Cincinnati Reds: Can this team write a new history?

VERO BEACH, FL - 1981: Manager John McNamara #3 of the Cincinnati Reds leans on the batting cage before a game. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
VERO BEACH, FL - 1981: Manager John McNamara #3 of the Cincinnati Reds leans on the batting cage before a game. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) /

Will the horrors of the Reds 1981 season mimic that of 2020?

It was the summer of 1981—the dog days. Times were tough. The Cincinnati Reds arrived back home for their eighth game in a row. They had just barely managed to split a four-game series against Pete Rose and the Phillies. They were 25 games into an abbreviated season and their record stood at 11-15. They would miss the playoffs by one-and-a-half games.

The 1981 season is complicated and I’m referring to the second part of the season that year. Due to the strike, baseball took a two-month break in the middle of that summer. Thus, there were two abbreviated “half-seasons” that were about 53-55 games apiece. The Reds’ .611 overall winning percentage was, by far, the best in baseball that year.

However, the postseason consisted of the division winners from each half season—not overall. While the Reds, led by skipper John McNamara, were first overall, the team finished second in each half of the 1981 season.

It is worth noting that the St. Louis Cardinals (who played opposite the Reds in the NL East back then) suffered the same terrible fate. The Cardinals struggled to win games against sub-.500 teams that season and came up just short of first place in each half.

Say what you will about 1981. Not winning the easy ones cost the Cardinals. The 2020 Reds could learn a lesson from them. Fast forward to 2020. In their 11 games against the likes of the Royals, Tigers and Pirates (combined .369), the Cincinnati Reds are 5-6. That’s certainly not taking advantage of the easy schedule.

It doesn’t help that the Cardinals just crushed the Reds, taking three of four in St. Louis before heading to the current series against the Brewers in Milwaukee. It’s another callback to the horrors of 1981.

The Reds failed to beat the Cardinals in ’81, going 0-5. Cincinnati lost three of those in blowout fashion and two of them by one run. They were the only team in the National League to suffer a season series sweep.

Series sweeps. One-run losses. Losing the easy ones. No matter how hard you keep swimming; any one of these misfortunes could drown your campaign in an abbreviated season. And unfortunately, it’s all a little too familiar.

Baseball is all about history. It’s hard not to draw on the comparisons between 2020 and 1981. Sure, the season and playoff format had its major flaws in ‘81. This year has its fair share of flaws as well. But Reds fans are tired of repeated history.

The ’81 Reds and ’20 Reds are at the same spot. Tired and frustrated while teetering at 11-17, desperately searching for some sort of momentum as the mad dash to the finish barrels onward. The Reds will play the Cardinals in two more three-game series. They can’t afford to lose either.

They’ll also play the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates two more times, plus some make up games. Those are the last remaining easy games this season and Cincinnati must capitalize on them. If they do that, then maybe the Reds have a shot of getting into an expanded playoff field. If this team continues to slip further and further, then another shadow could hang over your offseason.

After the 1981 season, the Reds and the Cardinals went in two completely different directions. St. Louis traded for Ozzie Smith, won the 1982 World Series and enjoyed years of success. But in Cincinnati, The Big Red Machine was fully dismantled and the Reds would finish the ’82 campaign with over 100 losses for the only time in franchise history. But I digress…

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It’s the summer of 2020—the dog days. Times are tough. This writer believes that the Reds are tougher. They say they have the pieces there and, as a fan, I want to believe them. But just missing the expanded playoffs this year would be a nod to 1981. When will the franchise start writing new history?