For two decades of Los Angeles Dodgers history they were defined by manager Tom Lasorda. The manager, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, “bled Dodger Blue” by his own proud admission. The Dodgers won games, pennants and championships and this post features links to articles that capture the heart of his best teams.
Lasorda took over in 1977 and promptly won the National League pennant each of his first two seasons. He made it back to the World Series in 1981 and this time won it. In 1988, his team won it all again.
These were his four pennant winners, but there were other memorable teams. In 1980, the Dodgers trailed the Houston Astros by three games with three to play, and swept the Astros three straight before losing a one-game playoff.
Lasorda won Manager of the Year in 1983 for leading his team to another NL West title, before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS. And in the era after realignment and expanded playoffs, he made it to October in 1995.
The links below walk you through the many highs and occasional lows of his four best teams. From the epic rally in Game 3 of the 1977 NLCS, to Bob Welch’s dramatic strikeout of Reggie Jackson in the 1978 World Series to Kirk Gibson’s stunning home run in the 1988 World Series, to the greatness of players like Orel Hershiser, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Tommy John, Don Sutton and many more, it’s all there.
Los Angeles Dodgers history is filled with rich lore, and the Tom Lasorda era is an essential part of that history. READ MORE ABOUT THE 1977 LOS ANGELES DODGERS READ MORE ABOUT THE 1978 LOS ANGELES DODGERS READ MORE ABOUT THE 1981 LOS ANGELES DODGERS READ MORE ABOUT THE 1988 LOS ANGELES DODGERS
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.
The year that was 1981 sports produced three epic moments, all of which have differing places in sports lore. One of them has seen its memory indisputably stand the test of time. A second has seen its memory fade, though with a little jostle, it can be brought back to the forefront. And a third has been unfortunately forgotten.
It was the then-upstart San Francisco 49ers that produced the biggest moment, and it was “The Catch”, when receiver Dwight Clark went high into the air to grab a third-down pass that quarterback Joe Montana was trying to throw away. Clark came down with the catch and the touchdown, producing a victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game.
The images of Clark going high and grabbing the ball with his fingertips have ensured this play a special place in the annals of legend. It was also a seminal moment in the history of the NFL—it marked the the second of three straight conference championship game losses for the Cowboys, and the franchise would start a slow fall from grace that would collapse by the end of the decade.
San Francisco and Dallas were a case of two ships passing in the night. The 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl, and won three more by the time the 1980s were complete.
A footnote to the 1981 NFL playoffs, but most worthy of mention is how good the second round of the AFC playoffs were. The San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins played one of the great postseason games ever. The Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills played one that deserves a heckuva lot more historical attention than it gets. Because none of these teams won the Super Bowl, and because the AFC Championship Game wasn’t very good, the games that preceded them were forgotten, but they shouldn’t be. Read more about the 1981 San Francisco 49ers Read more about the 1981 AFC Playoffs
Moment #2 came in the NBA playoffs. The Boston Celtics were in the second year of the Larry Bird Era. They fell behind the Philadelphia 76ers 3-1 in games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Two straight dramatic wins set the stage for the most thrilling game yet.
Game 7 went to the wire with Boston holding a one-point lead. Philadelphia got a crack at the basket on the game’s final possession, but the Celtics held off the Sixers.
The Garden Party all but locked up the first NBA championship for Bird and a return to glory for the franchise. The West’s playoffs that year were gutted thanks to a bad year for Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers, so Boston-Philadelphia was the de facto Finals and everyone watching at the time knew it. Read more about the 1981 NBA Playoffs
Montana-to-Clark hasn’t been forgotten by anyone who saw it, and Bird’s Garden Party wouldn’t take much to remind people of. But the greatness of the 1981 NCAA Tournament is right on a par with those two events strictly on the merits, even if its legend has faded.
Remember, in 1981, favorites losing early was still a mostly isolated phenomena. That’s why the second round in ’81 came as such a shock. Eight of the sixteen favorites lost. And what’s most memorable is that three lost on buzzer-beating plays that all came right in succession, ensuring that TV viewers could be moved from game to game and see them all.
Finally, the three teams that fell weren’t just ordinary 1 thru 4 seeds. One of them was Louisville, the defending national champion. Another was DePaul, the #1 ranked team in the country. And another was Oregon State, the top seed in the West Regional.
There were more thrills ahead, with BYU’s Danny Ainge making an electrifying play in the Sweet 16, going coast-to-coast in the final seconds to beat Notre Dame by a point. And when the dust settled there was also a great champion. While other favorites fell, Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers simply destroyed people, winning their five games by an average of 20-plus points, and claiming a second national title in six years. Read more about the 1981 NCAA Tournament
The seasons of college football and baseball were filled with intrigue, albeit for very different reasons. College football saw the age of parity truly arrive. The #1 and #2 teams in the polls—Michigan and Alabama suffered big upsets on the second Saturday of September and it set the tone for a wild year, where old powers fell and new ones came forward.
No team made a stronger step forward than the Clemson Tigers, who went undefeated and beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to win the national title.
Baseball was interesting for all the wrong reasons. A strike interrupted the year and when play resumed in August, MLB opted for a “split-season”, where teams leading their divisions were declared champions, everyone started fresh and the “second-half” winners would be “first-half” leaders in the first-ever Division Series.
The plan resulted in inequities, but was probably the best idea manageable under the circumstances. The Los Angeles Dodgers ended up winning their first World Series in 25 years, including a big pennant-winning home run by Rick Monday in the National League Championship Series. Read more about the 1981 Clemson Tigers Read more about the 1981 MLB season
If you wanted drama, the NHL wasn’t the place to go. But if you wanted excellence it certainly was. The 1981 New York Islanders dominated from start to finish, were the best team in hockey in the regular season and then rolled through the playoffs virtually unchallenged to win their second straight Stanley Cup. Read more about the 1981 NHL Playoffs