The Pittsburgh Pirates are in the playoffs for the first time in 21 years, and it seems fitting that the team waiting for them in the National League Wild Card Game is the Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates and Reds have met 20 times in post-season play, which is more than any two National League teams have met in the playoffs save the Phillies and Dodgers. In other words, if we're writing a new chapter of Pittsburgh Pirate playoff history, of course it has to begin with the Reds.
The first playoff meeting between the Pirates and the Reds came in the 1970 NLCS, only the second NLCS in history. The Pirates only won 89 games in 1970, but that was good enough to win the NL East by five games over the Cubs. In fact, the 102-win Reds were the only team in the entire NL to win more than 90 games in the National League that year. The series itself was as close as the regular season records would imply; the Reds won Game 1 3-0 in 10 innings and steamrolled the Pirates from there. The Pirates only held a lead for 1/2 an inning the entire series; they took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first in Game 3, and the Reds immediately scored two back in the bottom of the inning. They won that game 3-2 and the series 3-0.
The teams' second meeting came in the 1972 NLCS. The Pirates were the defending World Series champs in 1972, of course, and they won 96 games during the season compared to the Reds' 95. The Bucs won Game 1 5-1 and the teams traded wins from there until Game 5. That's the game that's only faded in Pirate post-season infamy because of the 1992 disaster; the Bucs held a 3-2 lead going into the bottom of the ninth inning and sent Dave Giusti out the mound. Giusti immediately served up a home run to Johnny Bench and a singles to Tony Perez and Denis Menke. He was removed for Bob Moose, who got two quick outs and appeared to be on the verge of sending the game to extra innings when he uncorked a wild pitch that scored pinch-runner George Foster.
They met again in the 1975 NLCS, which only served to continue the Pirates' legacy of losing to some of baseball's most famous teams in post-season play. Those Reds were the Big Red Machine at their most powerful; the Pirates won 92 games in 1975 and finished up 16 games worse than the 108-win Reds in the standings. The Pirates took a 2-0 lead in the top of the second of Game 1, and things were pretty much downhill from there. The Reds ended up winning Game 1 8-2, Game 2 6-1, and Game 3 5-3 in 10 innings. The Pirates are barely a footnote in history in 1975.
The Bucs finally got some measure of revenge in the 1979 NLCS. In what ended up being the final hurrah for the two best National League teams of the '70s, the Pirates and Reds met for their fourth NLCS of the decade. The Pirates won Games 1 and 2 on the road in extra innings, then cruised to an easy Game 3 win on their way to what is still their most recent World Series title.
There is, of course, one more Pirates/Reds series to discuss. I'm talking, of course, about the 1990 NLCS. That's the series that introduced many of us to the thrills and heartbreak of post-season baseball, even if we only have the faintest memories of it. The Pirates overcame a 3-0 deficit against Jose Rijos to win Game 1, but dropped Games 2, 3, and 4. They eeked out a 3-2 win in Game 5, but lost Game 6 when Glenn Braggs made his infamous robbery of a Carmelo Martinez near-homer to preserve a 2-1 lead for the Reds in the bottom of the ninth. To this day, I still don't understand why Glenn Braggs or Carmelo Martinez had anything to do with such a huge game in such a huge situation, but then, it all happened when I was five years old.
Of course, none of this has happened recently enough to have any bearing on this iteration of the Pirates and Reds in the playoffs. I can't say for sure, but it seems likely to me that Jay Bell is the only person directly involved in this game that has any connection to the 1990 series. This connection to the greater history of baseball is one of the things that I've always missed during the Pirates' long stretch in the Grand Canyon, though. Even though the history of the Pirates and Reds in the playoffs has been mostly unkind to the Pirates, this is a classic baseball playoff rivalry. Maybe tonight is the night it starts to swing back in the Pirates' favor.