Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Year Baseball Screwed the Reds

IF YOU GOOGLE the phrase "best record in baseball 1981," then click the "images" tab, the first picture you're likely see is this one:

http://cincinnati.reds.mlb.com/cin/images/hof/y2011/1981_630x200.jpg

Still housed on the Cincinnati Reds' website, it depicts a dour, sour grapes celebration, and like all pictures it tells a story. It goes like this:

Major League Baseball doesn't recognize regular season champions in the manner of, say, the National Hockey League. There's no official trophy and no flag. So this one is atypical. The best-record reward is, rather, home field advantage for the league playoffs.  Once having secured said best record, said team is ordinarily permitted to participate in said playoffs. 
The 19-%$#@!-81 Reds Yearbook

And there was the rub for the '81 Reds.

Their prize for compiling baseball's best record 35 years ago was the knowledge of a job well done and and that disconsolate D.I.Y. pennant. They got to watch the playoffs -- all three rounds of them that year -- at home.

All of this because of the Baseball Strike of 1981, a labor/management dispute over compensation for teams losing players to other teams through free agency. What in retrospect seems little more than an asterisk in the history of MLB/MLBPA relations was casus belli that summer and -- spanning June 12 to July 31 -- it wiped out more a third of the MLB schedule.

The Reds played just 108 games that year, 54 less than in a standard season, and won 66, compiling a .611 winning percentage. The next-best NL record belonged to the St. Louis Cardinals, who played just 102 games and won 59, good for a .578 winning percentage. There would be no playoffs for them either.

The lords of baseball -- to give even those teams near or at the bottom of the standings when play stopped a chance at the playoffs when play resumed -- decreed the season would be split in two.

It was not a decision worthy of Solomon.

The four teams first place when the strike began were declared first-half "winners." Won/lost records were re-set to 0-0, and the races started anew. Second-half "winners" would play their first-half counterparts in big league baseball's first-ever division series.

George Foster, 1977 NL MVP, 1982 Reds Alumn
When play paused in June, the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies led the NL East, while the Los Angeles Dodgers perched atop the NL West. 

When the second half ended, they'd been supplanted by the Montreal Expos and Houston Astros. Guaranteed entry to the playoffs, the Phillies had slipped to third, 25-27, while the Dodgers, at 27-26, fell to fourth.

The consistent and unlucky Cardinals and Reds finished second in each half and -- in this pre-Wild Card era -- out of the dance. Uninvited. Montreal toppled Philly in the division series for their first and last NL East title. The Dodgers out dueled the Astros in the West, then extinguished the Expos, capturing the flag on foreign soil.

Fate proved a more kind in the American League where the Milwaukee Brewers and Oakland A's, who had the best combined AL records, each managed a first-place finish too. The Brewers fell to the first-half winner Yankees in the east while the A's deposed the Royals out west. The defending AL champs had earned their berth by winning the second half despite of an overall losing record, 50-53.

Los Angeles beat New York in the series, four games to two.

The Cardinals rebounded from their strike-year disappointment to win the 1982 World Series, beating the then AL champ Brewers in seven en route to becoming an NL power. St. Louis would return to the series again in 1985 and 87.

But for Cincinnati's mighty Big Red Machine, this was the end. The team that had finished first six times in the 70s, won four pennants and two world championships, vanished from the post-season for an entire decade.

Ken Griffey Sr. left the Reds for New York after 1981. In 1988, he came back.
That winter their starting outfield left for New York: George Foster via trade to the Mets, Ken Griffey Sr. and Dave Collins as free agents signed by the Yankees.

In 1982, the Reds finished last for the first time since 1937. They finished last again in '83.

The strike year also marked a turning point for Reds ace Tom Seaver, who posted a 14-2 record. Though his .875 winning percentage was baseball's best, the NL Cy Young Award went to Dodgers rookie phenom Fernando Valenzuela, who finished 13-7.

It was Seaver's last year as an elite pitcher. After slumping to 5-13 in '83, he was dealt to the Mets for whom he'd once starred. After just a single season there, in which he went 9-14, the man known to New York fans as "The Franchise" was left unprotected from the free-agent compensation pool fought over in 1981 and was claimed by the Chicago White Sox, who'd lost a pitcher to the Blue Jays.

After 1985, the use of Major League players as free agent compensation was scrapped in favor of amateur draft picks, the system still in use today.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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