Sunday, January 22, 2012

PTWSW #78: The 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers

Manager: Tommy Lasorda
Record: 63-47
Ballpark: Dodger Stadium
Owner: Peter O'Malley & Terry Seidler
GM: Al Campanis
Coaches: Monty Basgall, Mark Cresse, Manny Mota, Danny Ozark, Ron Perranoski

Future Hall of Famers: none

All-Stars: Dusty Baker, Steve Garvey, Pedro Guerrero, Burt Hooton, Davey Lopes, Fernando Valenzuela

Team Leaders, Batting

BA: Dusty Baker, .320
OBP: Ron Cey, .372
SLG: Ron Cey, .474
OPS: Ron Cey, .846
2B: Steve Garvey, 23
3B: Ken Landreaux, 4
HR: Ron Cey, 13
RBI: Steve Garvey, 64
BB: Ron Cey, 40
SB: Davey Lopes, 20

Team Leaders, Pitching

W: Fernando Valenzuela, 13
SO: Fernando Valenzuela, 180 (NL leader)
ERA: Burt Hooton, 2.28
IP: Fernando Valenzuela, 192.1 (NL leader)
CG: Fernando Valenzuela, 11 (NL leader)
SHO: Fernando Valenzuela, 8 (NL leader)
K/BB: Fernando Valenzuela, 2.95
SV: Steve Howe, 8


Oldest Player: Jerry Grote (b. October 6, 1942)

Youngest Player: Fernando Valenzuela (b. November 1, 1960)

First to Leave Us: Steve Howe (d. April 28, 2006). Howe was only 48 years old when he died in a pickup truck accident.

Last Survivor: Most are still living as of the date of this post.

First in Majors: Jerry Grote (debut September 21, 1963)

Last in Majors: Fernando Valenzuela (final game July 14, 1997)

First to Play For the Franchise: Bill Russell (April 7, 1969)

Last to Play For the Franchise: Mike Scioscia (October 2, 1992)

Pre-union Team: No team had more than two.

Reunion Team: The 1984 Chicago Cubs had four: Ron Cey, Jay Johnstone, Davey Lopes and Rick Sutcliffe. Incidentally, this makes two champions in a row that had the 1984 Cubs as a reunion team.


Fernando Valenzuela, NL Cy Young Award
Fernando Valenzuela, NL Rookie of the Year Award
Dusty Baker, NL Outfield Gold Glove
Fernando Valenzuela, NL Pitcher Silver Slugger
Dusty Baker, NL Outfield Silver Slugger

Season Summary

The 1970's had been a frustrating decade in Dodger-land. The team was a perennial contender, with pennants in 1974, 1977 and 1978 to its name, but there was still something missing: a World Series title. The 1980 season ended up as another not-quite; after spending all year in the pennant race, they fell just short of the NLCS. The final series of the year was a three-gamer in L.A. against the Astros, whom they trailed, as luck would have it, by three games. Miraculously, they pulled off three one-run victories to force a tie-breaking, no-travel-expenses-necessary Game 163, but unfortunately for them, their luck ran out in that final game; the Astros romped to the first division title in franchise history with a 7-1 win.

Going into the 1981 season the Dodgers had many questions surrounding them. 15-year Dodger veteran Don Sutton, the NL's ERA leader in 1980, had left for Houston as a free agent. They had failed to land star center fielder Fred Lynn from the Red Sox, forcing them to acquire the much-less-stellar Ken Landreaux from the Twins in the middle of Spring Training. Their core players were aging: the famed infield of Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes and Steve Garvey was returning for its ninth season together, but all by then were over 30. Outfielder Reggie Smith was battling a shoulder injury that had hampered him the previous season, and he'd be limited to pinch-hitting duty for most of 1981.

The Dodgers' hopes rested on that ever-unpredictable wild card: young players. They had a fine up-and-coming hitter named Pedro Guerrero who was also able to fill in at almost any position. They had a backstop named Mike Scioscia who'd hit .254 the previous season as the Dodger catching corps' junior statesman. The one with the biggest upside, however, was a bulky, screwball-throwing Mexican lefty who'd dazzled as a September call-up. 19-year-old Fernando Valenzuela made 10 relief appearances late in the 1980 season without allowing a single earned run, and everyone was eager to see what he could do with a full season in the rotation. Manager Tommy Lasorda was so confident in the kid that he named him his Opening Day starter.

To the joy of Dodger fans, Valenzuela didn't disappoint. Facing the team that had knocked L.A. out the previous October, Valenzuela shut out the Astros on five hits, keeping his career ERA at 0.00 and giving the Dodgers a win to lead off the new season. His scoreless streak came to an end in the eighth inning of his next start, but Valenzuela still went the distance for a 7-1 victory. He pitched shutouts in four of his next five starts, and went nine innings in the two starts surrounding the last shutout, earning wins each time. After eight starts, his record stood at 8-0, with seven complete games, five shutouts and a 0.50 ERA. Fernandomania was in full swing, and the 20-year-old hurler was the talk of baseball. The entire Dodger team was off to a hot start too, holding a 5.5-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds after Valenzuela's eighth win.

As one would expect, such dominance wasn't sustainable over the course of a full season, and Valenzuela came back to earth in his next few starts. The Dodgers held onto first place, but a late-May/early-June slump coincided with a period of improved play by the Reds. On June 11 Valenzuela lost a 2-1 pitching duel to the Cardinals, while the Reds beat the Mets to pull within half a game.

Baseball's labor situation, however, was in a state of uncertainty. Owners and players had been battling for more than a year over the issue of free agent compensation, and the two sides had been unable to reach an agreement. On June 12 the players went on strike, the first midseason strike in the history of major league American professional sports. The two sides finally came to terms on July 31, but there was still the issue of how the postseason would be managed given that so many games had been cancelled.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided on a controversial "split season" format which would add an extra tier to the playoffs. The four teams in first place at the beginning of the strike would be awarded playoff spots, while the standings would refresh for the second half. The team with the best record in each division during the second half would play its first-half counterpart for the right to play in the League Championship Series. Having already clinched a playoff berth by the narrowest of margins, the Dodgers put up a 27-26 record in the second half, which actually put their overall season record four games behind the Reds, who finished with baseball's top winning percentage. Thanks to those quirky rules, the Reds missed out on the postseason due to the fact that they finished a game and a half behind the Astros in the second-half standings. It meant the NL West Division Series would be an L.A.-Houston rematch.

The first two games took place at the Astrodome, where the Astros won both in their last at-bat. Alan Ashby and Denny Walling were the heroes for the hometown team, and reliever Dave Stewart was saddled with the loss both times. After the series headed back to Dodger Stadium though, the boys in blue regained their strength. Dodger pitching allowed only two runs in the next three games, while Dodger hitting plated twelve runs, resulting in three Dodger wins and a trip to the NLCS for Lasorda's men.

1981 saw Canada's first appearance in the MLB postseason, in the form of the Montreal Expos. The Expos were a hungry young team that had fallen just short of the playoffs the previous two years, and now they were tasked with beating the veteran Dodgers. The first two games were held at Dodger Stadium, but the home-field magic didn't do its trick like in the previous series, resulting in a split. Back in Montreal the Expos won Game 3, but the Dodgers pulled away in the late innings of Game 4 to send the series to the maximum.

Game 5 matched Valenzuela against Ray Burris, who'd shut out L.A. in Game 2 of the series. As one would expect, it was a tightly-fought pitcher's duel. The Expos struck first with an RBI double-play groundout in the first inning, but Valenzuela helped his own cause with an RBI groundout in the fifth. In the ninth inning, with the game still tied, Steve Rogers relieved Burris. After getting the first two outs, Dodger right fielder Rick Monday put his team on top with a solo homer that would prove to be the winning blow. In the bottom half, Valenzuela got the first two outs, but needed Bob Welch to nail down the third and clinch the pennant.

The New York Yankees had long been a thorn in the side of the Dodger franchise; the two were October rivals during the Brooklyn Dodgers' "Boys of Summer" era, and the Bronx Bombers had gotten the better of the Dodgers in both the 1977 and 1978 World Series. The Pinstripers were now the only thing standing in the way of the Dodgers' opportunity at redemption.

The Yanks were rested after sweeping the ALCS, and possessed home-field advantage in the World Series. The Dodgers, on the other hand, had to play Game 1 the day after winning the NLCS. Perhaps it was no surprise then, that the Yankees came away with victories in the first two games. With the Series headed to L.A., New York was halfway to dealing L.A. a familiar fate.

Lasorda sent Valenzuela to the mound for Game 3, and while the rookie didn't have his best stuff that night, he managed to come away with a complete-game win to keep the Dodgers' hopes alive. The big man walked seven batters and gave up nine hits, but the damage was limited to only four runs, a total the Dodger offense bettered by one. Game 4 was a slugfest, highlighted by the Dodgers' comeback from an early 4-0 deficit. In the end, the Dodgers walked away with an 8-7 win and a tied Series. Yankee ace Ron Guidry shut out the Dodgers for the first six innings of Game 5, but back-to-back homers by Pedro Guerrero and catcher Steve Yeager put the Dodgers ahead in the game, and by the end of the night, the Series.

Back to Yankee Stadium the Series went for Game 6. The score was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the fourth when Yankee manager Bob Lemon made a controversial decision. With two outs and the pitcher's spot coming up, he elected to pinch-hit for starter Tommy John, a move that produced no runs. The very next inning the Dodgers erupted for three runs off reliever George Frazier. Frazier had taken the loss in Games 3 and 4, and with the Dodgers now leading, he was suddenly in line for his third of the Series. He would get it. Team Blue added four more runs the next inning, and they would go on to win by a score of 9-2.

At long last this Dodger team had the World Series title it had been unable to capture during the previous decade. It would prove to be the last hurrah for the famed Dodger infield as well, as second baseman Davey Lopes was traded to Oakland the following offseason. The World Series MVP Award was shared by Ron Cey, Guerrero and Yeager, as each of them had come up big with the bat. Valenzuela's amazing year netted him not only the Rookie of the Year Award, but the Cy Young Award as well, the first time any player had won both awards in the same year.


Baseball Reference
Baseball Almanac
Google News Archives
"The 1981 Baseball Strike,"