There’s a great scene in “Inside Out” where the “forgetters” in the girl’s mind are deciding which memories are worth keeping and which memories can be thrown out for space purposes.
“U.S. presidents?” one of the forgetters asks.
“Keep Washington, Lincoln … and the fat one,” the other answers.
Memory is fascinating, isn’t it? What we remember. What we forget. Mostly, we seem to remember small images that we convince ourselves are meaningful and tell a larger truth. Do they? Maybe. Let me ask you: What do you remember about Mike Dukakis? I’m guessing that if anything comes to mind, it’s probably the image of Dukakis sitting in that tank with that goofy looking helmet. What do you remember about Joe Namath? I’m guessing again that it’s either him running off the Super Bowl field waving his index finger or drunkenly telling Suzy Kolber that he wanted to kiss her.
My next book, I’m excited and nervous to say, will be about Harry Houdini (more on this later). What do you remember about Harry Houdini? In asking friends this, the answers usually are:
1. He died doing the Chinese Water Torture trick (not true).
2. He died after someone hit him in the stomach (partially true)
3. He was a spy during World War I (probably not true)
We share these memories, but are they accurate? More: Are they telling? Of you ask someone what they remember about the 1990 Reds, they will almost certainly say: Nasty Boys. That team became famous for its hard-throwing bullpen, featuring Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton and Randy Myers. Those three were so electrifying in the postseason — the Nasty Boys pitched 8 2/3 innings in the World Series without giving up a run — that a kind of overpowering mythology has built up around them. Whenever people talk about the evolution of bullpens, they will include Lou Piniella’s usage of the Nasty Boys. Whenever people talk about the greatest bullpens in baseball history, they will rank the Nasty Boys high. Whenever people think about those 1990 Reds, they will think of an ordinary team turned super by the Nasty Boys bullpen.
And here’s the problem: It’s not exactly right. We remember it that way because the Nasty Boys were so good in the World Series and they had a nickname. But, in truth, the Nasty Boys, while good, were hardly revolutionary. In fact, if you consider the entire 1990 season, they weren’t even the best bullpen in the 1990 World Series.
1990 A’s bullpen: 417 innings, 315 hits, 1.054 WHIP, 2.35 ERA, 64 saves, 73-3 record when leading into the sixth inning.
1990 Reds bullpen: 472 innings, 404 hits, 1.272 WHIP, 2.93 ERA, 50 saves, 63-8 record when leading into the sixth inning.
The Reds bullpen was interesting, and it’s always good to be interesting. Dibble was thrilling to watch, he seemed to throw a billion miles an hour. Myers had a near Hall of Fame career*. Charlton was a starter who became a reliever, and that’s always an intriguing transition to watch. They all threw hard. The racked up a lot of strikeouts. They were a good show.
*Though, interestingly, it was the very next year, 1991, that the Reds tried Myers as a starter for the only time in his career. He pitched OK, not great, and the Reds went 3-7 in his starts before scrapping the experiment.
But the 1990 Reds did not win because of that bullpen. They won because they had a good offense featuring young Barry Larkin, in their prime Eric Davis, Paul O’Neill and Chris Sabo, and they got a superb season from Mariano Duncan. They had a better-than-we-remember starting rotation with Jose Rijo and Tom Browning at the top. They were pretty good defensively, they had some speed. And, let’s face it, they only won 91 games — it’s not like we’re talking about a dominant team here. The bullpen played a role, sure, but that team blew five games they were leading going into the ninth inning, and they underperformed their Pythagorean Expectation by one victory.
Now, if you want to come up with a replacement for the Nasty Boys in your pantheon of great bullpens, I have one for you, one I suspect you’ve rarely contemplated. Consider the 1988 Dodgers.
What’s the image from that Dodgers team? Probably Kirk Gibson hitting the home run and limping around the bases. It also could be Orel Hershiser having a season for the ages with that record-breaking scoreless streak and fantastic postseason.
But here’s the thing about those Dodgers: They scored 65 fewer runs than the 1990 Reds but they won three more games. How does that happen? True, it was a lower scoring season and the Dodgers had a better rotation, though not as much better as you might remember. The big difference? The bullpen. The Dodgers bullpen had a 2.35 ERA as a unit. That’s considerably better than the Reds — it’s one of the lowest ERAs ever for an entire bullpen.
And here, let’s compare the Dodgers big three of Jay Howell, Alejandro Pena and Brian Holton to the Nasty Boys.
Dodgers three: 244 innings, 188 hits, 1.074 WHIP, 1.88 ERA.
Nasty Boys: 235 1/3 innings, 169 hits, 1.118 WHIP, 2.14 ERA.
The Nasty Boys got more strikeouts and gave up slightly fewer hits per nine. The Dodger Boys walked fewer, hit fewer batters, threw fewer wild pitches and gave up about half as many home runs. Just different styles. Ballpark plays a role in it, and so does the year (1990 was a higher scoring season than 1988). But essentially the Dodgers fantastic bullpen played at least a big role, perhaps bigger, in the team’s World Series run. But: No nickname.