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1981: A Split Season

It seems that every year that has some kind of disruption to the schedule, also seems to be a marker in some way of baseball's slow inclusion of of the game for all. 1981 was the year of Fernandomania, when a rookie pitcher from a remote Mexican village took the league by storm. Fernando Valenzuela brought with him fandom from millions of Mexican and Mexican American fans to root for a team in Chavez Ravine, decades after the Dodgers had the city of Los Angeles evict a Mexican-American Community from the neighborhood in order to build Dodger Stadium. Valenzuela wasn't the first Mexican born player in the league, but he was the first great star from our southern neighbors.


Highest Paid Player: Dave Winfield $1.4MM

US President: Ronald Reagan

In the News:

  • Reagan and several aides shot and wounded by John Hinkley Jr

  • Pope John Paul II shot and wounded by Mehmet Ali Ağca, they later became friends after the pope forgave him.

  • First Space Shuttle launch.

First Class Postage Stamp: $0.15

Number of Games: 103-111

Number of Teams: 26

Teams of 1981 compared to 1971:

Expansion teams Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays joined the American League.

The second MLB strike to result in games that weren’t made up was the result of a dispute between the players and owners over compensation to teams for lost free agent signings. The league shut down in the middle of the season when the players went on strike from June 12th to July 31st and the season restarted with the All-Star Game on August 9th. The idea of teams getting compensation for lost free agents has been adapted in the last few years where teams will be compensated draft picks based on service time and the tier of player they are based on stats or something. This has been a bit of a mess because some players end up going unsigned until midway through the season or not at all because teams don’t want to give up a draft pick to compensate the teams who did not re-sign their former players. It has also meant that players have ended up taking shorter contracts than they had intended in order to test the free agent market sooner than intended because they did not get the initial payday they had intended.

Fernando Valenzuela warming up. Photo credit: Jim Accordino

The 1981 season was split in two, each half was less than 60 games long. Instead of basing the playoff field on the teams with the best records for the totality of the season, the team with the best record in their division in the first half of the season played the team with the best record for their division in the second half in the divisional series. This is how the minor leagues decide their playoffs, based on first half and second half records. This was only possible because the teams with the best records in the first half of the season for each division, but a huge failure because some of the teams with the best records over the whole season in their divisions didn’t make the playoffs. In the NL, the Cardinals and Reds both had the best records for the whole season but because they both came in second for both halves of the season, to two different teams, they both missed the playoffs.

New York Yankees

The Yankees, who represented the AL in the World Series, only had the fourth best record in the AL East for the whole season, but won the division in the first half of the season. They are the lowest in the standings team to ever make it to the World Series. Gene Michael was the team’s manager most of the season until September when he was fed up with George Steinbrenner constantly interfering with the team, daring Steinbrenner to fire him. He did. Bob Lemon was hired to take over for the rest of the season, going 11-14 until the end of the regular season, but beat the Brewers in the Divisional Series and swept the A’s in the ALCS to face the Dodgers in the World Series. This was a team of Hall of Fame Sluggers Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield as well as Hall of Good Enough sluggers Graig Nettles and Bobby Murcer. Pitching was actually a strength of this team with Tommy John, Ron Guidry and Rookie of the Year Dave Righetti in the rotation, Hall of Famer Rich Goosage closing (with a 0.77 ERA on the year and 20 saves) and solid seasons from fathers of future MLB players from relievers Ron Davis (father of future Met Ike Davis) and Dave LaRoche (father of future Pirate Andy and future Brave, Pirate and National Adam).

Gene Michael in 1981. Public Domain.

This was the Dodger’s year. Although they actually finished four games behind the Reds for the entire regular season in the West, L.A. was in the lead when the strike hit, punching their ticket to the postseason very early. This was the year of Fernandomania, and lefty screwballer Fernando Valenzuela took the world by storm in his first full year in the bigs. More on him later. This team was loaded with veterans that had hard luck losing in the ‘74, ‘77 and ‘78 World Series behind the likes of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Dusty Baker and the very first man drafted ever in baseball, Rick Monday. It was, however, the year of the guys in their first full seasons Mike Scioscia, Pedro Guerrero, Dave Stewart, Valenzuela and the rookie of the year for the next season, Steve Sax, also saw some time with the big club in 1981.

Pedro Guerrero

Guerrero is a guy I had on my radar ever since I started paying attention to baseball in the early ‘90’s pretty much because there weren’t a lot of guys named “Pete” in the majors. As another sign of the indecisiveness of the 1981 season, Guerrero was one of three co-MVP’s of the 1981 World Series along with Ron Cey and Steve Yeager thanks to 2 homers, 7 RBI and a .333 AVG. Guerrero had a nice rookie year in the strike shortened season hitting 12 homers and a .300 AVG and was an All-Star for the first time. Bill James declared Guerrero “The best hitter God had made in a long time,” and for a brief amount of time he lived up to it. The next two seasons, ‘82 and ‘83, saw the peak of Guerrero’s great seasons as well as a brief string of good health when he hit 32 HR/100 RBI/22 SB/ .304 AVG/ .378 OBP and 32 HR/ 103 RBI/ 23 SB/.298 AVG and .373 OBP, respectively.

Pedro Guerrero, Public Domain.

Never playing consecutive seasons without missing time with injuries for the rest of his career with a range of different injuries sending him to the Disabled List he managed to play in every corner of the field. It wasn’t until he was in his late 30’s that he played a single position for an entire season. As a result of his constant state of injury, when he finally played 152 games and his .338 AVG was the highest by a Dodger in 25 years that he won the MLB Comeback Player of the Year Award. Although he was a 30-home run hitter three times in his career, the injuries kept him from having a big career number, hitting only 215 in his fifteen years, granted he only had maybe six full seasons if you count the strike shortened 1981 season. Nevertheless he was a career .300 hitter with a phenomenal .370 career OBP, 35.4 WAR, five trips to the All-Star Game, four seasons in the top four of MVP voting, seven years where he either made an All-Star Game or received MVP votes and was considered perhaps the best hitter of the 1980’s. And he did it all as basically a utility player playing 1B, 3B and the outfield.

The Crowded NL Division Champs

Before from 1969 to 1980 the MLB playoffs only involved the two division leaders in each league playing in the LCS to decide who would be in the World Series. Before that, the World Series teams would always be the only round of the playoffs with the two teams with the best records from the two leagues facing each other. 1981 was a one-off where four teams faced off in each league in Divisional Series because of the format of first and second half divisional champions and Major League Baseball wouldn’t see eight teams in the playoffs until 1995. Due to the strange format of 1981, the two teams that would have won the divisions in the NL any other year missed the playoffs entirely, the Reds and Cardinals.

St Louis Cardinals, NL East Full Season: 59-43

The Cardinals would have won the East in a normal season, but missed the playoffs in ‘81 despite the expanded playoffs. It was the first season under manager Whitey Herzog, whose unfortunately named “Whiteyball” philosophy of play at Busch Stadium II, whose deep fences disincentivize home run swings and large gaps and astroturf benefited line-drive hitters. With a team that mixed line drive hitters with speed, defense and pitching, the Cardinals were one of the most successful teams of the 1980’s, going to three World Series in the 1980’s and winning it all in 1982. The 1981 season was just before St. Louis had most of their hitting stars of their World Series runs, Ozzie Smith was still in San Diego, Willie McGee wouldn’t break into the majors until the next year, and Terry Pendleton and Vince Coleman wouldn’t be around until their 1985 run.

The ‘81 Cards used the style of play that would make them successful in the future and infuriating to baseball purists. Keith Hernandez was the best hitter on the team despite hitting only eight homers (only one player had double digit homers on the ‘81 team), but his great fielding and ability to get on base backed up a rotation where no started had an ERA over 4.00 and Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter led the league in saves. The “Whiteyball” strategy would later be used by the Ned Yost Royals to go to back to back World Series in 2014 and 2015. “Whiteyball” is often cited as the reason why RBI’s aren’t an important statistic because Willie McGee won an MVP in ‘85 with ten homers and 82 RBI and was fifth in the league in RBI in ‘87 with 105 despite only eleven home runs.

Philadelphia Phillies, NL East First Half: 34-21

NL MVP: Mike Schmidt, 3B Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies were the defending champions in ‘81 and won the NL East for the first half of the season. Most of their Championship team returned for the strike shortened season but a lot of them were aging quickly, Pete Rose was 40, Larry Bowa was 35, Steve Carlton was 36 and Tug McGraw was 36. All four of them had nice seasons in 1981 but the rest of the league was catching up. Rose and Bowa went homer-less and only one Philadelphia player hit double digit homers. It was Mike Schmidt and his 31 homers led the league and won him an MVP. His league leading 91 RBI, .435 OBP and 7.7 WAR didn’t hurt either.

Montreal Expos, NL East Second Half: 53-43

I was going to have a Captain America Steve Rogers picture here, but this is just such a good shot. Public Domain.

Montreal might have had the best team of the NL and were one game away from the World Series. Ace Steve Rogers was brought in for the ninth inning of a 1-1 game in the decisive fifth game of a best of five NLCS for his first relief appearance of the year. In the Divisional Series against the Phillies Rogers threw a shutout and went 8.2 innings with one earned run, winning both games. He kept that momentum in his first start in the NLCS against the Dodgers, he threw a complete game giving up one run and earning another win. In Game 5 he was brought in for the ninth inning, got two quick outs before facing veteran, Rick Monday, who was the fourth outfielder for L.A. who got a hold of a slider and sent it just over the outstretched glove of Andre Dawson and over the wall for a decisive home run, sending the Dodgers to the World Series with a 2-1 win. Rogers didn’t let it get to him in 1982 where he led the league with a 2.40 ERA and won a career best 19 wins and a second place finish in Cy Young Voting behind Steve Carlton in a stretch of three top five Cy Young finishes in four years. A career Expo, 1981 was Rogers’ only trip to the postseason and despite the loss in Game 5, he went 3-1 with two complete games and a 0.98 ERA. Over his career he won 158 games, 3.17 ERA, five-time All-Star, led the league in shutouts twice, and a 44.7 WAR over 13 years. The great tragedy of his career is that Rogers never went by the nickname “Captain Quebeqois.” This was the only time the Expos ever played in the postseason in 35 years, a great team with three Hall of Famers, Dawson, Gary Carter and Tim Raines and a few of the great non-HOFers in their team history: Warren Cromartie (who hit .304 in ‘81), Larry Parrish, and Spaceman Bill Lee (2.94 ERA).

Cincinnati Reds, NL West Full Season: 66-42.

The Big Red Machine had been dismantled. The last Hall of Famer in their lineup, Johnny Bench, who had just been moved from catcher to first base, responded by hitting over .300 for the first time in his career, but a broken ankle limited him to only 52 games. Despite this, the Reds kept on winning. They were only a half a game out of first in the first half of season and finished the season four games better than the second best team in the West. They were fueled by the non-Hall of Fame stars of the Big Red Machine, Dave Concepcion (.306 AVG), Ken Griffey (.311 AVG) and George Foster (22 homers and 90 RBI). The driving force of the Reds was not their lineup but great pitching from Hall of Famer Tom Seaver who led the league in wins with 14 and finished second in Cy Young voting at the age of 36.

Los Angeles Dodgers, NL West First Half: 36-21

NL Cy Young/Rookie of the Year Fernando Valenzuela, LHP Los Angeles Dodgers

Fernandomania in 1980’s Los Angeles came out of nowhere from an anonymous little town in Mexico and roared to life with a left handed screwball. The pitch, not the personality. Valenzuela grew up the youngest of 12 children, 250 miles south of Arizona, his town was so remote that his parents didn’t learn that he was pitching in the majors, let alone dominating at the game until reporters descended on the town mid-way through his rookie season. He was an emergency starter on opening day of 1981 when Jerry Reuss was scratched with an injury and he threw a five-hit shutout. Over his first eight starts he won all eight games and only had a 0.50 ERA, threw 5 shutouts, 7 complete games, and 36 straight scoreless innings. By the end of his rookie season Fernando tied the rookie shutout record of eight that had stood unmatched since 1913 and won the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards. He won the World Series with the Dodgers that year.

Valenzuela went 255 consecutive starts without skipping a start spanning six and a half seasons. Valenzuela was the first player to be awarded a million dollars in arbitration. Two-time Silver Slugger, and a Gold Glover in 1986. He started the 1985 season with 41 innings without an earned run. In 1986 he had 21 wins and had an astronomical 20 complete games. His work load resulted in injuries and lowered quality for the second half of his career although he still recorded a no hitter in 1989 on the same day that Dave Stewart no-hit the Blue Jays, the only time two pitchers threw no-hitters on the same day. He had 173 wins, 141 with the Dodgers over 11 years, and a career 3.54 ERA.

Houston Astros, NL West Second Half: 33-20

Nolan Ryan had the best ERA of his career, a league leading 1.69, Joe Niekro at 36 had the best ERA of his career to that point of 2.82 (he would best it the next season), and Don Sutton was new to the team at 36, coming off a season where he had also led the league in ERA. The mid-30’s trio of pitchers powered the Astros down the stretch in the playoffs. Ryan, who never did win a Cy Young award, finished fourth in CYA voting in a year of amazing pitching performances.

Outfielder Jose Cruz (Senior, his son played in the ‘90’s and 2000’s and his grandson is likely to be drafted this year) had one of his better seasons for power, although his thirteen home runs were not especially spectacular looking due to the shortened season. This was the final season in Houston for longtime outfielder Cesar Cedeno, who was a great hitter and fantastic fielder in his earlier days. Cedeno kind of fell off after a December 1973 tragedy when his girlfriend, Altagracia de la Cruz died in a firearms accident in a Domincan Republic hotel room where she apparently was trying to see his revolver that went off when he tried to grab it back. Cedeno was released by the police with a fine but chants from fans followed him for much of his career and his fielding and power numbers dipped after his mid-20’s. He continued to be a threat on the base paths, stealing 30 or more bases in eight seasons, but 1981 was the end of an era in Houston for the tandem of Cedeno and Cruz.

Log Jam in the American League

Five AL East teams finished the 1981 season within 2.5 games of the Overall Best record and it was the team with the fourth best record in the division that represented the American League in the World Series. The Brewers edged past the Red Sox by a game and a half in the second half to punch their ticket to the playoffs. Milwaukee was a team loaded with Hall of Famers Ted Simmons, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Rollie Fingers. Cecil Cooper and Gorman Thomas were among the league leaders in batting average and home runs, respectively. It was their closer, Rollie Fingers, however, that won the AL MVP and Cy Young Awards for the 1981 season. His 28 saves led the league and sported a 1.04 ERA to go along with his signature handlebar mustache that was grown during his time with the Athletics. It was his first year with the Brewers after four years with the Padres after he left Oakland and as impressive as his numbers were, he probably shouldn’t have won either prestigious awards and may have benefited from parity in the American League.


Rollie Fingers and his Hall of Fame mustache. Public Domain.

The shortened season didn’t help the league-wide power shortage in the American League. There was a four-way tie for the home run lead with only 22 home runs, a pace that would have put a full-season home run leader in the 30’s. Switch hitting Hall of Famer Eddie Murray of the Orioles was one of those leaders, also led the league in RBI with 78, which would have put him on pace for about 120 RBI in a full season. The A’s Tony Armas had one of the best seasons as a fielder in an especially great Oakland outfield and was among the home run quartet of leaders. California’s Bobby Grich was one of the best fielding second basemen the game had ever seen in the first half of his career, after an injury he transitioned into being more offensively focused, 1981 was a year where he regained some of his defensive dominance at the keystone and also nailed 22 dingers. Dwight Evans was another of the great fielding outfielders in baseball history, an eight-time Gold Glover for the Red Sox who also led the league in walks as one of the co-leading home run hitters and the co-leader in WAR. The other co-leader for WAR was not on the home run list, but Rickey Henderson’s 56 steals were 13 better than the next guy and he also led the league in hits and runs and earned the only Gold Glove Award of his career (although those tend to come a year after a player really earns it). Henderson just missed Fingers’ MVP total and he and Evans’ probably cancelled each other out. The two outfielders probably should have tied for the award rather than Fingers winning it.

AL Cy Young

Fingers was probably a more reasonable winner of the AL Cy Young Award, although it wasn’t especially clear cut. Rollie did lead the league in saves with 28 and had a tiny 1.04 ERA and he wasn’t just a one inning reliever, he threw 78 innings in 47 games. Cleveland’s Bert Blyleven’s 5.6 War was the best for AL pitchers thanks to a 2.88 ERA. Steve McCatty led the A’s to the best record in the AL and led the league in ERA(2.33), wins (14) and shutouts (4), all were career highs. Jack Morris was the ace of the Tigers, finished third in AL Cy Young voting, tied for the league lead in wins and posted the best ERA of his Hall of Fame career at 3.05. Rollie wasn’t the only reliever setting the world on fire in ‘81, Rich “Goose” Gossage saved 20 games but his 0.77 ERA and 0.771 WHIP were by far the best of his career, he just 46.2 innings in 32 games compared to Fingers’ 78 innings in 47 games. Gossage once said in an interview of his pitching strategy that he would set up the hitter for a high fastball with such speed that “God can’t hit it.”

Goose Gossage was not the only Yankee pitcher that was on fire in 1981. On September 16th, rookie Dave Righetti threw a complete game in a loss to the Brewers where he gave up a home run to Gorman Thomas. In fifteen starts in 1981, this was the only home run Righetti gave up all year for a league leading 0.1 homers per nine innings. Winning eight games with a 2.02 ERA Righetti seemed as though he would be a mainstay of New York rotations for years to come. And he was a bit of a star for them, he threw a no-hitter on the Fourth of July against the Red Sox in 1983, the first Yankee no-hitter since Don Larson in 1956. He was moved to the closer’s role in 1984 when Goose Gossage signed as a free agent with San Diego and over the next seven years he became the career Yankee record with 224 saves, and he is now number two in Yankee history to Mariano Rivera.

One Last Thing

The Expos and the Yankees would have pretty good years in 1981, but it would mean the end of their good fortunes for more than a decade. The Yankees wouldn't have a true resurgence until the "Core Four" came along and the Expos would only be a playoff level of team again in 1994. A year with no post season.

Hall of Good Enough Players

Cesar Cedeno, HOU 1B, 17 YRS, 52.8 WAR, 2087 H, 436 2B, 550 SB, .285 AVG, .347 OBP

Dave Concepcion, CIN SS, 19 YRS, 40.1 WAR, 2326 H, 321 SB, .267 AVG, .322 OBP

Jose Cruz, HOU OF, 19 YRS, 54.4 WAR, 2251 H, 391 2B, 317 SB, .284 AVG, .354 OBP

George Foster, CIN OF, 18 YRS, 44.2 WAR, 1925 H, 348 HR, .274 AVG, .338 OBP, .480 SLG

Ken Griffey, CIN OF, 19 YRS, 34.5 WAR, 2143 H, 200 SB, .296 AVG, .359 OBP, .431 SLG

Pedro Guerrero, LAD UTL, 15 YRS, 34.5 WAR, 1618 H, 215 HR, .300 AVG, .370 OBP,

.480 SLG

Dave Righetti, NYY LHP, 16 YRS, 21.3 WAR, 82 W, 718 G, 252 SV, 3.46 ERA, 1.338 WHIP

Steve Rogers, MON RHP, 13 YRS, 44.7 WAR, 158 W, 1621 K, 3.17 ERA, 1.232 WHIP

Fernando Valenzuela, LAD LHP, 17 YRS, 41.5 WAR, 173 W, 2074 K, 3.54 ERA, 1.320 WHIP

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