Paul Daugherty: Someday there will be another moment like Eric Davis gave us in 1990

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For 35 years, I approached every event I covered with the child-like notion that tonight would be the night I'd see something I'd never seen before. I'd be uniquely amazed. It happened just enough to keep me believing. This one topped them all. 

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Magic came to Cincinnati on a lovely fall evening in October 1990, transcendant and lit by a singular, everlasting memory. Eric Davis grabbed all that high-steppin’ Oakland Athletics swagger and sent it to its knees. He required just one swing.

The moment happened just before 9 on Oct. 16 in Riverfront Stadium. Jack Buck, a broadcaster who knew great moments should speak for themselves, described it like this:

“Runner going. Flyball to deep, deep centerfield. Looking up. It’s going to. . .go.’’ 

A Dave Stewart fastball, at the knees and nipping the outside corner. A bat held low, a flick of the wrists, a classic Eric Davis swing. A quick flight of the baseball to straightaway center. “No doubter,’’ Davis recalled last week. Buck said nothing for more than a minute.

Reds fans, all 55,830 of them, let loose. “You would think they just won the World Series,’’ Buck noted, finally. In their dugout, the Reds were cool. Billy Hatcher and Davis were greeted with casual high-fives. No smiling, no laughter. It could easily have been a Tuesday night in May. The underdogs would not be congratulating themselves.

Reds Hall of Famer Eric Davis claps during the 2021 Reds Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Marty Brennaman on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
Reds Hall of Famer Eric Davis claps during the 2021 Reds Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Marty Brennaman on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.

It was 32 years ago. A Reds ballpark would never be so alive again. Reds fans have never been so happy since. A tradition begun in 1876, nurtured for decades and loved beyond measure in the Big 1970s rediscovered itself. All it took was Eric Davis, hitting a two-run homer and finding a sweet spot in time.

As Davis tells it, the homer had its origins the year before, at the All-Star Game. Stewart started for the American League. Davis batted 5th for the National League. The first pitch Davis saw from Stewart was a fastball that he took for a strike. Stewart’s next four offerings were off the plate. Davis walked.

“Stew threw me that fastball, then four splits in the dirt,’’ said Davis. Later, Stewart would tell Davis, laughing, “I gave you that first one, I wasn’t giving you another.’’

Flash forward to the hours just before Game 1 of the ’90 Series. The A’s were big favorites. They’d been in the previous two Series, losing to the Dodgers in ’88 then sweeping the Giants in the infamous earthquake Series the following year. In 1990, Oakland won 103 times, most in baseball, then swept Boston in the AL Championship Series.

The Bash Brothers, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, combined for 76 home runs. Rickey Henderson hit 27 homers, stole 65 bases and batted .325. Stewart won 22 games, Bob Welch 27. The A’s were the best team in baseball. They honored that with a confidence so easy, it approached serial arrogance.

Jun 10, 1991; Cincinnati, OH, USA; FILE PHOTO;  Cincinnati Reds outfielder Eric Davis at bat against the Philadelphia Phillies at Riverfront Stadium.
Jun 10, 1991; Cincinnati, OH, USA; FILE PHOTO; Cincinnati Reds outfielder Eric Davis at bat against the Philadelphia Phillies at Riverfront Stadium.

The A’s barely acknowledged the Reds before Game 1. Davis saw that as a show of disrespect. To Oakland, Cincinnati was lint on a lapel. “They didn’t think we were a formidable opponent,’’ Davis said. "They didn’t talk to us. That was kind of a slap in the face.’’

During batting practice, the Oakland hitters played homerun derby and generally clowned around. Many years later, their manager Tony La Russa said he knew his team was in trouble when he saw his players playing longball in BP. Eric Davis wasn’t alone in sensing the A’s overconfidence.

It didn’t last long.

Davis pulled the Dave Stewart file from his mind. He recalled Anaheim. “Stew’s gonna give you one pitch. If you don’t take advantage of it, he’s going to put you away.

“I changed the narrative. I wasn’t going to take it two times in a row. First time, shame on him. Second time, shame on me.’’

Davis expected that first-pitch, hittable fastball the way a 5-year-old expects toys at Christmas. He unwrapped the gift, gleefully.

"Davis Stuns Goliath’’ was the front-page headline in the Cincinnati Post the next afternoon.

“They came in there thinking it was going to be a formality,’’ recalled Davis, “then they got hit with a bolt of lightning.’’

Just like that, Eric the Red knee-capped the swag. The Reds won 7-0 behind the pitching of Jose Rijo and the Nasty Boys. We know what happened after that.

It’s approaching two generations since Cincinnati baseball fans have experienced the unexpected, eternal joy of Wire to Wire, symbolized by Eric Davis’ 1st-inning home run on a winsome fall night. That can make you sad and sharpen your appreciation, all at once.

Jun 10, 1991; Cincinnati, OH, USA; FILE PHOTO;  Cincinnati Reds outfielder Eric Davis at bat against the Philadelphia Phillies at Riverfront Stadium.
Jun 10, 1991; Cincinnati, OH, USA; FILE PHOTO; Cincinnati Reds outfielder Eric Davis at bat against the Philadelphia Phillies at Riverfront Stadium.

“We had all-stars, Silver Sluggers and Cy Young candidates same as they did,’’ Davis said. “It wasn’t like we wasn’t there.’’

Sad irony infected the occasion. The man who set the table for the feast did not get to dine as a champion. In the 1st inning of the decisive Game 4, Davis dove for a ball, lacerated a kidney and spent the next two weeks in an Oakland hospital. When Todd Benzinger squeezed a pop-up for the final out, Eric Davis was in intensive care, heavily sedated and floating in and out of consciousness. He didn’t know the Reds had won the Series until two days later.

Even now, Davis downplays the Moment. If you know Eric at all, this doesn’t surprise you. He’s an utterly proud man, unwilling, incapable even, of advertising his greatness as a player. You saw him. What do you think?

I asked him about his place in Reds' history.

“Here’s the thing about history,’’ Davis said. “If Rijo didn’t pitch that way, it wasn’t a historic moment. If that game is 13-13 in the 12th inning, that moment was a formality. Had it not been for Rijo and our offense, we’d be talking about something else.’’

We aren’t, though.

Our hope as fans owes to Moments such as this. Old, new, unforeseen, but always unsinkable, always forever, just beneath the surface, where the soul lies. Someday, there will be another night, not unlike the one 32 seasons ago, when Eric Davis hit a home run and our joy closed down the place. Another flyball to deep, deep centerfield. That’s the dream. It keeps us going.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Eric Davis home run in 1990 World Series lifted up all of Cincinnati