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This Year in Baseball Could Bear Striking Resemblance to 1981

It was 1981--the year of living dangerously.

If you weren’t in first place when the major league baseball players went on strike, you were out of luck. The first half was over. You had to start from scratch.

Except nobody knew that. Nobody knew what baseball would do if the players walked off the job. Nobody knew, until it was too late, that the Dodgers, Phillies, Yankees and A’s would be declared first-half champions and given pieces of the pennant, just by virtue of leading their divisions on the day the employees took a hike.

It was a very bad year.

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By the end of it, the Kansas City Royals, who were 20-30 when the strike was called, came back to make the American League West playoff. Joke No. 1.

The Yankees, a dozen games above .500 when the strike was called, cruised home in sixth place for the second half, not worrying a bit because they already had qualified for the AL East playoff. Joke No. 2.

And the Chicago White Sox, who finished behind Oakland in the first half, offered proof in the second half that by losing certain games on purpose--enabling Oakland to win both halves--the playoff opponent for the A’s would become the team with the next-best overall record for the entire season, which could have turned out to be the White Sox. Biggest Joke of All.

The strike was called on June 11, 1981, a date that should live in infamy.

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Baseball was in stitches. Any team that messed up during the first three months of the season could go on strike on June 11, regroup, recover from injuries, buy new bats, see a hypnotist, whatever, and still have a shot at the World Series.

On the other hand, a team that sat solidly in second place on June 11--say, the Texas Rangers, who were 33-22 and 1 1/2 games out of first--had to make believe that those 55 games never happened. They were now 0-0, same as the Minnesota Twins, whose record when the strike was called was 17-39.

Minnesota won exactly as many games as Texas did in the second half, by the way. Joke No. 4.

Nineteen eighty-one was a year major league baseball’s fans will never forget, but sure will try to. Followers of the Dodgers do have some fond memories--like rallying from two games down to sweep the Houston Astros in the NL West playoff, then beating the Expos with Rick Monday’s ninth-inning home run on a rainy Monday in Montreal (Monday’s Monday), then winning the World Series at New York, which prompted a public apology to Yankee fans from George (Darth Elevator) Steinbrenner.

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The other 25 teams didn’t enjoy 1981 half as much. Particularly the Cincinnati Reds, who had the best overall record in the National League, without winning either half. Biggest Joke II, the Sequel.

About the only consolation anyone took from that season was that there would never be another one like it. The owners and players would never put themselves through such a thing again. They would never again run the risk of enraging the general public, especially those people who vowed never again to see another game. At last count, a reported three Americans kept that vow.

But here we are, in 1985, and here we go again.

The owners and players still can’t settle their differences. Subtle threats are heard--a boycott of the All-Star Game, for instance. The new commissioner keeps trying to keep this thing from getting out of hand. The fans are bracing for the worst.

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And the teams had better start checking the standings.

Because somebody in second place is going to regret it if 1981 history repeats itself.

“All I’ll say,” says Mike Port, vice president of the Angels, who moved into first place in the AL West over the weekend, “is that if on Oct. 6, if things don’t change standing-wise, I’ll feel good about our chances.” Which is not exactly a limb he is going on. The regular season will be over at that point.

“I wouldn’t really know how else to comment,” Port says. “Certainly nobody wants a work stoppage. I don’t think 1981 was much fun for anybody. But as far as being in first place is concerned, the nature of the game no matter what happens to be transpiring off the field is to win as many games as possible and stay in first place, or as close to first place as possible.”

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Sure, but being close to first place might not be good enough, should another strike be called.

“That’s true, but there’s not much you can do about it,” Port says. “You can’t do things any differently than you’re doing. It’s a race. All you can do is take the lead and try to hold it, or stay as close as possible and try to pass them on the turn.”

Jim Campbell, president of the defending champion Detroit Tigers, saw his boys run away with their division a year ago, when the only strike he was concerned about was the next one Willie Hernandez threw. This time, the Tigers find themselves looking up at the Toronto Blue Jays and hoping to make a move on them before it’s too late.

Too late could be Oct. 6. But it also could be in a week or two, if the peace talks break down and the players walk off.

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“I hate like hell to even think about that possibility,” Campbell says. “All I know is that 1981 was a pain. That whole season was upside down.”

It used to be that a baseball team took the pennant, then played in a World Series. In 1981, a team had to win a half of a division, then win a division playoff, then win a league playoff, then play in the Series. High school trigonometry was less complicated.

Detroit, 3 1/2 games out when the strike was called, had to start completely over. They did well again in the second half, which went down to the final weekend, a three-game series in Milwaukee. If the Tigers took two games, they earned the right to play the first-half champions, the Yankees, for the division championship. The Yankees in the second half played at a brisk .490 clip.

“Milwaukee beat us on Friday and Saturday and that was that,” Campbell recalls. “Meanwhile, all the Yankees had to do for three months was show up.”

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There is a scramble right now in all of baseball’s divisions, but since it is only June, baseball people are reluctant to refer to any series as crucial. Maybe they should reconsider. Maybe they should play every inning as if the pennant were at stake. Or at least a quarter of a pennant.

Maybe they should remember that if there’s a strike, everyone could start fresh. The bad teams could be reborn. San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Texas and Cleveland could win the second half, God forbid. Who knows? Perhaps this time, they might even declare first-half MVPs and batting champions. The games being played right now could turn out to be pretty damned important.

So, the first-place teams had better try hard to stay there.

“Hey, as far as intent goes, we’d better be trying to stay in first place,” Port says.

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After all, even the White Sox are trying to win games on purpose.


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