The 1981 Pittsburgh Pirates were just two years removed from winning the World Series and ending a decade of tremendous success. Just one year earlierthey had been in first place in early September before a late fade did them in. The 1981 team struggled to find its footing early, were interrupted by a players’ strike just when they seemed to be picking up steam and then never got going after play resumed.
Willie Stargell had been the hero of the ’79 team and still a quality veteran hitter in 1980. But at 41-years-old, “Pops” could no longer get it done. The Pirates traded their starting catcher, Ed Ott, as part of a deal to get Jason Thompson at first base.
Thompson, who had been a good and underrated player for both the Tigers and Angels, delivered with a stat line of .396 on-base percentage/.502 slugging percentage in 1981. On the other side of the infield, third baseman Bill Madlock’s stat line was a stellar .413/.495 and his .341 batting average won “Mad Dog” the third of his four career batting titles.
But beyond Thompson and Madlock, offensive production was hard to find. Dave Parker continued to slip from the MVP performance he delivered in 1978. While Parker;s slugging percentage was a nice .454, he only hit nine home runs (in a 102-game season) and his on-base percentage was a woeful .287. Parker’s inability to draw walks and his loss of power were part of a pattern. Pittsburgh finished dead last in the 12-team National League at getting walks and ranked only ninth in home runs.
Beyond that, no one else came close to producing. At different points in their career, catcher Tony Pena, second baseman Phil Garner, left fielder Mike Easler and centerfielder Omar Moreno would all be good offensive players. None of them were in 1981 and the Pirates finished seventh in the National League in runs scored.
The pitching, also burdened by mediocrity, finished seventh. There were arms that delivered respectable efforts—Rick Rhoden went 9-4 in his 21 starts and finished with a 3.89 ERA. Eddie Solomon posted a 3.12 ERA. Jim Bibby had a nice 2.50 ERA, but only made 14 starts. Pittsburgh lacked anyone a rotation could really be built around. In the bullpen, Enrique Romo and Rod Scurry were mediocre and while Kent Tekulve pitched pretty well, the submarine-style thrower was no longer what he’d been in the championship run.
Prior to the realignment of 1994, the Pirates were an NL East team, as were the Cardinals and Cubs. Those three teams joined the Mets, Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) and Phillies to comprise the six-team division. Philadelphia had outlasted Montreal in a great NL East race in 1980 and gone on to win the World Series.
In the first week of the fresh 1981 season, the Pirates went into Philly and got swept in a three-game set The tough loss was the middle game, when Tekulve blew a 3-1 lead in the ninth and Pittsburgh lost in eleven. They went on to Houston, who had won the NL West in 1980. Again, the middle game saw the Pirates lead 3-1 in the ninth and the bullpen (Grant Jackson in this case) coughed up the lead. This time, Pittsburgh won in eleven and swept the series.
Another sweep, three straight over the lowly Mets in old Shea Stadium, had Pittsburgh nudging over .500 as April wound down. But then, in a stretch against mostly good teams in the Astros, Cardinals and Reds, the Pirates lost 10 of 15. They were looking at a seven-game hole in the NL East and in an era when no wild-card fallback was available.
The next 18 games had a softer schedule, with a couple series against the Phils and Expos mixed in. Pittsburgh took advantage, won 13 times and were within three games of the lead going into the week of June 8.
This was the week that changed the baseball world. Pittsburgh dropped a couple games at home to a bad Padres team, but it didn’t matter. By Thursday, the players had gone out on strike and they would not return until the first part of August.
Baseball’s solution was to hit the refresh button. The teams in first place at the time of the strike were declared first-half champions. The rest of the season would determine the second-half champ. The two winners would then play in the first incarnation of the Division Series.
On the surface, it wasn’t a bad deal for the Pirates. Instead of being 5 ½ out, they were starting fresh. The Phillies, already crowned first-half champs and given nothing to play for in the second half would not be motivated. Only Montreal and newly emerging St. Louis, under Whitey Herzog, would be standing in Pittsburgh’s way.
But the lost momentum of early June hurt the Pirates more than any of the advantages the strange season provided. They lost seven of the first ten after the strike. Winning three of four games at home over the Padres seemed to provide some stability. But then the Dodgers, the eventual World Series champ, came to old Three Rivers Stadium and won three straight. The last was a 16-6 shellacking of Rhoden. Pittsburgh went west and lost four straight in San Francisco.
It was all but over. By the end of August, Garner and John Milner—one of the best players in 1980—had been traded to contending teams. The only bright spot of the terrible second half was that the trades netted Pittsburgh a minor league second baseman in Johnny Ray, who turned into a solid player.
But the fade begun in September 1980 continued unabated. Pittsburgh would get back over .500 the next two years, winning 84 games in 1982 and 1983. But the middle of the decade saw a collapse and the franchise would not return to contention until 1990.
Major league baseball endured a strange year in 1981, a season that was torn apart by a strike that started in mid-June and lasted for two months. The result was any number of inequities and historical oddities. But none more so than the fact that the team who won more games than anyone—the 1981 Cincinnati Reds—were left home in October.
The days of the Big Red Machine, when Cincinnati won World Series titles in 1975 and 1976 were in the rearview mirror and a number of players from that those teams—notably Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez—were gone. Sparky Anderson had been replaced as manager by John McNamara following 1978.
But the Reds were still a steady, winning baseball team. From 1977-80, they won between 88-92 games each year. They won the NL West again in 1979. And they had every reason to expect contention when the 1981 season opened.
There was one major transition taking place. Johnny Bench, the great Hall of Fame-bound catcher, was seeing his knees start to fail and he began splitting time at first base with Dan Driessen. The Reds replaced him with Joe Nolan and the young lefthanded hitting Nolan was up to the task, batting .309.
Ken Griffey Sr. was another .300 hitter at the age of 31. Griffey roamed centerfield where he had taken the place of the departed Cesar Geronimo. Griffey’s spot in right was taken by Dave Collins. Collins finished with an on-base percentage of .355 and his 26 steals made him the team’s one speed threat on the bases.
Bench might have changed positions and seen his playing time cut in half, but he continued to produce, finishing with a stat line of .369 on-base percentage/.489 slugging percentage. Ron Oester was at second base and posted a respectable .342 OBP.
All of these players were important, but the reason the Reds offense ultimately ranked second in the National League in runs scored comes back to one man—leftfielder George Foster. With an MVP award already under his belt from 1977, and one of the great power hitters of the era, Foster played all 108 games and hit 22 more homers. He drove in 90 runs. His stat line was .373/.591 and he finished third in the 1981 NL MVP voting.
The starting rotation was keyed by the 1-2 punch of young Mario Soto and veteran Tom Seaver. Soto went 12-9 with a 3.29 ERA. Seaver was brilliant, going 14-2 and posting a 2.54 ERA.
But the pitching behind Soto and Seaver was problematic. Frank Pastore and Bruce Berenyi were respectable in the rotation, but the bullpen was a weak point. Particularly its depth and it is absolutely fair to wonder how much the shortened season and the two-month vacation in the middle helped McNamara cover up this problem.
Cincinnati played well for the first two months of the season. Their 27-20 record on Memorial Day pro-rated out to a 93-win season—more on less on target for what they had been for four years. But the Los Angeles Dodgers were hot out of the gate at 33-15. The Dodgers were an NL West rival in the divisional format that existed prior to 1994. And the playoff format allowed for only division winners to reach the postseason.
The Reds responded by heating up when the calendar flipped to June. They won eight of nine, while the Dodgers started losing. Cincinnati’s record was 35-21 and they were even in the loss column with 36-21 Los Angeles.
Then the strike hit. When it was resolved later in the summer, MLB had a decision to make for how they would handle the rest of the season.
WATCH THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S VIDEO DISCUSSION OF THE 1981 CINCINNATI REDS & THEIR LEGACY
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn made the decision to declare the teams in first place at the time of the strike to be “first half champions.” All teams would start fresh and play out of the rest of the schedule to determine the “second half champion.”
The winners of each half would then play each other best-of-five to decide who went to the League Championship Series. It was the first appearance of the Division Series, a round that would become permanent 13 years later.
One question you might ask is this—what happens if the same team wins both halves? In that case, the team that finished second in the second half would get the Division Series spot.
The biggest problem with this idea is that it meant the Dodgers (along with the Yankees, A’s andPhillies, the other first-half winners) had nothing to play for except the possibility of one extra home game in the LDS. Los Angeles spent the balance of the schedule playing exactly like a team with nothing on the line and they never made a push at the second-half title.
The Reds had two other problems. The biggest being that they were denied the first-half title solely on the basis of playing one fewer game than the Dodgers. The second is that in the event LA had won the second half (or even tried to win it), Cincinnati’s second-place finish from the first half was completely dismissed.
Play resumed on August 12 and for roughly a month, the Reds were mediocre. They were 13-13 on September 9 when three dramatic finishes changed their season and their place in history.
In a Wednesday afternoon getaway game at home with the San Diego Padres, the Reds trailed 4-2 in the ninth. Three singles and a walk tied the game and another single from Bench won it. The Dodgers came to town for the weekend. Oester broke a 2-2 tie in the 10th with a walkoff home run.
On Saturday, after closer Tom Hume coughed up a 5-4 lead in the ninth and the game went extra innings, the Reds did it again. Driessen led off the 11th with a single. Reserve outfielder Paul Householder beat out a bunt. A passed ball moved both runners up and Dave Concepion won it with a sac fly.
Those three games jumpstarted a 15-4 run that put Cincinnati right on the heels of first-place Houston in the season’s final week. The Reds were within 1 ½ games and the Astros were coming to Riverfront for two on Wednesday and Thursday.
Soto got the ball in the Wednesday opener and delivered eight masterful innings of five-hit ball. The 5-2 win closed the margin to a half-game and made Thursday night a battle for first place.
Griffey, Concepion and third baseman Ray Knight all got two hits. But nobody could get the big hit with runners in scoring position. Houston starter Nolan Ryan kept turning the Reds back and they trailed 3-1 after eight innings. The Astros broke it open with five in the ninth and held their 1 ½ game lead.
Houston still had to visit Los Angeles to close the year and the Dodgers were trying to get some momentum for the postseason. Cincinnati was at home with lowly Atlanta. Alas, this would be a weekend of missed opportunity.
The Astros lost on Friday, but Pastore couldn’t get out of the fourth inning and the Reds lost 11-5. Houston lost again on Saturday. But after Foster staked Cincy to an early lead with a three-run blast in the first, the bats fell silent and they lost 4-3. The race was over. Even though Soto would get the ball in the finale and pitch a shutout, it wouldn’t matter.
Cincinnati’s close second-place finish gave them an overall record of 66-42. With a .611 winning percentage, they were the only team to clear the .600 benchmark and were on a pace to win 99 games in a normal schedule.
So the question lingers—were the 1981 Cincinnati Reds robbed? The victim of bad luck? Or if you really want to be combative, were they the victim of good luck in that the Dodgers had no reason to compete in the second half, thus allowing this Reds’ team to look better than they otherwise might have.
As with a lot of questions, there’s a little bit of truth on all sides. Here’s my thoughts, coming at it from each angle…
*The Reds were the beneficiaries of good luck in that the lack of bullpen depth never got tested. Furthermore, the fact Los Angeles went on to win the World Series suggests the Dodgers would indeed have been significantly better if the rules of the second half had been different.
*The Reds were robbed because of how the first half ended. No team should ever lose a title because of an unequal number of games played. Is it really asking too much that Cincinnati play one game against a random opponent to see if they can tie LA and force a playoff? Or just have the two teams play one game head-to-head.
*Ultimately though, I come down on the bad luck side. Kuhn took a lot of heat for the inequities of the split-season. In the NL East, the St. Louis Cardinals had the best record, but finished second in both halves. But the Commish had his back to the wall. He had to get people talking about baseball again and a fresh start was a logical way to do it.
The format that left the first-half winners unmotivated was an unfortunate side effect that tainted the second half results, but here again Kuhn’s options were limited. The networks—ABC and NBC in this era—surely demanded a fixed number of playoff series. You couldn’t give the first-half winners the chance to knock out the need for a Division Series.
So yes, there could have been some things done differently, but on balance, the 1981 Cincinnati Reds were just really good in the wrong year. And this was the end of an era. In the offseason, they let Collins walk in free agency. Griffey and Knight were traded. The big blow is that so was Foster. The Reds collapsed to 101 losses in 1982 and were not revived until 1985, when Pete Rose returned to town.
The 1981 Kansas City Royals were coming off a season that saw them win their first pennant. They made it back to the postseason in ’81, but it took a lot of unusual circumstances—a players’ strike in mid-season and subsequent expansion of the playoffs opened the door for the Royals, who still needed a managerial change to help get over the top.
Kansas City’s offensive production fell hard in the odd 1981 MLB season, ranking 12th in the American League in runs scored. George Brett still produced, with a stat line of .361 on-base percentage/.484 slugging percentage. Willie Aikens, the slugging first baseman hit 17 home runs in the shortened year and speedy left fielder Willie Wilson swiped 34 bases. Otherwise, offense was hard to come by.
The Royals had parted ways with catcher Darrell Porter, who left via free agency, and John Wathan did not swing the bat well as the permanent replacement. Frank White, Amos Otis and Hal McRae, mainstays on the excellent KC teams from 1976-80, all struggled at the plate in 1981.
Pitching was decent, but still middle of the pack, so it wasn’t enough to compensate for the lack of runs. Dennis Leonard, the workhorse, still piled up 201 innings in a little over one hundred games and posted a 2.99 ERA. Larry Gura, the reliable lefty, was 11-8 and a 2.72 ERA. Rich Gale and Paul Splittorff each struggled in 1981 and some of the slack was picked up when Mike Jones stepped in and went 6-3 with a 3.21 ERA.
The strength of the staff was in the bullpen, with submarine-style closer Dan Quisenberry saving 18 games with a 1.73 ERA and Renie Martin posting a 2.77 ERA. Still, while the pitching was good enough to win, it had a heavy load to carry with the struggling offense.
Kansas City lost 10 of their first 13 games, were ten games back of the streaking Oakland Athletics by April 24 and never got the deficit into single digits when the players went on strike on June 12. When play resumed in August, the Royals got a big break.
MLB was then divided into four divisions, two in each league, with only the first-place teams advancing to the postseason.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided to wipe the slate clean, and declared those teams that led their divisions at the strike to be “first-half winners.” Everyone would start fresh, and the “second-half winners” would then advance to play the first-half winner in the Division Series, a concept heretofore unheard of in major league baseball.
Furthermore, another twist on the rule worked even better for Kansas City, and the 22 other teams that had not led their divisions at the strike. Even if the first-half winner also won the second-half, there would still be a Division Series—in that case, the second-place team in the second half would advance, with the only penalty being the loss of one home game in the best-of-five Division Series round.
Essentially, Oakland, whose great starting rotation had them in command of the AL West, had nothing to play for in the second half.
The Royals split their first ten games out of the strike. On August 29, after a 4-3 loss at lowly Toronto, KC fired manager Jim Frey. The skipper’s only full season in Kansas City was 1980 and he had produced a pennant, but the front office decided change was in order and they brought in Dick Howser.
Under the guidance of Howser, Kansas City went 20-13 the rest of the way and essentially ran away with the second-half title. The Chicago White Sox, who had been competitive in the first half, collapsed. So did the California Angels, who had won the division in 1979 and would do so again in 1982. Oakland was in the mix, but the only team that mattered was the Texas Rangers, and Kansas City finished with a 4 ½ game margin on the Rangers. The key was an 8-1 stretch in early September that started at home with the Angels and then went through Oakland and California.
Kansas City went on to the Division Series in spite of having an overall 50-53 record, marking them the only sub-.500 team to ever qualify for the MLB playoffs. The Royals were summarily swept by Oakland in three straight.
But a big long-term foundation was put in place with the hiring of Howser. That isn’t intended to disrespect Frey, who was 1-for-1 in pennants in his full seasons with KC, and went on to manage the Chicago Cubs to the 1984 NL East title. But Howser was something special—he had led the New York Yankees to 103 wins in 1980, before falling victim to George Steinbrenner’s wrath. And he would ultimately lead Kansas City to its greatest triumphin 1985.
The 1981 Houston Astros were coming off a season in which the franchise won their first division title and then played one of the great NLCS battles of all time before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Astros got great pitching to make it back to the postseason in 1981, with no small help from a well-timed players’ strike and resulting alteration of the playoff system.
Houston played in the vast Astrodome at this time, and their team was built for it, starting with pitching. They led the National League in ERA, and no one was better than 34-year-old Nolan Ryan. The veteran flamethrower went 11-5 with a 1.69 ERA. On the other end of the velocity spectrum was 36-year-old knuckleballer Joe Niekro, who posted a 2.82 ERA.
The Astros made a surprising number of personnel changes for a team coming off its best year, and two of them were in the starting rotation. The signed 36-year-old starting pitcher Don Sutton in free agency, taking him away from the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, and Sutton won 11 games with a 2.69 ERA. The Astros then acquired lefty Bob Knepper from the San Francisco Giants in a deal that sent third baseman Enos Cabell west. Knepper finished 9-5 with a 2.18 ERA.
Houston made room for the new arms by trading veteran righty Ken Forsch to the California Angels for infielder Dickie Thon. The Astros also parted ways with veteran second baseman Joe Morgan and dealt a young starting pitcher Joaquin Andujar to the St. Louis Cardinals for centerfielder Tony Scott.
The move worked in 1981, as Scott finished with a .338 on-base percentage, but Andujar would be a World Series hero one year later. The flurry of moves, both off-season and in-season, was completed when Houston added second baseman Phil Garner.
Offensively, the Astros had problems, finishing ninth in the 12-team National League in runs scored. Third baseman Art Howe finished with .365 on-base percentage, and catcher Alan Ashby was at .356. Denny Walling in rightfield, along with Scott, were reasonably steady at getting on base, but no one hit for power.
Houston dug themselves a big hole right out of the gate, losing 12 of their first 15 games and trailing by nine games in the NL West before anyone was even settled into the season. Under the steady guidance of manager Bill Virdon, they began to play better and went 25-17 in the games leading up to the strike of June 12, but still trailed the first-place Dodgers by 8 ½.
Not only did the strike intervene, but fate did too, offering second chances when play resumed in August. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declared the Dodgers, along with the three other first-place teams (NY Yankees, Oakland A’s, Philadelphia Phillies) to be “first-half champions” and therefore in the playoffs. Everyone would start fresh and the “second half champions” would then advance to play the first-half winners in the Division Series, a concept never before seen in major league baseball.
It was called a split-season format and that’s basically accurate, but there’s one significant caveat—in a true split-season, if the same team wins both halves, they simply win the division and advance directly to the League Championship Series. Presumably to appease television, Kuhn declared that this would not be an opportunity for the first-half winners. Even if the same team won both halves, the only reward would be one extra home game in the Division Series.
So the change in format not only allowed the Astros—and 22 other teams—to reset their seasons, it also all but removed their toughest rival, in this case the Dodgers, from the equation. If Los Angeles won the second half, the team that finished second in the second-half would advance.
Houston went 13-8 to begin the second half and entered September a half-game ahead of the Giants, and 2 ½ ahead of the Cincinnati Reds. The Astros then went 5-2 on a West Coast trip that included a stop in San Francisco.
When the Astros returned home, they played their first home series of the season with the Phillies. The two teams picked up where they left off in the 1980 NLCS, with two games of the four-game set going ten innings and another being decided by one run. This time though, Houston won all four.
In the season’s final week, Houston went to Cincinnati for a two-game set on Wednesday and Thursday. The Astros led the Reds by a game and a half, with the Giants having slid to 3 ½ back and barely hanging on. Cincinnati righthander Mario Soto, with one of the best changeups of his time, stopped Houston 5-2 and set up a Thursday game that would be for first place.
Ryan took the ball for the Astros and took matters into his own hand. He threw a complete game and had two hits at the plate. The bottom of the order did the damage for Houston, a Howe and Craig Reynolds, batting seventh and eighth, also had two hits apiece. The Astros led 3-1 after eight and then blew it open with five runs in the ninth.
Houston went to Los Angeles for the final series of the year. In 1980, the Astros arrived in Los Angeles needing to win one time in four to clinch the NL West. It took all four games to get the win. This trip to Dodger Stadium didn’t go a whole lot better.
On Friday night, Sutton took the mound, but he left after two innings with a patellar fracture that ended his season. The Astros lost 6-1, but they got a break when the Reds lost in Atlanta 11-5. On Saturday, the Astros, with a chance to clinch, again lost 7-2, this time Niekro being chased after four. Fortunately, Astros fans didn’t have to sweat it out, as the Reds again lost in Atlanta and the race was over.
Houston opened the Division Seriesat home against Los Angeles, and the Astros won two exciting, low-scoring games to move themselves to the brink of another NLCS. No team had ever won the first two games of a best-of-five series and then lost.
Unfortunately for Houston, history was going to be made. They went to Los Angeles, and the horrible record of elimination opportunities in Dodger Stadium continued—Houston lost three straight and the season was over.
The season marked the end of a three-year run of good teams in Houston. The lineup and the rotation was aging and the Astros took a step back. But they would also return in short order, coming back to the top of the NL West in 1986, before losing a gutwrenching NLCS to the New York Mets.
Not until 2005, did the franchise finally reward the fan base with a trip to the World Series, where they lost to the Chicago White Sox. The Houston Astros have since relocated to the American League, and in 2017 finally won their first World Series title.
The city of Philadelphia was coming off an amazing sports year in 1980, one in which their teams reached the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and Super Bowl—and no team went higher than the beloved Phillies, who won the World Series. The 1981 Philadelphia Phillies came out swinging the bats well and returned to the postseason, but pitching problems and the chaos of a year broken up by a long players’ strike led to an early exit.
Philadelphia returned to its offense-heavy ways of the late 1970s, and went to extremes that even some of those division-winning teams never imagined. The Phils had the best offense in the National League, but the worst pitching.
Mike Schmidt won the MVP award and in a season were barely more than a hundred games were played, the third baseman hit 31 home runs and batted .316. Pete Rose was now 40-years-old, but the first baseman could still hit and he batted .325. Gary Matthews hit .301, while middle infielders Manny Trillo and Larry Bowa found ways to keep getting on base. Manager Dallas Green also worked young outfielder Lonnie Smith into the mix frequently, and Smith hit .324.
Steve Carlton, the great lefthanded pitcher and perhaps the best starting pitcher of his era, was still reliable at the top of the rotation, going 13-4 with a 2.42 ERA. Tug McGraw, the feisty lefthander in the bullpen was still good, with a 2.66 ERA and ten saves. It was the depth that killed Philadelphia’s pitching.
Dick Ruthven, the #2 starter, struggled to a 5.15 ERA and new starter Nino Espinosa was even worse, at 6.11. The bullpen had problems, and neither Dickie Noles, nor Sparky Lyle, a veteran retread from the New York Yankee championship teams of the late 1970s, could give any consistency.
Green found a little bit of stability with veteran Larry Christenson, who had 3.54 ERA, but only won four games. An experiment in giving Marty Bystrom nine starts worked reasonably well, while another experiment with Mark Davis was less effective.
The Phils still started the season well, and from April 24 to May 5, they went 9-2. From that point forward, they stayed within a game or two of first place in the old NL East, with the St. Louis Cardinals leading and the Montreal Expos not far behind.
On May 31, Philadelphia tied for first and then went 7-2 to start the month of June. This included a three-game home sweep of the Houston Astros, the first meeting between the two teams since their incredible 1980 NLCS battle. Normally, this would be just a nice June run into the division lead, and not anything major in the historical record. In the world of 1981 MLB, it was decisive.
The players went on strike on June 12, and when they returned in mid-August, MLB decided they would change the playoff format. At the time, each league was two divisions with the winners going directly to the LCS. 1981 would see a “split-season” be introduced.
MLB’s split-season format declared the teams leading at the strike to be champions. They would play whichever team won the “second half”, in which everyone would start from scratch and play out the balance of the schedule.
And what if the same team won both halves? Instead of allowing teams like the Phillies to play their way directly into the LCS by winning both halves, MLB ruled that the inaugural Division Series must go on. In that event, the runner-up from the second half would play the winner of the first half.
The only reward Philadelphia had to chase during the second half, was the prospect of one extra home game in the Division Series—instead of playing two on the road to open, they would only play one. That’s not a lot of incentive when other teams are fighting for their lives, and the Phils played like it. They lost 13 of 19 after the strike and finished the second-half 25-27.
Philadelphia met up with Montreal in the Division Series, the same team they had battled to the wire in 1980. The Phils lost the first two games in Montreal, before rallying to win the next two and setting up Carlton to pitch the decisive Game 5. But on a nice Sunday afternoon in Philly, the bid for a repeat title ended and Montreal advanced.
The good news for the city of Philadelphia is that they wouldn’t have to wait long for October baseball to come back. In 1983, they won the NL East and then beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. The bad news is that would be 2008 before they won the whole thing again, losing to the Baltimore Orioles in the 1983 World Series and the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993.
1981 was the foreshadowing of a new era in baseball, with the introduction of the Division Series. The circumstances weren’t ideal—a players’ strike from mid-June to mid-August pushed MLB to the idea of declaring the teams in first place at the strike to be in the playoffs, where they would then play the teams that won “the second half” after starting from scratch. The 1981 NLDS gave baseball good reasons to like the idea, with both series going the full five games.
The Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers were leading the East & West at the strike (there was no Central Division until the realignment of 1994). The Montreal Expos and Houston Astros won the respective second halves. You can read more about all four teams regular season paths, the key players and decisive moments in their push to October at the links below. This article will focus on going day-by-day through the Division Series.
The series opened in Houston & Montreal for the first two games, and then went to Los Angeles and Philly for the balance of the set.
Los Angeles-Houston: Fernando Valenzuela, the 20-year-old Cy Young winner took the mound for the Dodgers, against the veteran Nolan Ryan and neither pitcher disappointed. No one even threatened until the bottom of the sixth. With two outs, the Astros got a single from Terry Puhl, a walk by Phil Garner and an RBI base hit from Tony Scott for a 1-0 lead. But the Dodgers immediately countered in the seventh with Steve Garvey’s two-out solo home run to tie it.
Houston missed a chance in their own half of the seventh when Cesar Cedeno doubled and stole third to begin the frame. Two flyball outs were too short to get the run home and Fernando escaped.
Valenzuela was pinch-hit for in the eighth. The move made sense—it was to lead off the inning and the player off the bench was Jay Johnstone, a good hitter even before he made his 1989 cameo appearance in The Naked Gun. But it didn’t produce a run, and Los Angeles turned to 24-year-old Dave Stewart to continue the game.
Stewart got the first two outs, but light-hitting Craig Reynolds singled. The Astros weren’t a team noted for home runs in the deep expanse of the Astrodome, but they got on here—Alan Ashby homered and Houston took the opener 3-1.
Philadelphia-Montreal: It was a battle of aces with the Phillies’ sending their future Hall of Fame lefty Steve Carlton to the mound. The Expos had their own #1, Steve Rogers, ready to go. Montreal got to Carlton immediately with a first-inning single from Warren Cromartie. After Jerry White hit into a force out, he stole second, and scored on a hit by Gary Carter, a future Hall of Famer himself.
The Phils quickly tied it in the second on a home run by Keith Moreland, but the Expos peppered Carlton again the second, with consecutive doubles from Tim Wallach and Chris Speier. Wallach had the chance to do more damage in the third when he came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out, but he popped out and Carlton escaped with the score still 2-1.
Montreal just kept coming in the fourth. Speier drew a walk, was bunted over by Rogers and scored on a double by Cromartie. In the fifth, they had a chance to add to the lead when Andre Dawson led off with a triple. But Carlton got Carter and Larry Parrish, escaped the inning and it was still 3-1.
The missed chances might have haunted Montreal, given Carlton finally settled down and the Expos didn’t threaten again. But Rogers was locked in.
Not until two outs in the ninth, when Moreland and George Vuckovich each singled, did the pitcher finally lose it. He was lifted for the talented young closer in Jeff Reardon, who got Manny Trillo to line out to left. It was another 3-1 final, again going to the home team.
Los Angeles-Houston: The names changed on the mound, with two veterans, Jerry Reuss for the Dodgers and Joe Niekro for the Astros. But the results didn’t change. The pitchers kept dominating. Nothing even resembling a threat happened until the seventh, when LA’s Davey Lopes doubled to lead off and was bunted to third. But Niekro got Dusty Baker and Garvey to ground out, and the game went to extra innings scoreless.
It went to the 11th inning and the Dodgers again went to Stewart. By the end of the decade, Stewart would be renowned as one of baseball’s great big-game pitchers. Right now, he was still learning, and Garner and Scott each touched him for singles and there were runners on the corners.
Veteran Terry Forster was summoned to create a lefty-lefty matchup with Jose Cruz. Forster got Cruz on a fly ball too short to pick up the run. Los Angeles manager Tom Lasorda again made a pitching change, calling in Tom Niedenfuer to deal with the right-handed Art Howe.
Niedenfuer got a strike out and the Dodgers were poised to escape. But Denny Walling—a lefty hitter, with no response move left for Lasorda—singled to right and Houston was one win from the NL West title.
Philadelphia-Montreal: The Expos had a deep rotation in 1981 and Bill Gullickson had an even better ERA than Rogers when he took the mound for Game 2. The Phils’ #2 was Dick Ruthven, who had a good career, but ’81 was a rougher year for him.
Montreal capitalized on an error by Mike Schmidt and the pesky Speier drove in an unearned run in the second inning. In the third, Cromartie doubled, Carter homered and the Expos had an early 3-0 lead.
Gullickson picked up where Rogers left off and dominated. Not until the eighth did the Phils start to mount a threat. With two outs, Lonnie Smith doubled and scored on a single by Pete Rose. Bake McBride doubled, and with runners on second and third, Expo fans had reason to be nervous.
Reardon was again summoned. After intentionally walking Schmidt—the MVP third baseman was so feared that it was worth putting him aboard as the lead run—Reardon got Gary Matthews to pop out. The ninth went without incident and it was another 3-1 final.
Both of the home teams, Montreal and Houston, now needed just one road victory in three tries to triumph over the teams that had, for the most part, set the pace in these divisions starting in the late 1970s.
Houston-Los Angeles: The Dodgers played like a desperate team in front of their home fans and wasted little time getting after Astro lefty Bob Knepper. Lopes walked and was bunted up to start the game. Baker doubled the run in, and then Garvey unloaded with a home run. It was 3-0 and that was all Burt Hooton needed.
Houston got a solo shot from Art Howe in the third, but never scored again. Knepper settled in, but in the eighth, Los Angeles broke it open with four singles that produced three wins. The series had its first drama-free ending as the Dodgers stayed alive 6-1.
Montreal-Philadelphia: The Expos looked ready to continue their momentum when they scored first, in the second inning off Larry Christenson. Once again, the normally light-hitting Speier came through, with an RBI single that followed a double by Carter. But in the bottom of the inning, the Phils began to awaken.
Matthews and Moreland started with singles off of Ray Burris. Trillo tied it with a one-out single, and a throwing error on Dawson brought in a second run. The game settled in and went to the sixth still at 2-1 Philadelphia. The Phils then got some breathing room.
Moreland singled, after which a bunt and intentional walk ended Burris’ day. Montreal went to veteran lefthander Bill Lee, once a cornerstone of the rotation for the 1975 Boston Red Sox. Lee couldn’t get Vuckovich in the lefty-lefty matchup, as a single made it 3-1. Rose tacked on another base hit for a 4-1 lead.
Montreal threatened in the seventh, getting two on with one out against Sparky Lyle, a former Cy Young winner for the New York Yankees, but now nearing the end of his career. Lyle still had some veteran moxie and he got a double play ball to escape the inning
Schmidt doubled in the bottom of the seventh off Elias Sosa and it started a two-run inning that put the game out of reach. Montreal got a run in the eighth, but never made it interesting in a 6-2 final.
Houston-Los Angeles: Valenzuela was back on three days’ rest. The Astros, with breathing room, went to their #4 starter Vern Ruhle, although we should note that the Houston rotation was deep and Ruhle, while not having the career of a Ryan or Niekro, was at or close to their level in 1981. And he pitched like it matching Fernando with goose eggs for four innings.
Los Angeles finally broke through in the fifth, with Pedro Guerrero hit a two-out homer. It stayed 1-0 into the seventh when Garvey singled, was bunted up and scored on another big two-out hit, this one a single from Bill Russell.
Houston made a little noise in the ninth, when Puhl doubled. With two outs, Scott kept the game alive with a single that got the Astros a run. But Jose Cruz fouled out. This series was going to a Game 5.
Montreal-Philadelphia: In an NLDS round that produced a lot of good games, but mostly pitchers’ duels. Game 4 of the Expos-Phillies was the best back-and-forth game of this round, a great matchup on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Philly.
The Phils got after Scott Sanderson quickly, doing everything after two outs in the first inning. McBride singled and Schmidt homered for a 2-zip lead. Philadelphia got two more in the third. After Rose singled and Schmidt walked, a double play grounder appeared ready to get Sanderson out of it. But second baseman Jerry Manuel didn’t handle the exchange and while he got one out at first, there were runners on second and third. Moreland, never a great player in his career, but having a great series, singled with two outs and it was 4-0.
Montreal began coming back off Dickie Noles in the fourth when Carter homered. When two walks followed, Philly manager Dallas Green quickly went to his bullpen and Warren Brusstar kept it 4-1. Speier made things happen in the fifth, hitting a leadoff double and scoring a sac fly from White.
The Expos pulled even in the sixth. Parrish singled and then Speier—who else—singled with two outs. John Milner came on to pinch-hit and cut the lead to 4-3 with a base hit. Lyle came out of the bullpen, but another pinch-hit single, this one by Wallace Johnson, tied the game 4-4.
Philadelphia got the lead back in the sixth. Montreal was already on their fourth pitcher, Woodie Fryman, who had been brilliant all year long. But Matthews got Fryman for a solo home run. Montreal immediately tied it when White drew a walk off Ron Reed and scored on a double from Carter.
The Phils looked ready to get the lead right back in the seventh with a runner on third, one out and Schmidt at the plate. But Reardon came out of the pen and got Schmidt to pop out.
Reardon stayed in, while Phils’ closer Tug McGraw came on in the eighth. McGraw worked three scoreless innings and it was still 5-5 in the bottom of the 10th. Reardon had worked 2.2 IP of scoreless ball himself when the Vuckovich came to the plate. This was too much to ask, and Vuckovich lined a home run into the rightfield seats and with the 6-5 win, another Game 5 on Sunday would go down.
Major league baseball had been playing pre-World Series playoff rounds since 1969 in a best-of-five format and no team had ever lost the first two and come back to win. Both the Phillies and Dodgers—along with the Milwaukee Brewers who would attempt the same thing on Sunday in the 1981 ALDS—had the chance.
Houston-Los Angeles: Nolan Ryan had the best year of his career in 1981 and it was left to him to try and save the Astros, with Reuss pitching for the Dodgers. It was another pitchers’ duel—Ryan escaped a jam in the third when he got Baker to pop out with one out and Lopes on third-but the game went to the sixth inning scoreless.
Los Angeles broke through when Baker drew a one-out walk and Garvey singled, setting up runners on the corners. With two outs, Rick Monday singled for the game’s first run. It was all Reuss was going to need, but the Dodgers got more. Mike Scioscia singled in another run, and then an error brought in a third run.
The Houston bats, never very good to begin with, were completely silence and they never put together anything that could be called a serious threat. Garvey tripled in an insurance run in the seventh and with their 4-0 win, Los Angeles had made history.
Montreal-Philadelphia: It was a Rogers-Carlton matchup. Over the scope of their careers, there was no question that Carlton was the vastly superior pitcher, but in the specific year of 1981, it was much closer and this was Rogers’ moment.
In the top of the fourth, after a leadoff single by Parrish and walks by Wallach and Manuel, Rogers came to the plate with one out. It was Carlton’s chance to get a punch-out and escape. But Rogers slapped a single back through the middle it was 2-0.
That was all Rogers was going to need, as he put his team on his back. In the sixth, the Expos added another run to make it 3-0. The Phils mounted their one threat in the bottom of that inning, with two on one out and Schmidt at the plate.
Rogers got the MVP to hit into a double play ball. It was all over but the shouting. Montreal turned back Philadelphia’s bid at history and with the 3-0 win, the Expos were NL East champs for the first time.
1981 DIVISION SERIES MVPS
Major league baseball has never given an official Division Series MVP award, either then or after this round was permanently instituted in the realignment of 1994. It’s an omission I think should be rectified, and that’s what we’ll do here.
Let’s start with the easy one—Steve Rogers would have to be the choice for Montreal. The Expos ace won two games against the best starting pitcher of his generation in Carlton, including the decisive game on the road, and got Game 5’s biggest hit to boot.
There’s three worthwhile candidates for the Dodgers. Garvey went 7-for-19 and homered twice, an in a series that was starving for offense that certainly stands out. But it seems to me that since Houston only scored six runs in five games and Los Angele starters worked deep into games, perhaps we should look at the starting rotation.
That leads us Valenzuela and Reuss. Fernando worked 17 innings, allowed just one run and won Game 4. But Reuss was even better—18 innings, no runs and a shutout against Ryan in the decisive Game 5. I’d take Reuss for this honor.
AFTERMATH FOR THE VANQUISHED
Houston fell off the radar following the collapse of 1981, went into rebuilding mode and didn’t return to contention until they won the NL West again five years later. Philadelphia continued to contend, and returned to the World Series in 1983, though they never won it all again until 2008.
AFTERMATH FOR THE VICTORS
Los Angeles and Montreal continued the five-game fun in the 1981 NLCS, and the Dodgers continued the comeback pattern. They trailed 2-1 in games and were on the road in Montreal for the final two games. Both games were tied in the eighth inning, and a big home run was the difference each time.
Garvey went deep in the eighth inning of Game 4 to break that one open. Rick Monday’s shot in Game 5 was even bigger—it broke a 1-1 tie with two outs in the top of the ninth and won the pennant.
The Dodgers met the New York Yankees in the World Series, and it was one more round of comebacks for Lasorda’s Dodgers. They lost the first two games in the Bronx, and then never lost again. Three straight one-run wins followed at home, and then Los Angeles blew out New York in Yankee Stadium to seal a title in Game 6.
The 1981 New York Yankees were a team that marked the end of an era. The revival of the proud franchise that started in 1976 and produced two World Series titles (1977 and1978), was about to disappear for more than a decade. But 1981, in the midst of a year marred by a players’ strike, the Yankees made one more run to an American League pennant.
New York made their usual big splash in the free agency market when they signed outfielder Dave Winfield to a then-record $25 million contract. Winfield had a good year, with a stat line of .360 on-base percentage/.464 slugging percentage, but the offense as a whole struggle.
The Yankees finished 11th in the American League in runs scored. They got subpar years production from the entire infield—Bob Watson, Willie Randolph, Bucky Dent and Graig Nettles. Reggie Jackson had a down year in right field, with a .330/.428 stat line. The Yanks got punch from designated hitter Bobby Murcer, with his .470 slugging percentage and Oscar Gamble, at .357/.439. In fact, the team finished second in the league in home runs, but there were just not enough runners aboard for it to really count.
Fortunately for the Yanks, and their new manager Gene Michael, pitching cured a lot of ills. A trio of lefthanders—Tommy John, Ron Guidry and Dave Righetti, one a veteran sinkerballer, the other two younger power pitchers—led the best staff in the AL. Rudy May and Rick Reuschel filled out the staff.
And you needed to beat New York early, because you sure weren’t doing it late. The flamethrowing closer, Goose Gossage, saved 20 games in a season of 100-plus games and had a 0.77 ERA. Ron Davis was an on-the-rise flamethrower himself, and he finished with a 2.71 ERA. George Frazier provided quality depth to the bullpen with a buck-63 ERA.
New York started well and won eight of their first twelve. They hovered around the lead in the AL East, a half-game either way, from late April to mid-May. Then right after Memorial Day, the Yankees had a hiccup in Baltimore, losing three straight to the Orioles and falling 4 ½ games behind the Birds.
The tension between players and owners was building to its peak, and there was a deadline of June 12 for an agreement to be reached, overshadowing the sport in the early days of June. No one knew that the games being played were about to be decisive.
Baltimore made a return visit to New York in June. The Yankees trailed the Tuesday night opener 3-2 in the ninth before Nettles tied it up with a single. Then Dave Revering won the game with a two-blast in the 11th. The Wednesday night game also went 11 innings, this time Nettles hitting the two-run blast that won it. The Yankees made it easy on Thursday, taking a 7-0 lead after four innings winning 12-3 and moving into a tie for first place.
New York kept the winning going, taking five straight games before the strike hit. They held a two-game lead in the AL East because of it. The strike was not settled until mid-August, and it was then the Yankees reaped the fruit of their strong early June push.
MLB picked up the pieces of its shattered season by deciding to give everyone a clean slate. The way that was accomplished was to say that the four teams leading their divisions (at this time, there was only an East & West in both leagues and the notion of a wild-card was still 13 years off) were champions. They would be play whomever won the division’s “second half” in a new playoff round—the Division Series.
What it meant for New York was that there was nothing for them to play for. Even if they finished first in the second half, MLB would still require a Division Series, against the second-half runner-up. The only carrot given to the first-half winners was the prospect of an additional home game in the Division Series (they could get four of five at home instead of three of five).
It wasn’t a lot to play for, and New York played like it. They went 25-26 after the strike. One man who found this performance unacceptable was George Steinbrenner. The owner fired Michael with 25 games to play and replaced him with Bob Lemon, who had taken over the 1978 World Series winner in July. The intervening three years had already seen Lemon replaced by Billy Martin, then Dick Howser and then Michael. Job security wasn’t a virtue of the Yankee managerial post.
New York met up with the Milwaukee Brewers in the Division Series. It was a strange series, in that the road team won each of the first four games before the Yankee veterans finally took over at home in Game 5 and clinched another AL East title.
The Yankees then met up with an old friend in the American League Championship Series. Billy Martin was now managing the Oakland A’sand had a dominant starting rotation. The A’s weren’t nearly as deep nor as experienced as the Yanks were though, and New York swept their way to another AL flag.
It was another familiar foe in the World Series. The Yankees had beaten the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Fall Classics of both ’77 and ’78, and this year was another New York-LA matchup to make the networks happy. The Yankees appeared on their way to a third title in five years when they won the first two games at home.
But the Series got away in Los Angeles. The Dodgers won all three games out West and came back to New York in Game 6. It was revenge for New York inflicting the same fate on LA three years earlier.
The offseason signaled the Yankee transition. New York parted ways with Jackson, who signed with the California Angels. It was essentially a shift from the Jackson era to the Winfield era, with 1981 being a crisscross year. Winfield was always a good, productive player, but he never had Jackson’s knack for producing at the biggest moments.
And the competition in the AL East, always tough, wasn’t getting any easier. New York was a respectable, contending team through most of the 1980s, but they never won the AL East. They did not return to the playoffs until 1995, and then as a wild-card. The return to the top of the AL East—and ultimately to the World Series—came a year later with the arrival of Joe Torre and Derek Jeter.
The New York Yankees and Oakland A’s had combined to mostly own the American League in the 1970s. The A’s won three straight pennants from 1972-74, taking the World Series each time. The Yankees won three straight pennants from 1976-78 and grabbed two Series titles. But the teams’ paths had never crisscrossed in October. That changed when they met in the 1981 ALCS.
An interesting subplot was that Oakland’s revival was under the leadership of manager Billy Martin, who had also restored to the Yankees to prominence five years earlier. New York fans would now be rooting against their old favorite.
You can read more about each team’s regular season path, including the performance of key players, at the links below. This article will focus on the games of the 1981 ALCS.
LCS play was a best-of-five round at this time, and homefield was determined on a rotation basis. The series would begin with two games in Yankee Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then go to Oakland for the balance of the series.
It was veteran sinkerballer Tommy John pitching the opener for New York, with Mike Norris going for Oakland. Norris had pitched brilliantly all year and in the Division Series, but the Yankees got to him right away in Game 1.
Larry Milbourne hit a one-out single, and Dave Winfield drew a walk. After another walk to Oscar Gamble, and two outs in the inning, Graig Nettles hit a bases-clearing double and New York had a 3-0 lead before anyone was settled in.
Norris did get settled in, and the Yankees never scored—or even seriously threatened again. But the first-inning damage was enough. John allowed two singles to start the top of the second, but got out of it. Oakland got a run in the fifth, when Rob Picciolo singled, Rickey Henderson doubled him to third with one out and Dwayne Murphy picked up the run with an RBI grounder.
It was still 3-1 in the eighth, with hard-throwing setup man Ron Davis on the mound for New York. Davis lost his control and walked two with one out. The equally hard-throwing closer Goose Gossage—who had better control and better movement—came on and retired five straight batters to close the Game 1 win.
The teams had a quick turnaround, coming back on Wednesday afternoon. Oakland turned to Steve McCatty, while New York went to Rudy May. The Yankees again wasted little time getting on the board. Jerry Mumphrey led off the first with a double, took a third a base hit to left by Milbourne and then came home when Reggie Jackson delivered a productive ground ball out.
Oakland tied it up in the third with a double by Rick Bosetti and a one-out triple from Henderson. But the A’s couldn’t get their first lead of the series, as May struck out Murphy and went to escape the inning.
In the fourth, the A’s did break through against May. Three straight singles produced one run and left runners on second and third after a throw home. May was pulled and George Frazier, who had pitched well all year, came on in long relief. Frazier did his job. After an intentional walk and an infield hit made it 3-1, Frazier got Henderson to bounce back to the mound and Frazier started a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning.
And in the bottom of the frame, the avalanche came for New York. Nettles singled. McCatty hit a batter with one out. Randolph singled to cut the lead to 3-2. Mumphrey walked, and Martin came out to remove McCatty.
The Oakland staff was heavily dependent on the starters, and Dave Beard couldn’t stop the carnage. Milbourne singled to tie the game. Winfield doubled and the score was 5-3. Then Lou Piniella administered the coup de grace, with a three-run blast and it was 8-3.
Nor did New York stop—the scored a run in the sixth and four more in the seventh, thanks to a three-run blast by Nettles and the final was 13-3.
No team had ever lost the first two games of LCS, a round that went back to 1969, and come back to win. But in the Division Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers pulled off the feat. And the Yankees survived a scare, going up 2-0 on the Milwaukee Brewers, before being pushed to the brink in Game 5. With the series going back west, and Martin having a quality starter at his disposal each night, this wasn’t over.
Only it was. The A’s bats weren’t going to wake up and the Yanks’ power lefty, Dave Righetti dominated Oakland in Game 3. The A’s never registered any rally worthy of the name.
Matt Keough, the Oakland starter, responded well and matched zeroes with Righetti for five innings but Willie Randolph hit a home run with two outs in the sixth. The game stayed 1-0 into the ninth. After a walk and an error to start the inning, Keough was removed.
Piniella promptly singled, though Oakland threw out Mumprhey at the plate. The bases were re-loaded with two outs and Nettles ended any doubt when he delivered a double that cleared the bases. The game ended 4-0.
Nettles finished 6-for-12 in the series, had a home run, along with two bases-loaded doubles with two outs, each in huge spots. His double in the first inning of Game 1 set the tone and then he repeated the feat in Game 3 to seal the deal. He was an easy choice for 1981 ALCS MVP.
New York went to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series and kept the momentum going for two games, winning Games 1 & 2 at home. Then it all came apart quickly. The Yankees lost three straight one-run games at Dodger Stadium and then came undone in a Game 6 rout at home.
It turned out to be the last hurrah—at least for a little while for both teams, at least as presently constituted. Oakland’s starting pitching worked too many innings, burned out and they didn’t again contend until Tony LaRussa managed a series of outstanding teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
No one would have guessed that the Yankees were about to disappear from the landscape. They would never again win the AL East, as it was constituted prior to the realignment of 1994, with seven teams. New York didn’t return to postseason play until 1995, and didn’t win the AL East until the revival of the Joe Torre/Derek Jeter years that began in 1996.
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 Montreal Expos were knocking on the door in the NL East in 1979 and 1980. They lost close division races to the eventual World Series champion both years. The 1981 Montreal Expos broke the door down—in a strike-shortened season, it was an odd route, but these Expos finally reached the National League Championship Series.
Montreal was regarded as one of the most talented young teams in baseball. Gary Carter, a future Hall of Famer, was at catcher. Andre Dawson, an immensely talented centerfielder finished with a stat line of .365 on-base percentage/.553 slugging percentage.
The Expos gave an everyday job to a 21-year-old outfielder named Tim Raines and he responded with a .391 OBP and stealing 71 bases in a season that had barely more than 100 games. First baseman Warren Cromartie put up an OBP of .370.
Montreal’s pitching was no less effective. Steve Rogers won 12 games at the top of the rotation with a 3.42 ERA. The 2 thru 4 starters actually all had better ERAs, as Bill Gullickson, Scott Sanderson and Ray Burris all pitched well.
The bullpen had a rising star at closer in Jeff Reardon, a lights-out vet in Woodie Fryman (1.88 ERA) and a versatile lefty in Bill Lee, who mixed in spot starts and long relief and finished with a 2.94 ERA.
In short, the Expos had no obvious weakness and they were managed by Dick Williams, whose resume included a pennant with the 1967 Boston Red Sox and two straight World Series titles with the Oakland A’s in 1972-73, before he arrived in Montreal to put the franchise on the map.
Montreal came out of the gate quickly, winning 11 of the first 13, including a three-game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies, the team that broke Expo hearts at the end of 1980. But May turned sluggish. Montreal lost five of seven games to the Los Angeles Dodgers, were mediocre elsewhere and drifted four games off the pace in the NL East.
After closing back to within a half-game of the lead the Expos lost five straight to the St. Louis Cardinalsand Cincinnati Redsto start June. It meant that when the players went on strike on June 12, Montreal trailed by four games.
When play resumed in mid-August, MLB decided the way to rekindle fan interest was to institute a split-season format. The principle is that the team that leads at the end of the first half—in this case the Phillies—clinches a spot in the postseason and plays the winner of the second half. It would be the inaugural institution of what is now a standard postseason round—the Division Series.
There was one caveat to the new format—in a pure split-season, the team that wins the first half has a chance to also win the second half and simply eliminate the need for the Division Series. MLB altered that, presumably to guarantee their TV partners a full slate of four first-round series. In the event the Phils also won the second half, the runner-up in the latter half would advance.
What it all boiled down was that Montreal had the slate wiped clean and were back to even, and the defending World Series champions were eliminated as an obstacle to postseason play. The Expos simply had to take advantage of this opportunity.
But it was St. Louis, who got out to the early lead. Montreal started 14-12 and trailed the Cardinals by a game and a half on September 7. The Expo front office made a bold decision and fired Williams. They replaced a proven winner with the unproven Jim Fanning. Losing three of the first five under Fanning and slipping 2 ½ back didn’t inspire confidence, but then things turned around.
Montreal won eight of ten, while St. Louis lost seven of ten. The Expos led by a game and a half when the teams met head-to-head. The Expos lost two straight, but they played better coming out of the big series than did the Cardinals. Montreal was up a half-game entering the final weekend.
The Expos were facing the Mets and Rogers took the ball on Friday and delivered a complete-game two-hitter. The Cardinals fell behind the Pirates 7-0 and made a furious rally to tie the game before Pittsburgh won it in the ninth. Montreal’s magic number was one with two games to play.
On Saturday, the Expos fell behind the Mets 3-0 early. Lee came on and worked two critical innings of relief, while the offense mounted a rally. Montreal won 5-4 and finally clinched.
There was some injustice in the final standings—Montreal finished 30-23 and St. Louis was at 29-23, so the Expos benefited from a schedule that gave them one additional game. Everything had come together to get Montreal into October. Now they had to make the most of it.
Make the most of it is what they did. The Expos opened the Division Series at home and Rogers beat Philadelphia ace Steve Carlton. The series went to a decisive fifth game and Rogers not only beat Carlton again, but the Montreal pitcher hit a critical two-run single. The Expos won the game, the series and advanced to the NLCS.
Montreal met up with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1981 NLCS and the dream died a cruel death. The Expos got a 2-1 series lead in a round that was then best-of-five. They had two chances to clinch at home, and were tied in the eighth inning both times. Los Angeles broke open Game 4, and then got a two-out ninth inning home run from Rick Monday to win Game 5.
The decisive game was played on a Monday afternoon (due to snow on Sunday) and the phrase Blue Monday, for the day of the week, heroic player and the mood it engendered, made its way into the sports lexicon of Quebec.
What’s bluer though, is that the Montreal Expos of the early 1980s became a team that never fulfilled its potential. They were a contender in 1982 and 1983, but never got back to the League Championship Series, and never even had the near-miss heartbreaks of 1979 or 1980. They were just an above-average team not playing to their talent level.
Montreal would never again play in the postseason. The franchise didn’t make it back until they moved to Washington, re-named themselves the Nationals and won the NL East in 2012.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were old hands at this National League Championship Series business by 1981. The Dodgers had been to the NLCS in 1974, 1977 and 1978, winning pennants all three times, though never the World Series. The Montreal Expos were just the opposite—they were making their first visit to the postseason. The veteran Dodgers and the up-and-coming Expos crossed paths in a well-played 1981 NLCS.
Each team had used its aces to survive the Division Series, but each had deep rotations, so Los Angeles’ Burt Hooton and Montreal’s Bill Gullickson were both quality starters coming off good years. And for eight innings they staged pitchers’ duel.
Los Angeles got on the board in the second, with a leadoff single from Steve Garvey, an RBI double from Ron Cey, and after Cey moved to third, Bill Russell bunted him in. The 2-0 lead stood into the eighth, with neither team threatening in the intervening innings.
With two outs, and Montreal closer Jeff Reardon in the game, Cey’s single was followed by back-to-back home runs off the bats of Pedro Guerrero and Mike Scoscia. Montreal picked up a run in the ninth, but never put the outcome in doubt and the Dodgers claimed Game 1, 5-1.
The Expos now had to beat the NL Cy Young winner, 20-year-old Fernando Valenzuela, who had electrified the country. Ray Burris wasn’t quite as renowned, but the Montreal starter had a good year in 1981 and in Game 2, he was outstanding.
Montreal’s Larry Parrish and Jerry White singled with one out in the second. A double from Warren Cromartie made it 1-0 and left runners on second and third. After a walk to Chris Speier, Valenzuela struck out Burris and was poised to escape without further damage. But Tim Raines hit a two-out single to right. Cromartie tried to score a third run, but was thrown out at the plate by Guerrero.
Still, it was 2-0 and that was more than enough for Burris. Montreal added a run in the sixth when Andre Dawson and Gary Carter hit consecutive singles and an error in the outfield by Dusty Baker brought Dawson around. The Dodgers never mounted a threat until the ninth. They put two on with one out, and Guerrero ripped a line drive. But it went at the shortstop Speier, who doubled Cey off second. Ballgame, and the 3-0 win tied the series.
Friday night in Montreal produced more good pitching, this time with Expo ace Steve Rogers on the mound facing the Dodgers’ solid veteran lefty Jerry Reuss. The game was scoreless through three, and Los Angeles scraped out a run in the fourth. Baker and Garvey each singled, with Baker advancing to third, and then being picked up on a ground ball from Cey.
Reuss kept it 1-0 until there were two outs in the sixth. Montreal struck suddenly. Dawson singled and Carter walked. Parrish singled to tie the game and then White launched a three-run homer. It was 4-1 in a series that made a three-run lead seem insurmountable.
And it basically was. Los Angeles didn’t threaten until the ninth, when Garvey and Cey singled and gave Guerrero a chance as the tying run with none out. Guerrero hit a ground ball at Parrish, who touched third and threw to first to complete a double play. Rogers struck out Scioscia and Montreal was a win away from their first pennant.
Both rotations put starters on short rest, and it was Hooton-Gullickson rematch on three days’ rest for Game 4. Los Angeles threatened in the second, but Scioscia grounded into a double play to kill the rally. Then each team’s third baseman made an error to let in a run. Parrish booted one in the third and an RBI double by Baker put LA on top. Cey returned the favor with an error in the fourth, and after a walk, Cromartie singled to tie it back up.
Hooton and Gullickson stayed in control. The Dodgers threatened in the sixth with runners on the corners and none out. A grounder went at Parrish, who came home with hit and cut Baker down at the plate. The game stayed 1-1 into the eighth.
Baker worked a walk, and then Garvey delivered. A two-run blast gave Los Angeles the lead. Montreal put two runners on with one out in their own half of the eighth, and Hooton was lifted for Bob Welch. The hard-throwing Welch quelled the threat and kept the game 3-1.
The Expo bullpen fell completely apart in the ninth, with Woodie Fryman, Elias Sosa and Bill Lee combining to give up five singles two walks and allowing four runs. The 7-1 final didn’t reflect how tense the game had been, but it set up Game 5 on Sunday.
Snow poured out over Montreal on Sunday and the game was postponed. As one of the many examples of how the game was changed, the decisive game for the pennant was not shown in prime-time. The World Series was due to start in New York the next night, and presumably to allow more travel time, the teams played a day game when people were at work (or in the case of this then-11-year-old, in school).
Burris and Valenzuela rematched, now on full rest after the snow-out. Each pitcher again dominated. Both teams threatened in the first. Burris escaped a one-out triple by Russell when he got Baker and Garvey. Valenzuela allowed a double to Raines, and then off a sac bunt, an attempt to cut Raines down at third failed. Dawson hit into a double play, but Raines came in through the back door and it was 1-0.
The score held until the fifth, when Fernando helped himself. After Rick Monday and Guerrero singled, and then the pitcher hit a ground ball out that brought Monday home to tie the game. It wouldn’t be the last time Monday was heard from.
Pitching continued to dominate when Montreal manager Jim Fanning made a fatal decision. With one out in the bottom of the eight, and no one on base, he lifted Burris. Not only that, but the manager, not trusting his bullpen, went to Rogers on two days’ rest.
After the eighth predictably ended with no runs, Rogers got the first two men out and Monday came to the plate. He turned on a pitch and it ended over the right-centerfield fence. The Expos tried to rally with two outs in their own half of the ninth, with Carter and Parrish getting walks off Valenzuela. Welch again came on and got a ground ball out from White to seal the pennant.
Monday on Monday—the walk-off home run on this odd Monday afternoon became one of the great moments of NLCS history (or infamous moments depending on your point of view). It’s worth second-guessing the removal of Burris. There were no threat and if he even gets you through the top of the ninth—a reasonable assumption given Burris’ complete domination of LA in this series—Montreal could have tried to win it with the top of the order.
The Expos were seen as a rising power, with most of their talent being young or in their prime, but they never again got this close. In fact, they never again made the playoffs while in Montreal (though they did have the best record in MLB in 1994 when another strike ended the season). Not until the franchise relocated to Washington, became the Nationals and won the NL East in 2012 and 2014, did this organization make the postseason.
Los Angeles moved on to the World Series and this time, they got over the top, beating the New York Yankees in six games and winning LA its first title since 1965.
The Dodgers didn’t disappear either. They won the NL West in 1983 and got back to the League Championship Series, continued to contend and won the World Series again in 1988.
Two traditional foes took a decidedly non-traditional path to meet in the 1981 World Series. The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers met for the third time in five years in the Fall Classic. 1981 was a year marred by an in-season players’ strike that lasted for two months, which meant some creative ideas had to be used for both the regular season races and postseason structure.
Homefield advantage for the World Series was decided on a rotation basis, and this was an American League year. The flip side was that it also meant National League rules and no DH. The Series began in Yankee Stadium on a Tuesday evening.
It was a battle of lefthanders as Ron Guidry took the mound for New York against Jerry Reuss for Los Angeles. Guidry was one of the top power lefties of the time and the 1978 Cy Young winner. Reuss was a steady veteran who had been nothing short of brilliant in the ’81 postseason, especially the Division Series.
But the Yankees continued their pattern, established in the ALCS, of getting out quickly. Jerry Mumphrey singled with one out in the first. Lou Piniella hit a ground-rule double and with two outs, Bob Watson went deep for a quick 3-0 lead. Reuss was chased in the third when Mumphrey again singled with one out, stole second and scored on a two-out hit by Piniella.
The Los Angeles bullpen had control problems, and Bobby Castillo walked four straight batters to make it 5-0 New York. Dave Goltz came on for the Dodgers and finally brought some steadiness to the mound And the offense began to chip its way back.
Steve Yeager homered in the fifth to put Los Angeles on the board. In the eighth, two walks, a single and a passed ball set up two runs and the Dodgers had two chances with the tying run at the plate in a 5-3 game. New York manager Bob Lemon called on closer Goose Gossage to try and get Steve Garvey and Ron Cey. The Goose did it, although Garvey hit a line drive out.
The ninth inning went without incident on the scoreboard and the Yankees won 5-3, but there was a big incident on the field. Third baseman Graig Nettles made a diving stop, the kind he had tormented Los Angeles with in the 1978 World Series. In the process he broke his thumb. Nettles had been MVP of the American League Championship Series sweep over the Oakland A’s and while he played Game 2, he would miss the next three games after that. And he wouldn’t make the same contribution with his bat when he was in the lineup.
Burt Hooton was Los Angeles’ MVP of the National League Championship Series, with two dominant outings to both open and close the triumph over the Montreal Expos. He got the ball in Game 2, matched up with former Dodger teammate, now in Pinstripes, Tommy John.
John and Hooton matched zeroes for four innings and the Yankees got a soft run in the fifth—an error by Davey Lopes and a sac bunt from John allowed Larry Milbourne to pick up the RBI with a two-out double.
The score stayed 1-0 into the bottom of the seventh when the Yankees loaded the bases with one out. Hooton was removed for veteran reliever Terry Forster, who got Milbourne to ground into a double play. But one inning later, the Dodgers couldn’t escape another jam.
Piniella and Nettles each singled off Steve Howe. Watson drove in a run with a base hit and a later error on a pickup throw moved runners up and allowed Willie Randolph to make it 3-0 with a sac fly. New York closed out a Game 2 win and was in command.
Los Angeles turned to the NL Cy Young winner, 20-year-old phenom Fernando Valenzuela to try and turn the World Series around, while New York had its own young talent in Dave Righetti. Playing in front of their home fans, this time it was the Dodgers who got on the attack right away.
Lopes lead off the bottom of the first with a double and Bill Russell beat out a bunt. After Dusty Baker and Garvey each missed chances to drive in the run, Ron Cey came to the plate. Cey launched a three-run blast and Los Angeles had momentum.
But New York came right back. Watson homered to start the second, Rick Cerone doubled and Larry Milbourne drove Cerone in with a single. In the top of the third, Piniella singled and Cerone went deep. It was 4-3 and the Dodgers then missed a big opportunity. They put two on with none out, chasing Righetti. George Frazier came into the game and escaped the jam.
The Yankees still had the lead and after World Series losses to the Pinstripes in both 1977and 1978, Dodger fans had to be wondering if this would ever turn around. In the bottom of the fifth, it did.
Garvey beat out an infield hit, Cey drew a walk and Pedro Guerrero slashed a double to tie it up. After an intentional walk, Frazier got a double-play groundout, but the lead run came through the backdoor.
The Yankees had one more rally in the eighth and Cey had more heroics. After consecutive singles to start the inning, Bobby Murcer looked to put down a sac bunt. The lefthanded hitter’s bunt got up in the air on a soft line. Cey charged in, dove out, caught it on the fly and immediately got to his feet to double off Milbourne. Rally done, Valenzuela completed the game with a 5-4 win, Los Angeles was back in it.
Saturday afternoon saw Rick Reuschel take the hill for the Yanks against Bob Welch for the Dodgers. Game 4 would have a lot of twists and turns in which the starters would be long gone by the time it was settled.
Willie Randolph started the game by tripling off Welch and Milbourne promptly doubled him in. Dave Winfield drew a walk and Reggie Jackson singled to load the bases. With no room for error, Dodger manager Tom Lasorda removed Welch and summoned Goltz. A sac fly from Watson added another run, but Goltz kept it at 2-0.
Randolph homered in the third, and the Yankees got two more in the fourth, with Rick Cerone drove in both Jackson and Watson. In the bottom of that same inning, Los Angeles started to come back from the 4-0 deficit.
Ken Landreaux started it with a leadoff double and came around a base hit by Lopes, who quickly stole second base. An infield hit and a productive ground ball scored Lopes, cutting the lead in half. An inning later the Dodgers got runners to second and third with one out. Reuschel was removed, and Rudy May, a steady starting pitcher during the regular season and the playoffs, came on and escaped with the 4-2 margin intact.
Cey delivered again in the fifth, following a one-out double by Garvey with an RBI base hit. But the Yankees quickly extended the lead in the sixth, with an error by Russell opening the door consecutive RBI singles from Oscar Gamble and Watson.
Trailing 6-3, Los Angeles pushed back again the bottom of the sixth. Ron Davis, a hard-throwing righthander and the team’s second-best reliever behind Gossage came on, but couldn’t get it done. Davis walked Mike Scioscia and gave up a home run to Jay Johnstone.
Then the defense failed, as Jackson committed an error that put the speedy Lopes aboard. Lopes stole second and third, and tied the game when Russell singled. Davis was out, and Frazier was in.
Frazier couldn’t stop the Dodger momentum though. LA picked right back up in the seventh, with an infield hit by Baker and a double by Rick Monday. After Guerrero was intentionally walked, Yeager delivered a sac fly to give Los Angeles the lead for the first time.
Steve Howe, the closer, batted for himself and bunted the runners up, allowing Lopes’ infield hit to score a key insurance run. It proved to matter when Jackson homered with two outs in the eighth, but Howe closed the door after that. A wild 8-7 win for the Dodgers had the Series tied.
After the crazy back-and-forth of Game 4, a steady pitchers’ duel was the perfect foil and that’s what the Guidry-Reuss rematch of Game 5 on late Sunday afternoon provided. The Yankees again scored first, with Jackson hitting a ground-rule double and coming around on a Lopes error and Piniella infield hit. But that was the end of scoring—or even serious threatening—until the seventh.
Guerrero and Yeager came up in the bottom of the seventh and delivered the decisive blows of the World Series—they homered back-to-back. It was Guidry’s only weak spot all day, but it was enough. Reuss completed a five-hitter and Los Angeles improbably had the Series lead.
The first four innings of Game 6 made it look like the Yankees might provide some pushback with the Series back in the Bronx. Randolph hit a solo home run in the third off Hooton, and while the Dodgers got singles from Baker, Monday and Yeager to tie it in the fourth, this was still a 1-1 game with the veteran John on the mound for New York.
Then the Yankees broke. John was pinch-hit for in the bottom of the inning with runners on first and second and two outs. It’s a legitimate scoring opportunity and Murcer, a good hitter, was the one who came off the bench. He hit the ball well, though it ended up a fly ball out to deep right. But that’s just way too early to pull a veteran starting pitcher in a big game. And the roof caved in immediately.
Lopes started the top of the fifth by singling off of Frazier. Lopes was bunted up and scored on a two-out single from Cey. Baker extended the inning with a single and Guerrero delivered the big blow with a triple that put LA up 4-1.
Davis came out of the Yankee bullpen in the sixth and issued a pair of walks, including one to Hooton. Russell drove in a run with a single, and now Reuschel came out of the Yankee pen to try and stop the bleeding. A double steal, a walk and an RBI grounder made it 6-1. Nettles, back in the lineup with his broken thumb committed a two-out error to reload the bases. Guerrero delivered again, with a two-run single to make it 8-1.
The Yankees got a run in the sixth, and Guerrero finished his magical night with a home run in the eighth. The final was 9-2. Howe worked the final 3.2 IP to close it out and Watson flied to Landreaux, the Dodgers were World Series champs.
Frazier proved an unfortunate goat for New York. He had been reliable in long relief all year and other than Game 6, didn’t pitch all that badly in this series. But he ended up the losing pitcher in three games, the first time a pitcher had ever lost three in a World Series.
It was the first title for the proud Dodger franchise since 1965, meaning it was the first since the expansion of 1969 created playoff rounds prior to the World Series. It was the first for Lasorda, who became the skipper in 1977.
And it was a championship driven by comebacks—Los Angeles became the first team to win best-of-five series after losing the first two in the Division Series. They won two straight road games in elimination spots to win the NLCS. They had won the World Series after losing the first two. And they had returned the favor to the Yankees, who three years earlier became the first team to drop Games 1 & 2 and then win four straight.
Three players shared 1981 World Series MVP honors, Cey, Guerrero and Yeager. Guerrero had the magic Game 6 and hit .333 for the Series. Yeager batted .286 and had two home runs, one of which came in the critical sequence of Game 5. These players had obviously helped. But this award should have gone to Cey alone.
Ron Cey hit .350 for the World Series, and he hit a three-run shot in Game 3 which came when Los Angeles desperately needed momentum, having lost the first two and about to squander an early opportunity in the third game. Cey then sealed the win with a defensive gem, and as the .350 average suggests, he contributed consistently throughout.
After a steady run of Dodgers-Yankees World Series that undoubtedly pleased the networks, these teams have not met in the Fall Classic since. New York disappeared from the postseason stage altogether until 1995. Los Angeles returned to the NLCS in 1983 and 1985 and won the World Series again in 1988.