The 1981 Pittsburgh Pirates were just two years removed from winning the World Series and ending a decade of tremendous success. Just one year earlier they 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.