As the 2014 trade deadline approaches, the Cincinnati Reds find themselves in need of help all around the diamond: in left field, at shortstop and second base and first base, and in middle relief. In 1984, the Reds were hopelessly out of the race almost before the season even started, but general manager Bob Howsam nevertheless swung a trade for a player who could have, at some point, plugged just about any of those holes facing the current team. On August 15 of that season, with very little of interest to draw fans to Riverfront Stadium, the Reds changed their persona by firing manger Vern Rapp and trading infielder Tom Lawless to the Montreal Expos. In return, Reds legend Pete Rose came home as player-manager and set in motion the events that would shape the franchise for years to come.
No matter what you think about Rose as player, manager, gambler, or person, the Reds began to pull out of their three-year funk the moment Charlie Hustle came back into the fold. From 1982 through the middle of August 1984, Cincinnati compiled a 186-259 record (.418) and became one of the doormats in the old NL West. With Rose at the helm, Cincy went 19-22 the rest of the way in 1984, led by the .365/.430/.58 slash line of their fiery new first baseman/manager.
In 1985, the Reds racked up the first of three consecutive second-place finishes that established them as contenders and focused high expectations on exciting youngsters like Eric Davis, Kal Daniels, and Paul O’Neill. Along the way, Rose broke Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record and finally retired as a player, and living legend, in 1986.
The 1989 season began as the previous three had, with big expectations, but also with a nagging feeling that the team just couldn’t get over the hump. Then, the Rose betting scandal broke during Spring Training, and it hung over the team until August 24 when Rose was banned for life. Just three days before, The Hit King had managed his last big league game, with Tommy Helms taking over for the last six weeks of a lost season.
Nevertheless, the pieces were in place for new manager Lou Piniella when he took over in October, and the 1990 Reds went wire-to-wire in the NL West. After outlasting the Pittsburgh Pirates in six games to win the NLCS, the Reds famously swept the heavily-favored Oakland A’s in an almost anticlimactic World Series.
In many ways, that 1990 team was a cap on the second Pete Rose era in Cincinnati, as complacency and injury saw them fall back to fifth place in the West in 1991. That off-season, the team began to disburse, spearheaded by Davis’s Los Angeles Dodgers reunion with boyhood friend Darryl Strawberry. By the time Davis reported to Spring Training for LA, Rose had already served a prison term for tax evasion and been left off his first Hall of Fame ballot.
Thirty years after Pete Rose returned to the Cincinnati Reds, the move still reverberates through baseball and the Riverfront. Whether the consequences of the trade were good or bad is a matter of perspective, but there can be no denying that the magnitude of its impact has, indeed, been great.