The Seasonal Narrative Of The 1981 Baltimore Orioles

After winning the American League pennant in 1979, and then winning 100 games in 1980, the 1981 Baltimore Orioles came into the season looking to get over the hump and win their first World Series crown since 1970. The Birds had a good, contending team in ’81. But a strange, strike-marred season kept them out of the playoffs.

Eddie Murray led the way. In a schedule where Baltimore only played 105 of its games, the first baseman hit 22 home runs and finished with 78 RBIs. He had a stat line of .360 OBP/.545 slugging percentage. On the other side of the infield, third baseman Doug DeCinces posted a respectable stat line of .341/.454 .Ken Singleton played rightfielder and his final numbers were .380/.435. Al Bumbry set the table and the centerfielder finished with an OBP of .358 and stole 22 bases.

But there were holes in the lineup elsewhere. Neither Rick Dempsey at catcher, nor Rich Dauer at second base had a productive year with the bat. Veteran shortstop Mark Belanger was always more known for his glove, and in his declining years, his offensive numbers fell off the table. The leftfield platoon of Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein didn’t do much.

Designated hitter Terry Crowley proved emblematic of the offense. He only hit .246. But he saved himself with his plate discipline, turning that into an on-base percentage of .376. As a team, Baltimore was average or worse in most offensive categories. But they led the American League in drawing walks. That was enough to at least keep them afloat, ranking 8th in the 14-team AL for runs scored.

Pitching was always the Orioles’ strong suit during the Earl Weaver era, but the staff had their own challenges. Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame ace, was now 35-years-old, and he was starting to show his age. Palmer made 22 starts and finished with a 3.75 ERA. Mike Flanagan, just two years removed from a Cy Young Award, finished with a pedestrian 4.19 ERA. Steve Stone, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, was even worse, making only 12 starts, winning just four games, and posting a 4.60 ERA.

Dennis Martinez and Scott McGregor stepped up to lead the staff, combining to win 27 games and finish with ERAs in the low 3s. But no one had an “ace” season and that was something Baltimore was not accustomed to.

The bullpen had a reliable lefty-righty combo of Tippy Martinez and Sammy Stewart. Tippy saved 11 games with 2.90 ERA. Stewart, even in the shortened season, logged 112 innings on the strength of 26 relief appearances and three starts. His ERA was a sharp 2.32. The Oriole pitching staff, like the offense, was good enough to stay afloat, ranking seventh in the American League for composite ERA.

Major League Baseball had a significantly different alignment and postseason format than we see today. Each league had just an East and a West division. So, while the AL East had familiar faces, like the defending division champion New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays, they also had some teams from Middle America. The Cleveland Indians were in the AL East. As were the Milwaukee Brewers (an American League team prior to 1998) and the Detroit Tigers. Everyone except the Jays would seriously contend at some point or another in this strange 1981 season.

Moreover, only the first-place team could qualify for the playoffs. If you won your division, you went directly to the League Championship Series. That was why a 100-win Oriole team had stayed home for October in 1980.

After a middling 9-9 start, Baltimore reeled off 15 wins in their next 20 games. They moved into first place, a game ahead of Cleveland and a 1 ½ up on New York. The Yankees came into old Memorial Stadium for a three-game series that started on Memorial Day.

DeCinces threw a holiday party for himself against New York ace Ron Guidry. DeCinces homered twice and drove in five runs. Palmer dominated and Baltimore won 10-1. On Tuesday night, Crowley hit two home runs. The second was a three-run blast in the fifth that put the Orioles up 6-4. Stewart took over from McGregor halfway through, tossed 4 1/3 innings of one-hit relief and the 6-4 score held.

Wednesday night’s finale was more DeCinces and Crowley. The former again went deep twice. The latter hit a two-out/two-run single in the bottom of the ninth to deliver a thrilling 6-5 win. Baltimore had the sweep, and they had a three-game lead in the AL East race.

But that race was going to end sooner rather than later. The Orioles were swept on a return trip to the Bronx and fell into a first-place tie. Then they lost four of seven. On June 12, Baltimore was 31-23, two games back of New York. And the players union went out on strike.

The strike ripped two months out of the season, and it wasn’t until August 10 that play resumed. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided to salvage the season by declaring that teams in first place were the first-half “champions.” Everyone’s slate would be wiped clean, and the balance of the schedule would determine the second-half “champions.” The two teams would then meet in what proved to be the inaugural Division Series.

What if the same team won both halves? Then the team that finished second in the second half would advance, with the only reward for the first-place finisher an additional home game in the Division Series. With little to play for, New York was a non-factor in the second half. Baltimore was back to square one.

The Orioles went 15-11 through August and the early days of September. The Tigers were setting the tone in the AL East’s second half with a record of  18-9 on Labor Day. The Brewers were 17-11 and the Red Sox were 14-12. It was anyone’s race to take in the final month.

Over the next two weeks, Baltimore lost four of six key head-to-head games with Milwaukee. The good news is that Detroit came back to the pack. With two weeks to go, the Tigers were 24-16, the Red Sox were 23-16, the Brewers stood at 24-17, and the Birds were 21-17.

You may be noticing that Baltimore has played fewer games than their AL East competition. In picking up the schedule at an arbitrary point, Major League Baseball made no effort to ensure that all teams would play an even number of games. It’s an inequity that would play a factor in the Orioles’ push to reach the playoffs.

Although Baltimore was missing their opportunities. They lost two of three at home to Detroit before bouncing back to take a weekend series in New York.

With a week to go, they had a chance, but it was a narrow one. The Tigers were 27-19, with the Brewers and Red Sox both just a game back in the loss column. The Orioles, at 24-21, were only two back in the loss column, but the fewer number of games meant they would lose any tie. Moreover, Detroit and Milwaukee were scheduled to play on the final weekend. Baltimore had to catch at least one of them by Friday.

At the very least, a trip to Tiger Stadium gave them a chance. In Monday night’s opener, Palmer gave up three first-inning runs and was quickly yanked for Stewart. The latter merely worked 8 1/3 innings of shutout relief. Murray drove in four runs and turned it around to a 7-3 win.

McGregor took the hill on Tuesday night, and he also failed to make it out of the first inning. This time, the bullpen and bats weren’t coming to the rescue. Baltimore took a 14-0 shellacking. After rain on Wednesday, they concluded the series by winning an extra-inning affair on Thursday afternoon. Dennis Martinez went seven strong and left with a 4-2 lead. Tippy coughed up the lead, but Roenicke bailed the reliever out with a 10th-inning sac fly and a 5-4 win.

But the win was too late. The Brewers had won a head-to-head series with the Red Sox. The Milwaukee-Detroit finale was winner-take-all for the second half. Baltimore was only a game back in the loss column. Had there been an equal number of games played, they would have had a shot at pulling into a tie with a sweep. But there was no such provision.

Baltimore still finished 59-46 as a whole. That’s a pace to win 91 games, was third-best in the American League and sixth-best in the majors. Even with the struggles at so many spots, Weaver had produced a team that was playoff-caliber by the standards of today.

The Birds would be even better in 1982, winning 94 games and posting the second-best record in baseball. But Milwaukee, who won this year’s second-half, was a little bit better—they won 95, the last of which was a head-to-head showdown in Memorial Stadium on the final day of the season. Weaver stepped down after that ’82 season. But his players still had a job to finish—in 1983, they went all the way.