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Everyone knows about the 1990 Cincinnati Reds and their Nasty Boys bullpen that swept the mighty Oakland A’s in the World Series that year.
Many fans remember that Jose Rijo won two of those four games and was named Series MVP.
And who can forget Eric Davis and his lacerated kidney, left in Oakland to fend for himself by Reds owner Marge Schott after the Series ended?
But who among us can recall the guy who put the finishing touch on the Reds’ most recent championship?
Nestled in a lineup that included Chris Sabo and Glenn Bragg and Paul O’Neill and Barry Larkin, former New York Mets top prospect Herm Winningham came to the plate in the top of the eighth inning of Game 4 with the Reds trailing 1-0. Larkin had singled to centerfield to lead off the frame, and there were no outs.
Winningham, who once stole 50 bases for the Single-A Lynchburg Mets laid down a bunt in front of home plate and raced to first. Both he and Larkin — at second — were safe, and the Reds had something going.
O’Neill bunted, too, a sacrifice, but A’s pitcher Dave Stewart flubbed the throw to first, and the bases were loaded.
Next up was Braggs, who grounded out to short, with the force snuffing O’Neill at second but also scoring Larkin to tie the game. Winningham moved to third base on the play.
Finally, Hal Morris lifted a fly ball into right field for the second out, but it was deep enough for Winningham to race home and give the Reds a 2-1 lead.
Chris Sabo then ended the inning by popping out to first base, but it didn’t matter. No one knew it yet, but the game was done, and Herm Winningham had scored the final, and decisive, run of 1990.
These were just the kinds of moments that so many of us had expected ever since he burst onto the baseball card scene with that epic swing on his 1986 Topps rookie card.
His Own Path
Of course, in those pre-internet days, not everyone realized the long path Winningham had already traversed by the time he showed up in our collections donning the red, white, and blue togs of the Montreal Expos.
The speedy centerfielder first caught the attention of baseball scouts in high school, and the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him in the 39th round of the 1979 June draft.
Winningham had other ideas, though, and enrolled in Georgia Perimeter College. He turned in an All-American performance that spring, good enough to boost his stock all the way into the first round. In particular, the Milwaukee Brewers chose Winningham 19th overall in the secondary phase of the January 1980 draft, and the Montreal Expos took him 15th in the secondary phase of the June draft.
Young Herm stayed in school, though, and finally signed with the New York Mets when they selected him with the ninth pick of the secondary phase in the January 1981 draft.
That summer, he made his professional debut with the Rookie League Kingsport Mets at just 19 years of age. He moved steadily through the Mets’ system until they called him up for the 1984 pennant push.
Into the Glare
And so, on September 1, 1984, Herm Winningham made his Major League debut for a Mets team that was battling with the Chicago Cubs for the National League East division title. On a club that featured super-stud youngsters Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, Winningham joined a second tier of green but promising players that included Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling, Kevin Mitchell, Jose Oquendo, and many others.
In that first game, a 7-4 victory over the San Diego Padres, Winningham got one plate appearance after replacing Mookie Wilson (!) in center to start the seventh inning. Herm managed to get the bat on the ball but flyed out to Bobby Brown in left field as San Diego reliever Floyd Chiffer recorded a 1-2-3 inning.
Ah, but September brought with it an opening doubleheader, and Winningham was in center again for the entire nightcap. After going hitless in his first two at-bats, Winningham slapped a run-scoring double against Padres starter Eric Show in the bottom of the 4th, picking up his first hit and first RBI while helping the Mets cut into a 5-1 deficit.
It was a nice start for a youngster who projected to hit for good average, steal some bases, score lots of runs, and play a solid centerfield.
And the rest of that 1984 season did little to dispel those aspirations, as Winningham posted a nifty .407 batting average in 28 plate appearances over 14 games. Along the way, he collected a triple, scored five runs, and drove in five. He also stole two bases and was caught once.
It all looked pretty good, but the Mets were on the move, with a fan base absolutely on fire for winning after losing out to the Cubs as the 1984 division race unfolded.
It was a king’s ransom to pay for a 30-year-old catcher, but it’s hard to argue with the results, as Carter helped the Mets capture the 1986 World Series title, their first championship since they were the Amazin’ Mets in 1969.
Out of the Glare
The trade worked out fine for the Expos in the short term, too, as Brooks, Winningham, and Fitzgerald were regulars on a 1985 team that won 84 games. Youmans eventually made his way into the Expos’ starting rotation, but injuries marred his young career almost from the start. He never pitched in the Majors again after shoulder surgery in 1989, even though he was only 25 years old at the time.
And the long-term wasn’t a wipeout for Montreal, either.
Fitzgerald played north of the border through the 1991 season before squeezing out one more year with the California Angels in 1992.
Brooks developed into an All-Star and MVP candidate in Montreal, playing with the Expos through 1989. He bounced around a bit after that before finishing up with the Kansas City Royals in 1994.
And Herm Winningham?
Well, he never really got that sweet lefty swing uncorked in Montreal. After yearly averages of .237, .216, .239, and .233, the Expos traded him to the Reds in July of 1988 in exchange for Tracy Jones and Pat Pacillo. The Reds also received Jeff Reed in that deal.
On the Riverfront
After a .230 average on the Riverfront to close out that season, Winningham got a bit more regular playing time (115 games) in 1989 and parlayed that opportunity into an improved .251 average to go along with 14 steals. He also scored 40 runs, a career high.
Then, at age 28 in 1990, Winningham once again served as Eric Davis’s main relief in centerfield and slashed at a .256/.314/.425 clip. It wasn’t spectacular, but it allowed the Reds to rest their fragile superstar (Davis) while still being able to count on roughly league-average production.
This was a team of big personalities and a giant-killing swagger, so by the time they rolled into the Oakland Coliseum for Game 4, it’s a good bet not many folks were thinking much about Herm Winningham.
His super prospect days were long behind him, after all, and though he was a capable sub, his 5’11” frame didn’t evoke much fear from opponents.
But when the Reds needed him most, Winningham came through with maybe the biggest moment of his career.
Did it matter that he would never become the next Rickey Henderson or even the next Mookie Wilson?
Did it matter that his offensive production faded even as his playing time increased over the next two seasons — one with the Reds, one with the Boston Red Sox?
Not to Reds fans, it didn’t.
Herm Winningham had lived the dream we all had as little boys.
First, he played in the Major Leagues.
And then … he scored the winning run in the World Series.
What more is there?
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