Mark Clark: Memories of the 1981 MLB season

Mark Clark: Memories of the 1981 MLB season

The 1981 Major League Baseball season was a strange one to say the least. The players went on strike from mid-June until the end of July. The All-Star Game was cancelled and then rescheduled for almost a month later. The best team in the sport did not reach the playoffs. Yes, it was a very strange season.

Two other strange things about the season were that a rookie pitcher had a very odd wind-up that had him looking to the sky as he stepped toward the plate to throw a pitch. He began the season with a perfect 5-0 mark, threw four complete games and had a miniscule 0.20 earned run average. And he was batting .400. That pitcher was Fernando Valenzuela of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In that 1981 season, Valenzuela was the Cy Young winner with a 13-7 record and 2.48 ERA. He led the league with 180 strikeouts, 11 complete games, eight shutouts, 25 games started and with 192 ½ innings pitched. He was also named the Rookie of the Year and won a Silver Slugger Award.

Another pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers won the Most Valuable Player Award and he was not even a starter. Rollie Fingers had 28 saves with a 1.04 He was the first relief pitcher to win the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award.

When the strike began, most people felt it would not last long. But it did – from June 12 to July 31. It was determined to play the season in two halves. The leaders at the end of the first half in each division would play the winners of the second half to start the playoffs in a 5-game series. The league championship series would also be 5-game series. The World Series would remain at a 7-game series.

In the American League, the New York Yankees won the East’s first half title with a 34-22 record. The Oakland A’s won the West with a 37-23 record. The Milwaukee Brewers won the second half with a 31-22 record and the Kansas City Royals won the second half in the West at 30-23.

In the National League, the Philadelphia Phillies won the East’s first half at 34-21 and Montreal won the second half at 30-23. In the West, Los Angeles won the first half with a 36-21 record and Houston won the second half at 33-20.

However, the overall winners were the Milwaukee Brewers at 62-47 in the American League East and Oakland A’s in the West at 64-45. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals were 59-43 to post the best winning percentage in the East while the Cincinnati Reds were the overall best team in the West with a 66-42 record which was also the best record in baseball that season. The Reds did not make the playoffs with that record and St. Louis missed out as well.

In the playoffs, New York bested Milwaukee 3-2 in the best of five series. Oakland defeated Kansas City 3-0 in the other American League series. In the National League’s two series, Montreal defeated Philadelphia 3-2 and Los Angeles defeated Houston 3-2. In the league championship series, New York defeated Oakland to win the American League 3-0. Los Angeles defeated Montreal 3-2 to win the National League title. And, in the World Series, Los Angeles beat New York 4-2 to win the overall title in Major League Baseball. The MVP Award for the World Series was divided more than the leagues were with Ron Cey, Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager claiming a share.

Today, in 2020, we are faced with an even stranger situation. The sport has been on lockdown due to the coronavirus since spring training. Opening Day will not take place until July 23 and 24. Players are to report to camp on July 1. Those camps will be the major league parks for each team as facilities in Florida and Arizona used for regular spring training have been shut down for deep cleaning due to the coronavirus.

There will be 60 players invited to the camps which will be reduced to 30 as the season begins, down to 28 after two weeks and to 26 after four weeks. The trade deadline is August 31 and players eligible for the playoffs must be on the roster by September 15. Isn’t this a whirlwind of activity in a short time?

Well, there is more. There will be only 60 games – 10 games against each of its four division rivals and 20 games against the opposite league’s corresponding geographical division. In other words, the NL East will play those 20 games against the AL East. The NL Central will play its 20 games against the AL Central and the NL West will play 20 games against the AL West. That is to cut down on travel.

Now for the very unusual rules for 2020 – both leagues will use the designated hitter and in extra inning games each half inning will begin with a runner on second base like the international tiebreaker used in softball. The only thing really missing so far is the computer calling balls and strikes.

Of course, all players will be tested for COVID-19 every other day. There will be separate injury list for players testing positive for the virus – separate from the new 10 and 45-day injury lists. Oh, players not expected to play on any given day will be in an area of the stadium away from the other players, such as the next day’s pitcher. Players on the bench must wear masks. There will be no spitting and no chewing tobacco allowed. Chewing gum will be allowed. There will be no hugs, fist bumps or high-fives allowed either. Now, if the leagues can stop players from taking five minutes to tighten gloves, draw in the dirt and take practice swings before stepping into the batter’s box and put a timer on pitchers, things will be right where they need to be.

Anyway, the 2020 baseball season will be a fun one to watch. And maybe, just maybe, a couple of these changes to the rules will catch on. Using the DH in both leagues is long overdue and using the tiebreaker in extra-inning games is a good idea to keep games from lasting forever.


Mark Clark is a local sports writer for The Citizen of East Alabama.