The 1981 Cincinnati Reds: When Being The Best Wasn’t Enough
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.
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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.
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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 and Phillies, 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.