1985 Cincinnati Reds: Rose, A Rebuild & New Era Begins

The 1985 Cincinnati Reds opened the season with the focus on Pete Rose’s pursuit of history. The Reds ended the season with Rose firmly in the record books and new hope being given to a franchise that had been on some rough times.

As recently as 1981, Cincinnati had been the best team in baseball. The strange circumstances of that strike-torn season kept them out of the playoffs and then things got worse. The roster was strip-mined for financial reasons and three losing years followed. In the latter part of 1984, the Reds swung a trade with the Montreal Expos to bring Rose back home.

Rose was chasing down the all-time career hit record held by Ty Cobb and at age 44, Rose’s best years were well behind him. He needed a place where he could pursue the record without his numbers becoming too much of an issue. Cincinnati was the perfect place—and they were also paving the way for his post-playing days. Rose returned as player-manager, the last person to have held the dual role.

And as luck would have it, Pete could still help a team on the field. While his batting average was a fairly pedestrian .264 and he never had power even in his heyday, Rose’s sharp batting eye helped him produce an excellent .395 on-base percentage. Rose’s old teammates from the Big Red Machine glory years of the 1970s, shortstop Dave Concepion and first baseman Tony Perez were still on hand, with Perez in a reserve role.

It was another veteran though, one with no previous ties to Cincinnati before coming here in 1984 that would prove the biggest help. Dave Parker, now 34-years-old, hit 34 homers, drove in 125 runs and finished with a stat line of .365 on-base percentage/.551 slugging percentage. Parker finished second in the NL MVP voting.

He got help from a good outfield that included Nick Esasky, who hit 21 homers. Eddie Milner posted an on-base percentage of .342. Gary Redus played part-time, but still finished with a .366 OBP and stole 48 bases. The Reds ended up a respectable sixth in the 12-team National League for runs scored.

On the pitching side, Tom Browning and Mario Soto anchored the rotation. Their ERAs were both in the 3.50s, although substantial difference in run support led to records of 20-9 for Browning and 12-15 for Soto. The rotation got more help from 23-year-old Jay Tibbs, who posted a 3.92 ERA in his 34 starts.

Ted Power handled the closer’s role effectively, saving 27 games with a 2.70 ERA. John Franco was the up-and-comer and the 24-year-old lefty worked nearly 100 innings, won twelve games and saved another dozen. Tom Hume provided solid work with 80 innings and a 3.26 ERA.

Depth was a problem in the starting rotation. That, and the lack of a clear ace, left the Reds at ninth in the National League in staff ERA.

When the Reds lost four of their first five games, it looked like the season would indeed be nothing more than watching Rose chase down Cobb. But a seven-game win streak got Cincinnati back on track. By Memorial Day, the Reds were playing winning baseball with a 22-20 record. They were tied for second in the NL West and just four games out of first place.

Here is a good point to step back and remind younger readers that the alignment and format from 1969-93 had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place team went to the postseason.

So because there was no Central Division, the Reds needed to align with one of the coasts. And because MLB leadership was geographically challenged, Cincinnati (along with Atlanta) were in the NL West rather than the East. They were joined by a Houston (a National League team prior to 2013), along with more conventional NL West teams in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego.

The Padres were the defending division champs and in first place in the early part of 1985. The Reds and Astros were tied for second. The Dodgers were in fourth, 5 ½ games off the pace.

Cincinnati came out of the holiday playing good baseball and they won six of eight against the Cubs (the NL East champ in 1984), the Cardinals (the eventual NL pennant winner in 1985) and the lowly Pirates. That set up the first test of the Reds’ new status as a contender, a four-game weekend set at home with the Padres.

A twilight doubleheader (a common occurrence of the era, with the first game starting at 5-ish and a twenty-minute break between games) got it started on Friday night. Browning was rocked in a 9-3 loss to start the series. In the nightcap, trailing 2-0 in the ninth, Cincinnati third baseman Wayne Krenchicki tied the game with a two-run double. But the Reds lost in the 11th.

Parker drove in two runs on Saturday afternoon, while Redus went 2-for-4 and Cincinnati got on the board with a 7-4 win. But Soto dropped a tough one on Sunday, losing 5-3 after he’d been in a 1-1 pitcher’s duel as late as the top of the eighth. Cincinnati’s first shot at the big boys hadn’t gone well.

But the Reds did continue to play consistently and by the All-Star break, they were 44-41 and only four games back. The Dodgers had gotten hot and were running neck-and-neck with the Padres for the lead.

Cincinnati won nine of their first fourteen games of the second half, including a road sweep of a very good New York Mets’ team that stayed in contention to the final weekend of the season. That set up a 14-game swing against Los Angeles and San Diego. It was another chance for the Reds to show they were more than just an improved team with a nice individual story.

Cincy split four with the Dodgers. Soto took a hard-luck 2-0 loss in one game, but Perez won the finale with a tiebreaking RBI single in the eighth. The Reds then won the first game of the San Diego series 8-7, behind a 4-for-5 night from Parker that included a three-run blast.

A one-day player’s strike canceled Tuesday and threatened to cancel the season before MLB commissioner Pete Ueberroth was able to negotiate a settlement. The second game of the San Diego series would be rescheduled for September.

Cincinnati went west to face their two rivals. They got a weekend in Dodger Stadium started in dramatic fashion, with three runs in the eighth to tie the opener 5-5. In the 12th, Rose dropped down a bunt and beat it out with two outs to bring in the winning run.

But the bats fell silent. The Reds scored just two runs the rest of the weekend and lost the remaining three games. They were shut out in the opener at San Diego. Browning stopped the bleeding with a 3-2 win. Cincinnati finished this key stretch with a 6-7 record. They were getting better, but not quite at pennant-level yet.

Los Angeles surged and ran away with the division. Cincinnati kept playing like an improving team and Rose kept grinding away at Cobb. Pete tied the record on a Sunday afternoon in Wrigley Field. The Reds came home to face the Padres for a  series that included the August makeup. Rose would get four shots to break the record at home.

Pete the manager kept Pete the player out of Monday’s lineup. On Tuesday, Rose went 0-for-4. On Wednesday night, September 11, the wait ended. Rose singled to left off of Padre starter Eric Show and took a special place in the history books.

On another note, Cincinnati had already pulled even with San Diego in the race for second place. The Reds won three of four in this series, including a 2-0 shutout from Browning on the night Rose made history. Even though Cincinnati didn’t make a serious run at LA for the division title, the Reds did end up comfortably finishing second.

The final record was 89-72. It was fourth-best in the National League and ninth-best overall. In other words, it was playoff-caliber baseball by the standards of the 21st century. If Rose’s pursuit of Cobb had ginned up fan interest at the start of the season, the improved play of the Reds on the field had people in Cincinnati hopeful moving forward. This ’85 season started a run of four straight second-place finishes