Wednesday, September 06, 2006

On the 25th Anniversary of Baseball's Craziest Season- 1981

by Alan Eliot

This week on Wild-Card Wednesdays, we profile the year 1981- a year where most teams played between 100-110 games and where eight teams made the playoffs- a group that did not include the Reds, holders of the best record in MLB. A crazy year, indeed.

On a cursory glance, 1981 seems like one of the more interesting in this history of baseball (rather than one of most embarrassing). The highlights of the year that most people remember- WS Champ, hitting/pitching awards, are interesting in and of themselves, and belie the oddity of the season:
  • The Dodgers were World Champions, beating the Yankees in six games. There was major history between the two clubs- between 1941 and 1980 they had met in the World Series a whopping nine times, with the Yankees going 7-2 in those contests (wins in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1977 and 1978, and losses in 1955 and 1963). Yankees and Mets rivalry? Nothing compared to what the Dodgers have historically felt towards the men in pinstripes. So a win in 1981 was huge for the men in Dodger blue.
  • NL MVP went to Mike Schmidt who hit .316 with 31 HR. He'd retire with three total MVP awards. Nothing abnormal here.
  • NL Cy Young went to a rookie. Fernando Valenzuela beat out four men for the award- all future HOFer's: Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan and Bruce Sutter. It goes without saying that FV also won ROY.
  • AL MVP was also the AL Cy Young Award winner: Rollie Fingers, a reliever.
Still, with underdogs turning the tides on dominant Pinstripe history, with rookies winning Cy Youngs and Cy Youngs winning MVPs- these things still pale in comparison with what actually occurred in 1981.

A strike called by the player's union on June 12 led to no baseball for two months. Every team missed 50+ games. The issue at hand was free agent compensation: owners wanted more control over their players becoming free agents and signing with other teams, so the owners were pushing for legislation that would give them rights to take a player in return from the team that signed their FA. Under this agreement, teams would be able to protect 12 players from being taken as compensation, but any other player, including rising minor league stars, would be open game.

Ridiculous. This meant that signing a FA meant losing a player of your own- and of course, from a player's standpoint, this would significantly curb the FA market.

Without going into gory detail, an agreement was finally reached where owners would get some compensation for losing a "premium" player, selected from a pool of all MLB teams.

So baseball resumed. Of course, now into August, and looking at a 110-game-maximum schedule, decisions had to be made. Will there be playoffs, and who goes? What should have been a very simple decision (Yes, there should be playoffs. The team with the best record overall in their division goes to the playoffs, just like every other year) was not.

Instead, it was decided in August that
1. retroactively, teams who were leading their divisions when the strike started in June would automatically have playoff spots. They would be "First-half division champions", and there would be four of them: Phillies, Dodgers, Yankees and A's. Hence, those four teams knew, in the beginning of August, that they were playoff bound.
2. All other teams would be fighting for four more playoff spots during the second half of the season. Essentially the season would start anew, and only second-half records would count for playoff eligibility.
3. All eight teams would be paired up in an ALDS/NLDS of five games, before the winner moving onto the normal ALCS/NLCS and then the World Series.

Of course, this begs the question- what if the same team, say the Phillies in the NL East, were to win the two halves of the season? Logically, one would say, "give then a bye to the NLCS". Logic, however, did not predominate in the 1981 season. Instead, owners decided that even if a team won both halves of the season, they would still have to play the 2nd place team in their division from the 2nd-half of the season. Following?

These rules were in place before play resumed. One can imagine that incentive for the four teams already "in the playoffs" was nonexistent- winning all or none of their remaining games had zero effect on any possible outcomes- someone else in their division would make the playoffs no matter what, and they would have to play them. Records demonstrate that those four "champion" teams hovered right around .500 for the rest of the season . Here is the breakdown of that year's two seasons, according to B-Ref:

First Half of Season, NL

East Division
Team W L WL% GB
Phildlpa PHI 34 21 .618 --
St.Louis STL 30 20 .600 --
Montreal MON 30 25 .545 --
Pittsbgh PIT 25 23 .521 --
NewYorkM NYM 17 34 .333 --
ChicagoC CHC 15 37 .288 --
West Division
Team W L WL% GB
LosAngls LAD 36 21 .632 --
Cincnnti CIN 35 21 .625 --
Houston HOU 28 29 .491 --
Atlanta ATL 25 29 .463 --
SanFranc SFG 27 32 .458 --
SanDiego SDP 23 33 .411 --

Second Half of Season

East Division
Team W L WL% GB
Montreal MON 30 23 .566 --
St.Louis STL 29 23 .558 --
Phildlpa PHI 25 27 .481 --
NewYorkM NYM 24 28 .462 --
ChicagoC CHC 23 28 .451 --
Pittsbgh PIT 21 33 .389 --
West Division
Team W L WL% GB
Houston HOU 33 20 .623 --
Cincnnti CIN 31 21 .596 --
SanFranc SFG 29 23 .558 --
LosAngls LAD 27 26 .509 --
Atlanta ATL 25 27 .481 --
SanDiego SDP 18 36 .333 --

Overall Record
East Division
Team W L WL% GB
St.Louis STL 59 43 .578 --
Montreal MON 60 48 .556 2.0
Phildlpa PHI 59 48 .551 2.5
Pittsbgh PIT 46 56 .451 13.0
NewYorkM NYM 41 62 .398 18.5
ChicagoC CHC 38 65 .369 21.5
West Division
Team W L WL% GB
Cincnnti CIN 66 42 .611 --
LosAngls LAD 63 47 .573 4.0
Houston HOU 61 49 .555 6.0
SanFranc SFG 56 55 .505 11.5
Atlanta ATL 50 56 .472 15.0
SanDiego SDP 41 69 .373 26.0

First Half of Season, AL

East Division
Team W L WL% GB
NewYorkY NYY 34 22 .607 --
Bltmore BAL 31 23 .574 --
Milwkee MIL 31 25 .554 --
Detroit DET 31 26 .544 --
BostonRS BOS 30 26 .536 --
Clvlnd CLE 26 24 .520 --
Toronto TOR 16 42 .276 --
West Division
Team W L WL% GB
Oakland OAK 37 23 .617 --
Texas TEX 33 22 .600 --
ChicagoW CHW 31 22 .585 --
Califrna CAL 31 29 .517 --
KansasCy KCR 20 30 .400 --
Seattle SEA 21 36 .368 --
Minnesta MIN 17 39 .304 --

Second Half of Season

East Division
Team W L WL% GB
Milwkee MIL 31 22 .585 --
BostonRS BOS 29 23 .558 --
Detroit DET 29 23 .558 --
Bltmore BAL 28 23 .549 --
Clvlnd CLE 26 27 .491 --
NewYorkY NYY 25 26 .490 --
Toronto TOR 21 27 .438 --
West Division
Team W L WL% GB
KansasCy KCR 30 23 .566 --
Oakland OAK 27 22 .551 --
Texas TEX 24 26 .480 --
Minnesta MIN 24 29 .453 --
Seattle SEA 23 29 .442 --
ChicagoW CHW 23 30 .434 --
Califrna CAL 20 30 .400 --

Overall Record
East Division
Team W L WL% GB
Milwkee MIL 62 47 .569 --
Bltmore BAL 59 46 .562 1.0
NewYorkY NYY 59 48 .551 2.0
Detroit DET 60 49 .550 2.0
BostonRS BOS 59 49 .546 2.5
Clvlnd CLE 52 51 .505 7.0
Toronto TOR 37 69 .349 23.5
West Division
Team W L WL% GB
Oakland OAK 64 45 .587 --
Texas TEX 57 48 .543 5.0
ChicagoW CHW 54 52 .509 8.5
KansasCy KCR 50 53 .485 11.0
Califrna CAL 51 59 .464 13.5
Seattle SEA 44 65 .404 20.0
Minnesta MIN 41 68 .376 23.0
You may have noticed in the above records that the Reds and Cardinals, who possessed the two best overall records in the NL, nonetheless did not qualify for the playoffs due to the owners' kooky rules. In crazy 1981, 31% of teams made the playoffs- and arguably the two best ones had to watch from home in October. At the very least, this injustice did not extend to the AL, where the overall AL East and AL West best-record-holders had won a "half-season crown" and made the playoffs.

Lastly, notice that the Royals, at 50-53 overall, made the playoffs- in 1981, 9/14 AL teams were .500+ overall, but baseball watched the Royals play postseason ball.

In January 1981, Whitey Herzog noted:
"Before long, you can look for some teams to go bankrupt, like the Minnesota Twins. The Twins and some other clubs just can't afford to compete for salaries the way things are set up. I think the bankruptcies will start in two or three years. (source)"
We all know how badly the Twins performed in the late 80's and early 90's, proving Whitey to be true. All joking aside, however, this feeling of looming crisis by baseball management led to a disasterous season based in panic and illogical thinking. It was baseball at its most base- selfish- and players from 1981 should take the blame with the owners. The issue of staying competitive for clubs still remains, however, 25 years later. Let's hope whatever crises loom for baseball in the future get handled with more foresight and class than those in 1981, or the mid-90's for that matter.

In the end, as 1981 passes into distant memory, baseball would do well to remember more than just that the Dodgers won it, or that Schmidt and Fingers were MVP's.

"Wild-Card Wednesdays" appears alternate Wednesdays

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