Tom Lasorda had known constant success since taking over as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977. He won pennants each of his first two years and contended to the last day—and beyond—in 1980. But Tommy was still looking for his first ring, and the proud franchise was after its first title since 1965. The 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers were the breakthrough team, repeatedly coming back in the postseason and winning the World Series.
Los Angeles had a balanced team in 1981, ranking fourth in the National League in both runs scored and ERA. They got good years from veteran hitters, like Dusty Baker and Ron Cey. There were veteran pitchers, like Jerry Reuss and Burt Hooton that gave steady work.
There were disappointing seasons from other vets, such as Steve Garvey, Bill Russell and Davey Lopes. The Dodgers had also, prior to the season, parted ways with 36-year-old pitcher Don Sutton via free agency.
It meant some transition and younger players stepped up to produce. Pedro Guerrero got the right field job and finished with a .365 on-base percentage/.464 slugging percentage. Steve Howe stepped into the closer’s job and posted a 2.50 ERA.
But no young player impacted the team, the region—or indeed the entire nation, like Fernando Valenzuela.
He was 20-years-old, a chunky left-handed pitcher from Mexico. When he made the kick to start his motion, his eyes cast towards the sky, making for a memorable visual. He won his first eight starts, finished with a 13-7 record and 2.48 ERA and won the Cy Young Award. “Fernando” became a phenomena, needing only his first name for identification.
You may have noted Fernando’s 13 wins and thought that it seems a little low for a Cy Young season. That’s because 1981 was a shortened year, due to a players’ strike that went from mid-June to mid-August and meant there were only a 100-plus games played. Though no one knew it at the time, the early season games had to played with pennant-race urgency.
Los Angeles came storming out of the gate to a 14-3 start. They swept the Houston Astros, the team that eliminated them in a one-game playoff in 1980, then went 7-2 on a road trip that covered San Francisco, San Diego and Houston.
A road trip to play the Montreal Expos and Philadelphia Phillies, the powers of the NL East, produced a 4-3 record, and the Dodgers then swept a home series with Montreal, getting two walkoff wins—victories that would prove to be foreshadowing.
The Dodgers had a 5 ½ game lead going into June, but a 2-6 stretch saw that lead dwindle to a half-game on June 11. Los Angeles was 36-21 while the Cincinnati Reds were 35-21—in the pre-1994 alignment, with no Central Division, the Reds were in the NL West. It was a fortunate schedule, that allowed Los Angeles an extra game, because at that point, the strike hit.
When the strike was settled, that extra game loomed even larger. MLB decided to just declare the four teams leading their divisions at the strike to be “first-half champions.” For the first time in its history, MLB created the Division Series round, and it would pit the winners of the first half against the winners of the second half in a best-of-five to determine the division champion.
It also meant though, that Los Angeles had nothing to play for after the strike. Even if they won the second half, they would still have to play the post-strike runner-up in the Division Series. The Dodgers played with more enthusiasm than most other first-half winners, and were tied for first as late as September 19, but the urgency the Astros and Reds had proved decisive and it was those teams that fought to the end for the right to get into the Division Series.
Houston was the opponent in the Division Series and Los Angeles dropped the first two games in the Astrodome. No team had ever lost the first two games of a best-of-five round, something that had been taking place at the LCS level since 1969, and then gone on to win the series. Los Angeles became the first, completely shutting down the Houston bats and winning three in a row at home.
Los Angeles met Montreal in the National League Championship Series and fell behind 2-1 in games. It wasn’t until 1985 that the LCS would expand to best-of-seven, so the Dodgers’ backs were to the wall.
Both of the ensuing games were tied in the eighth inning. Garvey hit a big home run to break open Game 4. Rick Monday hit an even bigger home run in Game 5, breaking the tie with two outs in the top of the ninth. The Dodgers were going back to the World Series.
Los Angeles had won five straight games facing elimination in this postseason, so when they lost the first two games of the World Series on the road to the New York Yankees, the whole comeback notion was old hat. Just three years earlier, the Dodgers had gotten a 2-0 Series lead on the Yankees and then never won again. In 1981, Los Angeles returned the favor. They took three straight in Dodger Stadium, all by one run, and then won Game 6 in the Bronx in a blowout.
It had been a long and winding road, with a players’ strike interrupting the year and then repeatedly being pushed to the wall in October. But Tom Lasorda was finally a champion.