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1981 Baseball Season 1981 Baseball Season
1980/1982
National League West
FIRST HALF
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB    RS   RA
Los Angeles Dodgers             57   36   21  .632     -   237  170
Cincinnati Reds                 56   35   21  .625   0.5   262  231
Houston Astros                  57   28   29  .491   8.0   195  183
Atlanta Braves                  55   25   29  .463   9.5   201  236
San Francisco Giants            59   27   32  .458  10.0   222  224
San Diego Padres                56   23   33  .411  12.5   194  229
SECOND HALF
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB    RS   RA
Houston Astros                  53   33   20  .623     -   199  148
Cincinnati Reds                 52   31   21  .596   1.5   202  209
San Francisco Giants            52   29   23  .558   3.5   205  190
Los Angeles Dodgers             53   27   26  .509   6.0   213  186
Atlanta Braves                  52   25   27  .481   7.5   194  180
San Diego Padres                54   18   36  .333  15.5   188  226
National League East
FIRST HALF
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB    RS   RA
Philadelphia Phillies           55   34   21  .618     -   246  224
St. Louis Cardinals             51   30   20  .600   1.5   230  201
Montreal Expos                  55   30   25  .545   4.0   230  210
Pittsburgh Pirates              49   25   23  .521   5.5   210  178
New York Mets                   52   17   34  .333  15.0   175  236
Chicago Cubs                    54   15   37  .288  17.5   179  259
SECOND HALF
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB    RS   RA
Montreal Expos                  53   30   23  .566     -   213  184
St. Louis Cardinals             52   29   23  .558   0.5   234  216
Philadelphia Phillies           52   25   27  .481   4.5   245  248
New York Mets                   53   24   28  .462   5.5   173  196
Chicago Cubs                    52   23   28  .451   6.0   191  224
Pittsburgh Pirates              54   21   33  .389   9.5   197  247
American League West
FIRST HALF
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB    RS   RA
Oakland Athletics               60   37   23  .617     -   249  192
Texas Rangers                   55   33   22  .600   1.5   269  216
Chicago White Sox               53   31   22  .585   2.5   250  193
California Angels               60   31   29  .517   6.0   267  246
Kansas City Royals              50   20   30  .400  12.0   181  230
Seattle Mariners                58   21   36  .368  14.5   213  286
Minnesota Twins                 57   17   39  .304  18.0   180  238
SECOND HALF
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB    RS   RA
Kansas City Royals              53   30   23  .566     -   216  175
Oakland Athletics               49   27   22  .551   1.0   209  211
Texas Rangers                   50   24   26  .480   4.5   183  173
Minnesota Twins                 53   24   29  .453   6.0   198  248
Seattle Mariners                52   23   29  .442   6.5   213  235
Chicago White Sox               53   23   30  .434   7.0   226  230
California Angels               50   20   30  .400   8.5   209  207
American League East
FIRST HALF
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB    RS   RA
New York Yankees                56   34   22  .607     -   226  198
Baltimore Orioles               54   31   23  .574   2.0   228  209
Milwaukee Brewers               56   31   25  .554   3.0   246  228
Detroit Tigers                  57   31   26  .544   3.5   221  219
Boston Red Sox                  56   30   26  .536   4.0   258  256
Cleveland Indians               50   26   24  .520   5.0   187  179
Toronto Blue Jays               58   16   42  .276  19.0   186  271
SECOND HALF
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB    RS   RA
Milwaukee Brewers               53   31   22  .585     -   247  231
Boston Red Sox                  52   29   23  .558   1.5   261  225
Detroit Tigers                  52   29   23  .558   1.5   206  185
Baltimore Orioles               51   28   23  .549   2.0   201  228
Cleveland Indians               53   26   27  .491   5.0   244  263
New York Yankees                51   25   26  .490   5.0   195  145
Toronto Blue Jays               48   21   27  .438   7.5   143  195
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By Patrick Mondout

The 1981 season was unique in a number of ways due to a prolonged player's strike. The most controversial aspect of the 1981 season was they way teams qualified for the postseason. It was decided after the strike was settled that the four teams in first place in their respective divisions when the strike began were already qualified for the postseason and that the teams that won their divisions in the second half would face them in a Division Series (i.e., first half AL West winner versus second half AL West winner) with the winners facing off in each League Championship Series. If the same team won both halves, the team with the second best overall second record would get in.1

The part that was controversial is that this decision was made after the season started. In other words, every team started the 1981 season believing it needed to be in first place on October 4th to be the lone participant from its division in the League Championship Series - as had been the case since divisional play began in 1969.

This eventually irked fans, players, and officials of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds, who each finished a close second in both halves, had the best records in each NL division, and failed to make the postseason. Their whining was unwarranted, however. More on that later.

Bowie Kuhn announced the new playoff format shortly after the All-Star game kicked off the second half. The announcement of the split season itself was met with derision from a press and public fed up with greedy owners and greedy players unable to avoid a strike, but it was a quirk in the hastily fashioned Division Series rules that led to the next bit of controversy. Former law student and White Sox manager Tony LaRussa figured out a way that he might be put in a position where he could get into the postseason by forfeiting the last four games of the season! It worked like this:

  1. Oakland won the first half division title in his AL West.
  2. The winner of the second half would face Oakland in the Division Series.
  3. UNLESS it was Oakland. Then, under the original playoff plan, it would be the team with the next best overall record from the division - not necessarily the team with the second best, second half record. LaRusa's Sox finished the first half 2 1/2 games behind Oakland and 1 game behind Texas. Kansas City was 9 1/2 games back.
  4. LaRussa calculated that if the A's had a one game lead over the Royals and a five game lead over his Sox with four to play in the second half, his out-of-the-running Sox - which still had an overall lead in the combined first and second half standings versus the Royals - could forfeit all four games of a theoretical series with the A's to sneak in through the back door since the A's would then have won both halves and the White Sox would have the second best overall record ahead of the Royals.2

Major League baseball did not enjoy the press clippings of LaRussa (or of at least 10 of his players) freely admitting to reporters that they would indeed throw games to get in to the postseason. Ironically, manager Whitey Herzog of the Cardinals also thought it worthwhile to suggest he'd play the system to get to the postseason, perhaps making him look perhaps less sympathetic in the resulting outcome.

Kuhn and the owners revised their plans to ensure there would be no way to lose your way into the playoffs by giving the second half winner (or runner-up, if a team won both halves) the postseason slot against the first half winner.

The owners thought it in the "best interest of baseball" (a phrase that almost always brings out the contrarian in me) to have all the teams back in the pennant race and to expand the playoffs in order to bring back the fan$. The resulting system gave all 22 teams that had not won a division in the first half a second chance to make the postseason. It was arbitrary, motivated perhaps by greed, but certainly fair and it made for the best odds ever to make the postseason.

I can understand how Cards and Reds fans might have wished for the season to simply have been resumed where it left off, but that by no means would have assured either team a place in the postseason, as I will point out below. It can be argued that a team such as the Dodgers were shafted by having to play an extra round in the postseason just to get to the NLCS. It may not be a very good argument, but it is at least as good as the pro-Cards and pro-Reds arguments.

Overall Standings for the 1981 Season showing the Cards and Reds in 1st are below.

The strike took place after the games of June 12th, but the player's union originally intended to strike on May 29th.  Take a look at the standings following the games of May 29, 1981 (they are about half-way down the page). You'll notice that it is St. Louis that is first place with the Expos a half game out. You'll also notice that the Reds are a full 5 and a half games behind the Dodgers (following a 5-2 victory by the Dodgers over the Reds that very day). Would there have been so much whining from those two cities had the strike ended the first half - as the players intended - on May 29th?4

But the strike was postponed and the Reds soon went on a seven game winning streak that only interrupted when the players finally struck. The Cards, meanwhile, went 7-5 after May 29th while Philadelphia went 9-2 and the Expos slumped to 5-7, enabling the Cards to pass the Expos, but still end up a game and a half behind the Phillies, when the first half ended. The first half stopping point may have been arbitrary, but that's life. Each team had just as much of a chance of winning the first half as the Dodgers and Phillies and better odds in the second half than LA and Philly did in the first, so there is no injustice there.

While the Cardinals and Reds finished close to first both halves, they did not win either half and both had their seasons end on October 4 along with 16 other teams. They did, however, have the best overall records in their respective divisions and the Reds actually had the best record in baseball. As absolutely everyone in baseball was aware as soon as the second half started that a team's overall record was completely irrelevant with regards to the postseason and given that the four first-half division winners coasted knowing they had nothing to play for in the second half, there is really no legitimate reason to bring it up overall records now. It does us no good to suggest that St. Louis and Cincinnati would have won their divisions under the old rules since Philly and LA would certainly have played with more enthusiasm once the season resumed if they had been fighting for their playoff lives instead of printing NLDS tickets.

Yet to this day you can still find fans who really think the Cardinals and Reds were shafted. They don't seem to realize that no two teams had ever had such an easy path to the postseason and that both teams simply blew it. Let me explain. Before the 1969 divisional realignment, you had one shot to make it to the postseason: you had to win the pennant in your league by having the best record (or winning a rare playoff in case of a tie). Starting in 1969, the postseason was expanded to include winners in each of two divisions in each league. The League Championship Series' determined the winners who then went on to the World Series. While you had a 1 in 8 shot (8 teams in each league from 1901-1960) or a 1 in 10 shot (1961-1968) at the postseason before, the LCS meant you had a 1 in 6 shot (6 teams in each division starting in 1969). What then were the odds for the Cardinals and Reds?5

Let's set aside the first half of the 1981 seasons since all teams had a 1-6 shot at winning the first half (even if they did not know it at the time). In the second half, the Reds and Cards - who already had one shot at the postseason in the first half - simply had to have a better second half record than the other teams in their division minus the top two teams! (The Dodgers were already in and the Reds finished second and the Phillies were already in and the Cards finished second; the Cards and Reds did not have to compete with the best teams in their division nor the second best (themselves).) This means that all the Cards or Reds had to do to get in the postseason was to hold off the teams that had finished 3rd through last in the first half. Not only were these the best odds ever at 1 in 5, but again - they only had to beat the worst teams in their own division. In fact, when you consider that teams in each division actually had an unprecedented 1 in 3 chance (2 teams from each 6 team division made the postseason) of making the '81 postseason, it is inexcusable to whine about failing to do so. That neither team was able tells us, I believe, more about the true nature of the '81 Reds and Cards than their irrelevant-then-as-now overall records do.

Some have also erroneously suggested the Reds were cheated because they played one less game than the Dodgers in the first half and only finished a half game back (presuming that if they had played one more, they would have won it and forced a tie). The number of games played had no meaning whatsoever as far as who was in the postseason. It was winning percentage (as it has been since 1893) and not the number of wins that got you to the postseason in 1981. If, for example, a game which the Reds lost in the first half would actually have been rained out (and not made up before the strike), they would have finished with two less games and a 35-20 record (.636) that would have placed the 36-21 (.631) Dodgers in second place. The Dodgers hardly had an advantage by playing one "extra" game. After all, which game was it? Did they win or lose it? Lastly, had the first half ended "on time" (May 29th), the Cardinals would have won the NL East despite playing five games less than the Expos and six less than the Phillies.

Both the Cards and the Reds went into the final week of the season with great shots at winning the second half. The Cards actually had a half game lead with 5 to play but went just 3-2 the rest of the way while the Expos went on a five game winning streak (before resting their starters in a meaningless season finale loss to the Mets) to win the second half. The Astros actually lost four of their last six games - including a split with Cincy - while the Reds finished one and a half games back of Houston after losing two of three at home to the 5th place Atlanta Braves. If they couldn't hold off the 3rd-6th place teams from their division in the second half, then what makes fans of these teams think they could have held off the defending champ Phillies or soon-to-be champion Dodgers in a "normal" season?

The Cards and the Reds each had a pair of shots at making the '81 postseason with the best odds that have ever been offered and couldn't get it done. They weren't shafted, they simply failed (twice each). I do not shed any tears of what might have been for the last gasp of the Big Red Machine or for Whitey Herzog's legacy (whose biggest blow would come four years later courtesy of Don Denkinger - that is, if you believe that myth).

If you want to look for someone who was shafted by the strike, look no further than Tim Raines. He had 50 steals in 56 games when the strike was called and was on a pace beyond what even Rickey Henderson would do a year later. Raines was injured after the season resumed and finished with a rookie record 71 in 88 games, though that mark was soon erased by Juan Samuel and Vince Coleman. Just how many steals might the second best leadoff man of all time have had in a "normal" season? His 1982 season was damaged by admitted drug use and he never stole with the same frequency. We missed one of the all-time single-season performances because of this strike.

1981 Calendar of Baseball Events/Games

January

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
                   1   2   3
   4   5   6   7   8   9  10
  11  12  13  14  15  16  17
  18  19  20  21  22  23  24
  25  26  27  28  29  30  31

February

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
   1   2   3   4   5   6   7
   8   9  10  11  12  13  14
  15  16  17  18  19  20  21
  22  23  24  25  26  27  28

March

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
   1   2   3   4   5   6   7
   8   9  10  11  12  13  14
  15  16  17  18  19  20  21
  22  23  24  25  26  27  28
  29  30  31        

April

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
               1   2   3   4
   5   6   7   8   9  10  11
  12  13  14  15  16  17  18
  19  20  21  22  23  24  25
  26  27  28  29  30   

May

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
                       1   2
   3   4   5   6   7   8   9
  10  11  12  13  14  15  16
  17  18  19  20  21  22  23
  24  25  26  27  28  29  30
  31             

June

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
       1   2   3   4   5   6
   7   8   9  10  11  12  13
  14  15  16  17  18  19  20
  21  22  23  24  25  26  27
  28  29  30          

July

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
               1   2   3   4
   5   6   7   8   9  10  11
  12  13  14  15  16  17  18
  19  20  21  22  23  24  25
  26  27  28  29  30  31 

August

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
                           1
   2   3   4   5   6   7   8
   9  10  11  12  13  14  15
  16  17  18  19  20  21  22
  23  24  25  26  27  28  29
  30  31         

September

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
           1   2   3   4   5
   6   7   8   9  10  11  12
  13  14  15  16  17  18  19
  20  21  22  23  24  25  26
  27  28  29  30   

October

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
                   1   2   3
   4   5   6   7   8   9  10
  11  12  13  14  15  16  17
  18  19  20  21  22  23  24
  25  26  27  28  29  30  31

December

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
           1   2   3   4   5
   6   7   8   9  10  11  12
  13  14  15  16  17  18  19
  20  21  22  23  24  25  26
  27  28  29  30  31    

December

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
           1   2   3   4   5
   6   7   8   9  10  11  12
  13  14  15  16  17  18  19
  20  21  22  23  24  25  26
  27  28  29  30  31    
1981 Calendar of Baseball Events/Games


Although the overall standings were completely irrelevant in determining who would be in the postseason due to the unique, somewhat arbitrary, and altered rules of the strike-shortened 1981 season, we have posted them here so that certain Cincinnati and St. Louis fans can continue to needlessly feel cheated two decades on.

OVERALL 1981 STANDINGS OVERALL 1981 STANDINGS
1980/1982
National League West
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB    RS   RA
Cincinnati Reds                108   66   42  .611     -   464  440
Los Angeles Dodgers            110   63   47  .573   4.0   450  356
Houston Astros                 110   61   49  .555   6.0   394  331
San Francisco Giants           111   56   55  .505  11.5   427  414
Atlanta Braves                 107   50   56  .472  15.0   395  416
San Diego Padres               110   41   69  .373  26.0   382  455
National League East
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB    RS   RA
St. Louis Cardinals            103   59   43  .578     -   464  417
Montreal Expos                 108   60   48  .556   2.0   443  394
Philadelphia Phillies          107   59   48  .551   2.5   491  472
Pittsburgh Pirates             103   46   56  .451  13.0   407  425
New York Mets                  105   41   62  .398  18.5   348  432
Chicago Cubs                   106   38   65  .369  21.5   370  483
American League West
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB    RS   RA
Oakland Athletics              109   64   45  .587     -   458  403
Texas Rangers                  105   57   48  .543   5.0   452  389
Chicago White Sox              106   54   52  .509   8.5   476  423
Kansas City Royals             103   50   53  .485  11.0   397  405
California Angels              110   51   59  .464  13.5   476  453
Seattle Mariners               110   44   65  .404  20.0   426  521
Minnesota Twins                110   41   68  .376  23.0   378  486
American League East
Team Name                        G    W    L   PCT    GB    RS   RA
Milwaukee Brewers              109   62   47  .569     -   493  459
Baltimore Orioles              105   59   46  .562   1.0   429  437
New York Yankees               107   59   48  .551   2.0   421  343
Detroit Tigers                 109   60   49  .550   2.0   427  404
Boston Red Sox                 108   59   49  .546   2.5   519  481
Cleveland Indians              103   52   51  .505   7.0   431  442
Toronto Blue Jays              106   37   69  .349  23.5   329  466

NOTES:
1. While 1892 also featured a split season, it was by design. The American Association no longer existed and the National League wanted to have a postseason series similar to the NL/AA contests of the previous decade, so it split the season in two to allow the winners from each half to square off in a postseason championship series. That was the only year Major League Baseball had a split season by design and 1981 was the only other split season.
2. Kansas City, of course, did have a great second half and made the playoffs. But only the Angels played worse in the American League than LaRussa's Sox in the second half.
3. The strike was delayed by two weeks pending hearings into an injunction by the player's union. The judge gave the sides 48 hours to work something out on June 10th effectively announcing the strike for just after the games of June 12th.
4
. The standings of May 31st also show that the Baltimore Orioles - not the 4th place Yankees (who soon went on a 9 game winning streak) - would have won the first half had the strike happened "on time."
5. The American League odds were slightly worse at 1 in 7 for each half or 2 in 7 overall. Baltimore and the Rangers had the second best overall records but participated in little, if any, self-indulgent whining.

References

Total Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia by John Thorn, et al.
2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia by Gary Gillette (Editor), Pete Palmer (Editor).

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--Patrick Mondout



 

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