In 1996, MLB continued the new trend they’d started the year before by having an “Opening Night” of one game the Sunday night prior to all teams starting up. This meant Cincinnati wasn’t the first game of the year any more. They did get the first game of Opening Day in 1996 – but it ended shortly after it began. Home plate umpire John McSherry tragically collapsed and died of a heart attack 7 pitches into the game. Marge Schott offended the Umpires (and just about everyone else) by complaining that the game got cancelled. She then tried to apologize by sending re-gifted flower to umpires at a future game – but none of the umpires were currently in attendance.
After running away with the Central division the year before, Schott had also fired manager Davey Johnson despite the fact he’d led the club to its most successful season since 1990. Ostensibly, the reason for not renewing his contract was that Schott didn’t approve of Johnson living with his girlfriend (whom he married shortly thereafter). Ray Knight was hired as Johnson’s replacement.
GM Jim Bowden found success with Ron Gant as a 1995 reclamation project – and then losing him to the evil empire of the NL Central (Cardinals). He brought back three former 1990 World Series team members with the same thought – 2 of them with success. Eric Davis came out of retirement after a year off and hit 26 home runs. Joe Oliver also signed again, and he and Eddie Taubensee offered a solid platoon at catcher. Chris Sabo didn’t pan out as well; in fact, he actually got suspended mid-season for using a corked bat. Sabo maintained he used another player’s bat, and he was correct that his 1996 performance “was hardly an endorsement of the cork industry”. Hal Morris, another 1990 holdover, was again a solid hitter at first base, batting .313.
Barry Larkin was again the team’s best player. He followed up his 1995 MVP campaign with the best season of his career. He became the first shortstop to have a 30-30 season (A-Rod and Jimmy Rollins have followed him since), with 33 HR, 36 SB, and 117 runs scored. Unfortunately, Reggie Sanders did not have anything close to his 1995 all-star season. Injuries limited him to just 81 games and a .251 average.
The Reds starting pitching was much worse as well. Opening day starter and Cy Young runner-up Pete Schourek struggled to a 4-5 record before being shelved for injuries in July. John Smiley, Dave Burba and Mark Portugal were decent, but not great. Jeff Brantley was excellent as the team’s reliever – he posted a 2.41 ERA and saved an NL-leading 44 games. He won the Rolaids Relief award that year.
The Reds started incredibly slow and were out of contention early. As late as June 22nd, they were 9 games under .500 – so the 2nd half of the season was a race to .500 more than a race to the pennant. They did have a good second half and staved off elimination until a loss to the NL Central Champion Cardinals on September 22nd put them 6.5 back with 6 to play.
Speaking of that series and of Larkin and Marge Schott – I found this photo. This may be one of the weirder pictures I’ve ever seen. Schott loved to impose her love of all things St. Bernard on others – though Ozzie seems perfectly OK with it here. Barry was always classy – even though his early career was overshadowed by Smith, he had no problem paying tribute to the guy. This was taken on September 20th, as Ozzie had announced his retirement. Side note – those sleeveless pinstriped uniforms are my all-time favorite.
Larkin made his 8th All-Star team in 9 years, but he was the lone Cincinnati representative. Despite being the best reliever in the NL, Brantley didn’t get the All-Star nod due to the team’s slow start – 28 of his 44 saves came after the All-Star break.
Team MVP: Barry Larkin (.298/33/89, 117 R, 36 SB, Gold Glove)
Best Pitcher: Jeff Brantley (1-2/2.41/76, 44 SV, Rolaids Relief Award)
Larkin, Gold Glove & Silver Slugger
Brantley, Rolaids Relief