, before losing to the Yankees in the World Series. In 1962, they won 98 games... and it was only good enough for 3rd behind the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1964, they rode a late surge and the Philadelphia Phillies' collapse, only to lose to the Phils on the last day of the season and finish a game behind the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Reds won 89 games in 1965, and then traded Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for Milt Pappas.
This caused a dip in form, and by the time they got good again, they'd had almost a complete turnover in talent.

3. 1990-95 Cincinnati Reds. Lou Piniella picked them up after Rose was banned from baseball the year before, and led them to a World Championship in 1990, beating the Pirates in the NLCS and pulling off a stunning upset, sweeping the A's in the World Series, when many people thought it would be the defending World Champion A's doing the sweeping.

The Reds fell off a bit in 1991, but finished 2nd in 1992. They tailed off again in 1993, but were in 1st place in the newly-created NL Central Division when the Strike of '94 hit. They won the Division in 1995, and swept the Dodgers in 3 straight in their 1st NL Division Series appearance.

That remains the last postseason round won by a Cincinnati sports team, 23 years later. Since then, they are 2-12 in postseason games, getting swept by the Atlanta Braves in the '95 NLCS, losing the Wild Card Playoff to the Mets in 1999, getting swept by the Phillies in the 2010 NLDS, going to a decisive 5 games before losing to the San Francisco Giants in the 2012 NLDS, and losing the 2013 Wild Card Game to the Pirates.

2. 1938-44 Cincinnati Reds. They jumped back into the 1st division in 1938, then won the National League Pennant in 1939, losing the World Series to the Yankees. But in 1940, they overcome injury and tragedy to win the whole thing, beating the Detroit Tigers in a tough 7-game World Series.

They remained strong, finishing 2nd in 1943 and 3rd in 1941 and 1944, but the veterans coming back from World War II put an end to that.

1. 1970-76 Cincinnati Reds. This was the Big Red Machine. With new manager George "Sparky" Anderson leading the way, they got off to a fantastic start in 1970, moved into Riverfront Stadium in midseason, hosted the All-Star Game, and won 102 games, at the time a franchise record. Then they swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Championship Series. But they lost the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles.

After falling below .500 in 1971, they got Joe Morgan in a trade, and won the Pennant, with Johnny Bench's home run and then a wild pitch in the 9th inning of the deciding Game 5 finishing off the Pirates. But they lost the World series to the Oakland Athletics. They won the NL Western Division again in 1973, but lost a nasty NLCS to the Mets. And in 1974, they won 98 games, but it wasn't enough to take the Division from the Dodgers.

In 1975, it all came together. Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and, yes, Pete Rose may never have been better. They won 108 games, the most by an NL team since the 1906 Chicago Cubs. They swept the Pirates in the NLCS. And then they won that amazing World Series against the Red Sox, with Morgan's bloop single in the top of the 9th providing the winning run.

In 1976, they did something no MLB team had done before, nor has since: Go through at least 2 postseason rounds without losing a game. They swept the Phillies in 3 straight, then got revenge on the Yankees for 1939 and 1961 by sweeping them in 4.

Then they traded Perez, perhaps a dumber trade than Frank Robinson after 1965. The Machine, while not done winning games, was done winning Pennants. They finished 2nd to the Dodgers in 1977 and '78, won the Division but lost the NLCS to the Pirates in '79, won 89 games but only finished 3rd in '80, and had the best overall record in MLB in '81, but didn't finish 1st in either half of the strike-split season. It was the 1st time a strike would hurt the Reds, but not the last.

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