Sunday, December 26, 1999

'99 Sports: Color the year Red




BY JOHN FAY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[casey-reese]
Two of the Reds' brightest stars, Sean Casey and Pokey Reese, hug after Reese hit a game-winning HR in September.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        For Cincinnati sports fans, 1999 will be forever known as the year the Reds returned to prominence.

        The team, after three years of mediocrity, won 96 games and forced a one-game playoff for the National League wild-card spot. More importantly, the Reds returned some of the luster to baseball's oldest franchise.

        It was long overdue.

        Going into 1999, the Reds had more managers (five) than winning seasons (three) since their 1990 World Championship. Their owner, Marge Schott, had gotten more headlines for what she said and did off the field than the team did for the way it played on the field. Even when the Reds were successful in 1995, people didn't care enough to to sell out Cinergy Field for the National League Championship Series.

        There was an inkling that things might be different before the season. The Reds traded for veteran pitcher Denny Neagle, then slugger Greg Vaughn.

        General Manager Jim Bowden introduced Vaughn by saying: “Cincinnati are you ready to rock? Because the Reds are ready to roll.”

        It took awhile for the Reds to get rolling, but by season's end, the ballpark on the river was rocking again.

        That's why the Reds are our top local sports story of 1999, although it was a year of many good stories:

[szczerbiak]
Wally Szczerbiak is mobbed after Miami upset Washington in the NCAA tournament.
(AP photo)
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        Miami University and Wally “World” Szczerbiak made a memorable run to the Sweet 16 in men's college basketball. Szczerbiak's 43 points and 12 rebounds in a 59-58 victory over Washington got the nation's attention and Miami's 66-58 upset of Utah kept it. Miami lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, but, for one year, the RedHawks surpassed UC and Xavier in the local basketball pecking order.

        The Flying Pig Marathon was one of the most successful first marathons ever. A field of 6,200 and a race that went off without a hitch made Cincinnati the capital of the running world for at least a day.

        Elder won a state baseball title for the sixth straight decade. The Panthers, who finished third in the Greater Catholic League, beat Cuyahoga Falls 4-2 to win the Division I championship in a topsy-turvy classic of a state final.

        Pete Sampras was sterling in winning the Great American Insurance ATP Championship. Sampras proved he was No.1 in the world by beating Andre Agassi and Patrick Rafter on the way to the title.

        Moeller won the boys state high school basketball title for the first time.

        UC's football team beat Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin. It was one of the few highlights in a rough year for the Bearcats, but the students got to tear down for the goal posts at Nippert Stadium for the first time in who knows how long.

        The Kentucky Speedway landed its first race, building anticipation that the NASCAR phenomenon would soon hit the Tristate.

        • Beechwood and Highlands resumed Kentucky football dominance with state titles. Beechwood won its seventh Class A title in nine years. Its record of 126-15 (.894) in the '90s was also best in the state. Highlands, which went 55-3 the past four years, won its third AAA crown in that span — a state-best 14th overall crown.

        • Highlands' Derek Smith was named Kentucky's Male High School Athlete of the Year. He was an All-American tight end and runner-up for Kentucky Mr. Basketball honors.

        The year had some very familiar stories too:

        • Xavier knocked off No. 1 UC for the second time in four seasons. In March, UC flamed out early in the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, losing to Temple 64-54 in the second round.

        The Bengals closed their Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field era with a 44-28 victory over the Cleveland Browns. The win completed the season sweep over the new/old rivals to north. But it did little to lessen the sting of another dreadful season.

        • Pete Rose, despite a huge public outcry, remained out of the Hall of Fame and baseball. Joe Fan was clearly in Rose's corner after an ambush interview by NBC reporter Jim Gray during the World Series. Baseball did agree to hear Rose's case for reinstatement, but Commissioner Bud Selig gave no indication that he would allow Rose to return to baseball.

        The most talked-about local story of 1999 was one that didn't even happen: The Reds tried and failed to trade for Ken Griffey Jr. Bowden put together numerous packages to try to return the former Moeller star to Cincinnati, but Seattle rejected them all. The year ended with one club on Griffey's list of teams he'd be traded to — the Reds — but with no on-going talks between the Reds and the Mariners.

        Still, despite a full menu of compelling stories and milestones, the Reds are the story of 1999.

        That's because what they did was so unexpected and so unprecedented in this era of baseball economics that baseball fans around the country, and in Cincinnati in particular, simply fell in love with them.

        But the Reds, a mixture of budding stars and proven veterans, were a team that fans slowly grew to love. Fortified by the trades for Vaughn and Neagle, they were given a chance to contend, but not much of one.

        When they struggled early, the skeptics pounced: They didn't have enough pitching, Vaughn was struggling to stay above .200 and the young bullpen couldn't close the games they had a chance to win.

        By May 14, the Reds were 14-18 and in sixth place, seven games out. Catching the Houston Astros in the National League Central race looked all but impossible.

        It was about that time the Reds put together of the first of three big streaks to get back into the race, winning eight of nine to move in a tie for second place in the Central, 41/2 games out.

        By the end of May, the Reds were 11/2 games behind Houston. All the young players — Pokey Reese, Sean Casey, Aaron Boone, Mike Cameron, Dmitri Young — were showing they could play at the big league level.

        The young relief pitchers — Danny Graves, Dennys Reyes, Scott Sullivan and rookie Scott Williamson — had overcome their slow starts to put up the best numbers in baseball.

        The Reds put together a 10-game winning streak that included a four-game sweep at Houston in late June. That got them in first place.

        And fans started to notice.

        “I drive down the street, and guys in trucks stop, roll down their windows and say, "Way to go, keep it up,'” Reds manager Jack McKeon said. “I never thought that could happen.”

        The Reds and Astros went back-and-forth all summer. The Reds were in first place from June 27 to July 15.

        They were one game up on Sept. 28, but struggled in their final series, losing three straight in Milwaukee.

        That meant their season rode on the final game against the Brewers. The Reds sat through a six-hour rain delay before taking on the Brewers in the swamp that County Stadium had become, forcing a playoff with the Mets by winning 7-1.

        The fans responded. The ticket windows at Cinergy were busy all day long.

        A sellout crowd of 54,621 came to see if the Reds could sustain their yearlong charm. There was an electricity in the air.

        But the Reds had no magic on this night.

        The Mets dominated behind Al Leiter's two-hit shutout, winning 5-0 to secure the NL's wild-card berth. The Reds' young players were devastated afterward.

        “It's not so much that we lost,” said first baseman Sean Casey, one of the more emotional Reds. “It's just that the season's over.”

        But what a season it was.

        “Nobody expected us to be here in the 163rd game,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said. “I'm proud of them because they gave everything they had.”

        REDS PAGE



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