Baseball was screwed. Summer was screwed. We were screwed.
It was 25 years ago today that the world as we knew and cherished it stopped spinning. It was the first day of the Baseball Strike of 1981.
They killed the game. It would never be the same. Yet here we are, a quarter-century later, happily rolling along, save for the next thing that will smash baseball to bits.
I had a t-shirt that attested to what was true then as it is true now: I Survived The Baseball Strike of 1981. I did. Because I did, I made it through the one that derailed 1994 and 1995, including the World Series in the middle, standing on my head. I’ll make it through whatever round of revelations regarding steroids and HGH comes next.
Nothing could be worse than 1981. Nothing could be worse than having the heart ripped out of your summer.
It wasn’t the first strike ever. A job action delayed 1972’s start by a week or so. That was no fun, but it ended quickly. Various labor pains inflicted themselves on spring trainings through the years, but those seasons started and ended. This, though, in 1981, was positively gloomy.
Consider the date: June 12. Where I’m from, school was about to end. Hell, I was about to graduate. I’d been looking forward to filing away for posterity my own personal trivia question: What was the score of the Mets game on the day I graduated from high school? The answer? Nothing-Nothing. The Mets didn’t play on June 21, 1981. No Major League Baseball team did. I know the Tidewater Tides played the Columbus Clippers. I don’t recall who won.
My diploma aside, summer was at hand. Summer meant baseball. Even if it was bad baseball, as the summer of 1981 surely promised for us, it would be better than no baseball.
The ’81 Mets, as mentioned here on Memorial Day, were off to a dreadful start but had revealed a pulse in late May. It had weakened by early June. The encouraging 7-3 stretch that had me dreaming of miracles had pumpkined right back into a 2-7 skid. Our last win was ironic in the long view: Mike Scott beat Bob Knepper in Houston on June 7. Our last loss, on June 11, was to Cincinnati at Shea. Want irony? Tom Seaver beat…yes, Pat Zachry, with homers from Dave Kingman (for us) and George Foster (for them). The last home run hit anywhere in the bigs was by Tom Paciorek in Seattle. Then baseball turned out the lights.
Our final record: 17-34. Did I say “final”? It felt like it. It felt like there would never be baseball again. Nobody offered any hope that the strike would be settled. The owners dug in. The players were recalcitrant. The issue was compensation for free agency. All teams were getting for losing players was an amateur draft pick. They wanted more. Players were fine with how it was.
This sucked! I was still mentally wrapped up in the afterglow of The Magic Is Back from the year before and now I had no outlet for it.
The mercy airings of Tides games on WMCA sounded better than they sounded, if you know what I mean. That wasn’t going to do it.
The graduation present I requested and received, a replica 1981 Mets jersey (sporting goods store iteration, but at least the blue and orange piping around the sleeves were on target), just reminded me that there were no games to wear it to. That wasn’t going to do it.
The Post reprinting Mets stories from 1969 (and 1961 for the other team in town) was interesting, but unfulfilling. That wasn’t going to do it.
Sportsphone running a Strat-O-Matic World Series between the ’69 Mets and the ’78 Yankees was amusing (I think we won) but not real. That wasn’t going to do it.
NBC filling its Game of the Week slot with the sixth game of the 1975 World Series was unique, but it was old. That wasn’t going to do it.
Only one thing would do.
I WANTED METS BASEBALL!
It wasn’t available.
What was the point of summer if there were no Mets at 570 on your AM dial or on Channel 9 on your television. It felt starkest of all on the Fourth of July. Could you imagine a July 4 without a baseball game? Didn’t have to, it was here and barren. It was raining in New York. The Mets were supposed to be in Pittsburgh. Channel 9 showed 1776, even then my all-time favorite movie musical, and it couldn’t cheer me up. The eagle inside may have belonged to us, but if the egg wasn’t going to hatch a Mazzilli on second with two out, Bailor coming to the plate as the potential tying run, then to hell with Great Britain and to hell with Channel 9.
At 18, I was sigh young all summer. Shortly after the Fourth, I flew to Tampa for freshman orientation: FOCUS. One session required each of us to draw a picture expressing who we were, what was important to us. I drew a Mets logo with the message WORLD CHAMPIONS 1982 over it. 1981 was already a lost cause. And I probably seemed not too far behind to my prospective classmates.
FOCUS was in and out. The rest of that week in Florida came and went. I returned home. Nothing to cheer for, nothing to get excited about, nothing to live for…until July 31.
THE STRIKE WAS OVER!
Not right away. The Mets and their colleagues couldn’t just start playing that night. They had to get in shape. But they would do that over the next ten days. In the meantime, there’d be an All-Star Game in Cleveland, the only contest cancelled by the strike to be made up. Joel Youngblood, leading the world in hitting if you weren’t picky about how many at-bats he had, would be our rep. And the Mets would salve our feelings further by scheduling an intrasquad game one afternoon that was open to the public and a home-and-home exhibition series between themselves and the equally pathetic Blue Jays.
I went to the Mets vs. Mets game. I went to the Blue Jays at Mets game. (I had my choice of seats for both.) If they’d have let me, I would have gone to Doug Flynn’s house and asked if anything needed tidying up. It was the first of several episodes in which I would prove my fealty to baseball despite the handwringing that insisted baseball would have a tough time winning the fans back.
Back? Back? I never left.
Put a baseball game in front of me and you can do anything to me. Go on strike again or lock out your personnel? I’ll wait. Hide the fact until you can hide it no longer that your most storied sluggers are frauds? A mere detail. Let it seep out reluctantly that everybody and his caddy are on some kind of juice? All I ask is you keep your eye on the ball. Raise prices, get in bed with Fox, trade favorites, hire brain-challenged managers and promote skeevy GMs? As long as I can watch, do what you want. I’ll be there. I was there in 1981. I’m here today.
The first game after the strike, the first game at all, was the Mets and Cubs at Wrigley. The first home run was hit by Bill Buckner. Paciorek hit the last one. Buckner hit the first one. They had been teammates on the Dodgers’ World Series squad of 1974. I would stump the host and win a McDonald’s gift certificate on WFLA in September with that nugget. Paciorek would become a 1985 Met. Buckner was just a real good hitter. Kingman hit the game-winning homer in Chicago. He hit the last pre- and first post-strike homer for the Mets. He hit all our homers. Thanks to a tantalizing split-season format drawn up to intrigue fans who weren’t as easily charmed as I was, we were all alone in first place by the end of that afternoon.
We weren’t 18-34. We were 1-0.
Since it was a separate season, I guess I can say my first Home Opener was August 14, 1981. There was a long line of walkups, the longest in Mets history, it was said. They were giving away caps but me and my friend Todd had to settle for vouchers since they ran out. My sister cashed it in for me while I was at school and sent it to me there. I wore it proudly as my main Mets cap for a decade. It’s mesh, the NY is too big and the whole thing is faded. I still put it on for luck now and then.
The Mets lost that Home Reopener. I sat next to a cranky old guy you don’t get too many of anymore. He was muttering about Falcone not finding the strike zone. I made a wan joke about assistant pitching Bob Gibson helping him with his attitude. The cranky old guy said Falcone didn’t need an attitude, he needed to find the plate. The cranky old guy was right. Joel and I went the next night. Terry Leach made his first Major League start. The Mets won. It was the first Mets’ win I witnessed in more than two years. Snapped a personal losing streak of seven. I stayed up all night just thinking about that.
The Baseball Strike of 1981 was already paying dividends. It, like Y2K was supposed to in a great episode of My Name Is Earl, shuffled the deck. We were no longer on the bottom. We were on top of the N.L. East on August 18. Never mind that we had played 59 games in 1981 and had lost 36. In the standings, we were 6-2. This strike could be good for us.
That didn’t last, but some other legacies endured — besides whatever didn’t kill my fervor making it stronger.
The 1981 Postseason
What a bizarre setup. The teams in first on June 12 essentially got a bye. Then the start-fresh period began August 10. If you had the best record thereafter, you were the second-half winner. There was some question about what happened if the same team won first and second halves and something had to be adjusted on the fly once it was realized it was possible to throw games to ensure yourself a weaker opponent or something. Nothing like that happened, but people in Cincinnati and St. Louis were upset because their best divisional records for all of 1981 went for naught in the end. Screw them, even Seaver, I thought. Everybody knew the rules on August 10. You shoulda won more games late.
Hence, we were introduced to the concept of the divisional series and the three-tiered playoffs. It was a one-off, but when baseball instituted it for good in the mid-’90s, I felt I had some practice at it. This system also allowed the Montreal Expos their one and only crack at October and they made good on it, winning a dramatic divisional series against the Phillies. They would meet the Dodgers who won an even more dramatic divisional series against the Astros. The two winners would play one of the best NLCSes ever, decided on Rick Monday’s ninth-inning homer at The Big O off Steve Rogers, pitching in relief. It was taut and breathtaking and disappointing if you were, like me, on the Expo bandwagon that month.
The American League wasn’t nearly as entertaining. The Brewers forced the Yankees to five games, with Pete Vukovich throwing up between innings in the fifth game, but the Yankees outlasted their challengers. They beat Billy Martin’s A’s who had beaten up the composite sub-.500 Kansas City Royals. Nettles and Jackson slugged it out at a team party in Oakland after winning the pennant.
Pissed me off that for all the cleverness of the split season, we wound up with the Yankees and Dodgers. What was the point? It was said that this was the best possible matchup from a saving-baseball standpoint (sort of like the powerhouse Braves and Indians were, supposedly, in 1995), but it felt disgustingly inevitable. When the Skanks went up 2-0, it was crap accompli. But then the Dodgers turned it around and won four straight and embarrassed the Yankees and suddenly Steinbrenner was taking out ads apologizing to New York and claiming he fought Dodger fans in an elevator and Reggie was being allowed to walk away and the Yankees ran out and grabbed Dave Collins for 1982 and stumbled home to a 79-83 record, not to see an LDS or an LCS again for a generation. So it wasn’t such a bad conclusion.
The Compensation Pool
The strike’s big issue, free agent compensation, was settled thusly: Somebody signs your player, you get to pick another player from somewhere else, someone left unprotected in something called the Compensation Pool. It was at once inequitable since a team that had nothing to do with the signing could be affected and completely equitable because everybody had a chance at being taken. The White Sox, for example, lost a free agent after 1982, I don’t remember who, and decided to pick Ferguson Jenkins from the Cubs. Bowie Kuhn talked them out of it. You can’t go taking a signature pitcher from a franchise that was struggling and had only recently brought him back. Think of the goodwill that would be destroyed!
A year later, the White Sox lost Dennis Lamp to the Blue Jays as a free agent. So they used their compensation pick to draft Tom Seaver from the Mets. Bowie Kuhn didn’t do a damn thing to stop them.
Tom Seaver notched his seventh win of 1981, over the Mets and Pat Zachry, the night before the strike. In the second half, he would excel (another seven wins for a 14-2 total and a case for a fourth Cy Young that he didn’t receive). But then he got hurt, falling to an unSeaverlike 5-13 in ’82. Neither Tom nor the Reds were terribly terrific anymore. Bygones were now bygones and the Mets’ new ownership brought him back to Shea. He spent one feelgood year in New York but — perhaps figuring the Jenkins gentlemen’s exception was in effect — was then left unprotected for anybody in the White Sox’ position to pluck. So the Sox said to Seaver, we’ll pluck you.
Pluck you, indeed.
On paper this was worse than the first Seaver trade, the one that plopped him in Cincinnati. Say what you will about Zachry, Flynn, Henderson and Norman. They were players. I don’t mean that in the “they could really play” sense. They technically played baseball, which is the least you could ask for from guys whose task it was to be exchanged for Tom Seaver. Seven years later, the Mets got zero from the White Sox (and the Blue Jays) as part of a second, unforeseen Seaver fiasco. Just a hatful of shame and more “same old dopey Mets” publicity.
The pool was considered such a sham after this that it was negotiated out of the next CBA, leaving compensation, more or less, where it was: You lose a player, you get a draft pick between rounds — a sandwich selection. That’s how the Mets would gobble up David Wright, as a compensation pick for losing Mike Hampton to the wonders of the Denver Board of Education.
Meanwhile, Seaver’s departure, though never to be excused, did crack open the door for another righthanded flamethrower, 19-year-old Doc Gooden, to make the team in ’84 and set the stage for great things to come over the next three years. As they say in the Hampton household, maybe everybody went to school on the lessons learned from this experiment in compensation.
Willie, Mickey & The Duke
The only delightful thing to occur during the 1981 strike was the dissemination of a song I doubt we would have heard much otherwise. Terry Cashman had been in the music business for a good, long while and had some chart success as part of Cashman & West (“American City Suite”; “The King of Rock & Roll”). But it was his ode to the good old days of baseball that resonated in the summer of the strike. Almost as soon as the pickets went up, a music video (whatever that was) appeared on Warner Wolf’s sportscast, putting images to words. And the language of our game was altered.
New phrase: Talkin’ Baseball.
The beauty of “Willie, Mickey & The Duke,” from our perspective, is it was inspired by a photograph taken at Shea Stadium during Old Timers Day 1977. The four great New York centerfielders walked from their position to home plate. Mays, Mantle, Snider and DiMaggio. Cashman saw the picture and took it from there. Except it was hard to work four names into the title and Joe D. was on his last legs when the other three emerged as stars. So “Willie, Mickey & The Duke” it was. What a trip.
The Whiz Kids had won it
Bobby Thomson had done it
And Yogi read the comics all the while…
In three lines, Terry Cashman encapsulated the early 1950s in baseball, the images I, for one, had only read about. It was like a Baseball Digest crossword had come to life. The Thumper was Ted Williams, but who was Mel Parnell? (Lefty hurler; once won 25 games; rhymed with Midget Gaedel.) Ralph got a shoutout, as did Bob Feller and Ted Kluszewski and Stan Musial, but Cashman saved the marquee for the New Yorkers:
The Scooter, the Barber and the Newk
They knew ‘em all from Boston to Dubuque
Especially Willie, Mickey and the Duke
Long before Ken Burns realized New York had been the Capital of Baseball in the 1950s, Terry Cashman summed it up neatly in three lines. It all took place before the Mets, but that was OK, because the singer/songwriter linked the past to the present.
Well, now it’s the ’80s
And Brett is the greatest
And Bobby Bonds can play for everyone
Rose is at the Vet
And Rusty again is a Met
And the great Alexander is pitchin’ again in Washington
I’m talkin’ baseball
Like Reggie, Quisenberry
Carew and Gaylord Perry
Seaver, Garvey, Schmidt and Vida Blue
If Cooperstown is calling, it’s no fluke
They’ll be with Willie, Mickey, and the Duke
These verses were gorgeous. “Hey, there’s a song that mentions Rusty! And Tom!” He just captured the zeitgeist of baseball up to the moment. Yes, Brett was the greatest. In 1980, he hit .390 and played the World Series with a famous hemorrhoid. Bobby Bonds was, in fact, on his eighth team, the Cubs, in eight years (his first swing for them would be against the Mets right after the strike). And Rusty’s homecoming getting the same treatment as Pete Rose, who was big news for tying Stan The Man’s National League hit record? Terry and Rusty were pals, but still…this song got airplay. It made Billboard‘s Adult Contemporary chart. It was the only baseball of consequence on the radio. And there was Rusty Staub, right in the middle of it.
I wish Cashman had been more spot on in his Hall of Fame predictions. He was 2-for-4. I wouldn’t have dreamed Garvey wouldn’t make it, but to me he belonged (especially after helping slay the Yankees that October). Vida Blue? Not a lock by that point in his career, but how could that fine a songwriter resist such a mellifluous name?
Terry Cashman was rightly celebrated for “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey & The Duke)”. He became the strolling troubadour in baseball’s court, a role he has played with class since 1981. He also knew a good thing when he heard it. A year later, he was turning out a Met version (Joe’s gone south and Bambi got the call), a Yankee version and a version for just about every team. Me and a guy I met in college cracked each other up composing a Mariners’ rendition, the key phrase of which was “and then they got Perconte.”
The dude’s kept it up. I was in one of the Mets stores between the NLCS and the World Series in 2000 and found Terry had created a special Subway Series CD. There was even a line about how “the monster’s out of the cage,” alluding to a phrase (Stearns on Piazza) that hadn’t existed until a week before. Geez, I thought, this guy works fast. I fully expected an updated version within the hour:
It’s 62 and cloudy
First pitch is at 8:30
*NSync will sing the anthem just before…
Shoot, maybe Terry Cashman was the first Mets blogger. A musical one at that.
And 25 years after that otherwise spoiled summer, just look at us. We’re still talkin’ baseball.