Leading Off …
Often an overlooked decade, 1980-89 was a time of change for the national pastime. In hindsight, it was the impetus for the steroid age. Indeed, if “chicks dig the long ball,” they were lonely in the ’80s; only 13 times did a player hit at least 40 home runs in a season:
- 1980 — Mike Schmidt (48)
- 1980 — Reggie Jackson (41)
- 1980 — Ben Oglivie (41) … career high; next highest total was 34 in ’82
- 1983 — Mike Schmidt (40)
- 1984 — Tony Armas (43) … career high; next highest total was 36 in ’83
- 1985 — Darrell Evans (40) … hit a career-best 41 in 1973
- 1986 — Jesse Barfield (40) … career high; next highest total was 28 in ’87
- 1987 — Andre Dawson (49) … career high; next highest total was 32 in ’83
- 1987 — Mark McGwire (49)
- 1987 — George Bell (47) … career high; next highest total was 31 in ’86
- 1987 — Dale Murphy (44) … career high; next highest total was 37 in ’85
- 1988 — Jose Canseco (42)
- 1989 — Kevin Mitchell (47) … career high; next highest total was 35 in ’90
It’s easy to lose sight of the high caliber of baseball played in the 1980s. After all, there was a lot going on outside the lines: the 1981 strike, the Pittsburgh drug trials, Pete Rose vs. Bart Giamatti, and the Bay Area earthquake.
Baseball owners enjoyed increased attendance, corporate sponsorship, and memorabilia sales. The players enjoyed skyrocketing salaries — and all the trappings that came with being flush with cash. It was a decade of decadence that promised not to end well …
• The strike began on June 12, 1981. By the time the players and MLB reached an agreement, 713 games — 38 percent of the season — had been lost. The owners demanded compensation for losing a free agent player to another team. The players maintained that any form of compensation would undermine the value of free agency.
In the settlement, teams that lost a premium free agent could be compensated by drawing from a pool of players left unprotected from all of the clubs rather than just the signing club. The players agreed to restrict free agency to players with six or more years of major league service.
• In the wake of the Pittsburgh drug trials, on Feb. 28, 1986, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended 11 players. (All the suspensions were commuted in exchange for fines and community service.)
Seven players — Joaquín Andújar, Dale Berra, Enos Cabell, Keith Hernandez, Jeffrey Leonard, Dave Parker, and Lonnie Smith — were deemed prolonged drug users who also had distributed to other players and were suspended for a full season. However, they were allowed to continue playing under the condition that they donated 10 percent of their salary to drug-abuse programs, submitted to random drug testing, and contributed 100 hours of community service.
Four players — Al Holland, Lee Lacy, Lary Sorensen, and Claudell Washington — were suspended for 60 days and were allowed to continue playing if they donated 5 percent of their salary and contributed 50 hours of community service.
Ten other players — Dusty Baker, Vida Blue, Gary Matthews, Dickie Noles, Tim Raines, Manny Sarmiento, Daryl Sconiers, Rod Scurry, Derrel Thomas, and Alan Wiggins — were named, but not suspended or punished. However, they were subject to random drug testing for the rest of their careers.
• Baseball began probing Rose’s gambling in February 1989. By August, the “Hit King” voluntarily accepted a permanent spot on the ineligible list. Special investigator John M. Dowd said there was substantial evidence — telephone records, signed checks, and betting sheets in Rose’s handwriting — but “no evidence was discovered that Rose bet against the Reds.”
Nonetheless, Commissioner Bart Giamatti banned Rose on Aug. 24, 1989:
Rule 21 Misconduct, (d) Betting on Ball Games, Any player, umpire, or club, or league official, or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.
• At 5:04 p.m. PT on Oct. 17, 1989, Al Michaels and Tim McCarver were warming up the ABC audience prior to Game 3 of the World Series at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Michaels abruptly announced they were experiencing an earthquake — the first major quake in the U.S. broadcast live on national TV.
Centered near Loma Prieta Peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the magnitude 6.9 earthquake devastated the Bay Area: 67 people died with more than $5 billion in damages.
Game 3 was delayed 10 days. When the World Series resumed, Oakland went on to sweep San Francisco behind MVP Dave Stewart (2-0, 3 ER in 16 IP with 14 strikeouts). It was the A’s first championship since 1974.
Despite the off-field shenanigans, there were highlights on the field:
• Rose broke Ty Cobb’s all-time hit record in 1985, and also established career records for singles, at-bats, plate appearances, and games played all of which had been set by Carl Yastrzemski earlier in the decade. Rose also set NL marks for doubles and runs scored.
• Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, and Bert Blyleven all struck out their 3,000th batter in the 1980s. Ryan and Carlton struck out their 4,000th batter in the decade, while Ryan became the first to strike out 5,000 in ’89.
• Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases in 1982 to pass Lou Brock’s single season record of 118.
• Rollie Fingers broke Hoyt Wilhelm’s career saves record in 1980 and established a career total of 341. Dan Quisenberry passed John Hiller’s single-season record of 38 by saving 45 games in ’83. Bruce Sutter matched that mark the next year, and Dave Righetti saved 46 in 1986.
• Roger Clemens won back-to-back Cy Young awards, while Brett Saberhagen and Carlton also won the award twice. In 1981, Fernando Valenzuela became the first (and still only) pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young award in the same season.
• And at Wrigley, there literally were ’lights on the field. The Cubs played host to their first night game on Aug. 8, 1988.
Around the horn …
The 1980s were the golden age of baseball on the big screen. (The all-time best boob tube film also came from the ’80s.) Collectively, this is a Hall of Fame starting nine:
• The Natural (May 11, 1984) — “Pick me out a winner, Bobby” gets me every time. … And, you know, Kim Basinger.
• The Slugger’s Wife (March 29, 1985) — Among baseball movies, this is everyone’s drunk uncle; you just love it because. … And, you know, Rebecca De Mornay.
• Brewster’s Millions (May 22, 1985) — None of the above!
• Long Gone (May 23, 1987) — HBO’s love letter to the game was Bull Durham before … well, for 13 months. And, you know, Virginia Madsen.
• Bull Durham (June 15, 1988) — “Alright meat, show him your heat.” … Crash Davis is my spirit animal.
• Stealing Home (Aug. 26, 1988) — OK, so I like chick flicks (but this one has baseball, so it’s dude-approved).
• Eight Men Out (Sept. 2, 1988) — Say it ain’t so, Joe.
• Major League (April 7, 1989) — “Yo, bartender, Jobu needs a refill.” … And, you know, Rene Russo.
• Field of Dreams (May 5, 1989) — “Hey, dad — you wanna have a catch?” … And yes, I went to Iowa for reasons I could not fathom. It was everything — and then some.
Short hops …
• Joe Charboneau — the name just makes you feel good. Summers in Cleveland may have been more enjoyable if “Super Joe” had stayed healthy after his 1980 rookie of the year season. Charboneau was the epitome of woulda, coulda, shoulda for the Indians, who were 79-81 in ’80. Maybe the Tribe woulda been a contender. Some believe Cleveland coulda had more winning seasons in the 1980s. I think the Indians shoulda focused on pitching and defense. GMs Phil Seghi, Joe Klein, and Hank Peters had other ideas — and the Indians went 710-849-2 from 1980-89 with one winning season (84-78-1 in ’86) other than the strike year of ’81 (52-51). Joe Posnanski remembered “Super Joe” when he turned 60 in 2015.
• While strolling down memory lane last week, I came across a 1980 Topps card that was immediately recognizable to 13-year-old me. Harry Chappas. I wasn’t a ChiSox fan but we did have WGN and the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal did have box scores. Still, the only memory of Chappas is that card. Who was he? Well, seems he may have been a Bill Veeck gimmick; at 5-foot-3/4/5 (depending on who’s doing the measuring) perhaps in Veeck’s mind Chappas was a throwback to Eddie Gaedel. Whatever the case, Chappas played in 72 games across parts of three seasons (1978-80). But hey, not everyone gets to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated …
• Imagine being a third baseman. Imagine being drafted. Imagine being a third baseman drafted by the Phillies. In 1974. Playing time was going to be scarce, considering Mike Schmidt was beginning a stretch of 30-plus homers in 13 of the next 14 seasons. … Jim Morrison was that guy. He debuted with Philadelphia in 1977 and was traded to the White Sox in ’79 — the same year Topps featured him as a Phillies Prospect, along with Lonnie Smith and Jim Wright. Imagine the surprise when I saw Jim Morrison’s hometown was listed as “Aberdeen, Mississippi,” which is where I grew up. Well, turns out Jim is actually from Pensacola, Florida, but he did marry a girl from Aberdeen. Morrison averaged 11 HR and 43 RBI between 1980-88, mainly with the White Sox and Pirates — but here’s your “It’s a Small World After All” moment: Jim’s daughter went to high school in Florida with a guy I worked with years later at Turner Sports.
• I have no idea why “rookie of the year” used to mean something to me. The 1980s should have taught us all something about being caught up in the moment. For Joe Fan, one player stands out for all the right reasons, but at least five make the case for what not to do when blessed with fame and fortune:
- 1980 — Joe Charboneau
- 1981 — Dave Righetti
- 1982 — Cal Ripken Jr.
- 1983 — Ron Kittle
- 1984 — Alvin Davis
- 1985 — Ozzie Guillén
- 1986 — Jose Canseco
- 1987 — Mark McGwire
- 1988 — Walt Weiss
- 1989 — Gregg Olson
- 1980 — Steve Howe
- 1981 — Fernando Valenzuela
- 1982 — Steve Sax
- 1983 — Darryl Strawberry
- 1984 — Dwight Gooden
- 1985 — Vince Coleman
- 1986 — Todd Worrell
- 1987 — Benito Santiago
- 1988 — Chris Sabo
- 1989 — Jerome Walton
• To prove winning isn’t everything, the New York Yankees won more games in the 1980s than any other team — and had zero World Series titles to show for it, the first decade since the 1910s that the Yankees did not win at least two championships. Likewise, the Reds and Pirates had dominated the 1970s — MLB-best six seasons in the playoffs for both — but combined for zero postseason appearances in the ’80s. The five franchises with the most wins in the ’80s:
- Yankees — 854-708
- Tigers — 839-727 (one World Series championship)
- Royals — 826-734 (one World Series championship)
- Dodgers — 825-741 (two World Series championships)
- Cardinals — 825-734 (one World Series championship)
The Closer …
The guy’s name is Michael Jack Schmidt — what else did you expect but a dude who’d jack a ball over that wall, and jack a ball over that fence, and jack a ball over yonder — waaaay over yonder. And yet, Mike Schmidt — 548 HR, 1,595 RBI, three-time MVP — is likely the most overlooked Hall of Famer who came of age in the 1970-80s.
Thing is, Schmidt wasn’t even Philadelphia’s most coveted player in the 1971 draft; the Phillies chose Roy Thomas with the sixth overall pick. Schmidt, a shortstop at the University of Ohio, was the team’s second-round selection. (Yes, Roy Thomas.) … And with Larry Bowa already in the pipeline, it was inevitable that Schmidt would find another position.
Great third basemen of that era? The Human Vacuum, Brooks Robinson, was still doing his thing until the mid-70s. Mr. GQ, George Brett, was ramping up at that time. Pete Rose was winning championships with the Reds. Ditto Graig Nettles with the Yankees. Meanwhile, Schmidt and the Phillies were perennial bridesmaids — close but no cigar in the postseason.
But Schmidt was consistently doing his thing. His season averages as the Philadelphia starting third baseman were remarkable:
- 1973-79 — 33 HR and 95 RBI
- 1980-87 — 37 HR and 105 RBI
The argument could be made he was the hot corner’s player of the decade for the 1970s and 80s! Schmidt won MVP awards in 1980, ’81 and ’86. He was an all-star 12 times, won 10 Silver Slugger awards, and was elected to the Hall of Fame with 96.5 percent of the vote. Only Babe Ruth, Harmon Killebrew, Jimmie Foxx, and Mickey Mantle reached 500 homers in fewer at-bats than Schmidt.
In 1980, the Phillies reached the pinnacle. Philadelphia defeated Kansas City in Game 6 of the World Series for its first championship. GM Paul Owens was the architect of that team — and the man who had given Schmidt his first call to the big leagues on Sept. 12, 1972. Schmidt was named World Series MVP; he hit .381 (8-for-21) with six runs scored, two HR, and seven RBI.
Schmidt led the National League in home runs eight times, a record. He hit 30 or more homers 13 times in his career to tie Ruth, trailing only Hank Aaron’s 15 seasons. Ten times he won a Gold Glove. Schmidt ranked in the top 10 in on-base percentage 11 times. He was in the top 10 in RBI and extra-base hits 12 times. Schmidt was in the top 10 in home runs, slugging, and total bases 13 times. His numbers dwarf those of his contemporaries — and not just third basemen.
So yeah, when a list of the 10 best players of the 1980s does not include The Sporting News‘ player of the decade … well, you obviously don’t know Jack.