In '81, Records Skipped

August 08, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

There are always victims. The great baseball strike of 1994 may leave the amazing performances of Matt Williams, Ken Griffey and Jeff Bagwell diminished in its wake, but it's not as if that's some new twist in the unhappy history of baseball labor relations.

Fernando Valenzuela was having a spectacular year when the 1981 season was interrupted for 50 days by a players strike. He was on pace to win 26 games and rewrite the record book for a rookie starting pitcher when a third of the season was wiped away.

Mike Schmidt was on his way to a career offensive performance, and managed to end up with 31 home runs and 91 RBIs in just 102 games anyway -- a spectacular full season for anyone else.

Strike means sacrifice. Today's players know it because yesterday's players lived to tell about it.

Valenzuela had opened his first season in the Los Angeles Dodgers' starting rotation with eight straight victories, igniting a Southern California phenomenon that became known as Fernandomania. His cherubic appearance and his otherworldly performance electrified Dodger Stadium for two months, but the most spectacular pitching debut in history was forced to take a two-month summer vacation.

"You had to follow the union," said Valenzuela, who finished the abbreviated 1981 season with a 13-7 record and won the National League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards. "That's how it was for everybody. I understood what was happening. I wasn't disappointed."

Still, it must have seemed very strange to a 20-year-old kid from Navajoa, Mexico, who had just hit the big time. He had not yet learned English, and he couldn't have understood all of the intricacies of baseball's labor situation.

"The next few years, we found out why it was good for us," Valenzuela said. "That's why we have a strong union."

Schmidt knew all too well what the issues were. He was in the middle of a stellar career that soon will carry him into the Baseball Hall of Fame and he was in the middle of the kind of season that made him one of the best-hitting third basemen in history.

If the season had not been interrupted, he had an outside shot at reaching 50 home runs and 150 RBIs, numbers that would have had a significant impact on his career earnings.

"I was off to the best start of anyone in the National League at the time," Schmidt recently told the Philadelphia Daily News. "I had a real shot at some off-the-wall statistics. I've always wondered about what I might have accomplished if there had not been a strike, but you can't lose sight of your livelihood.

"Players have to remember that a guy can make $7 million per year because guys supported the union. It's just something you have to deal with. It's a fact of life."

Valenzuela, now nearing the other end of an impressive career, doesn't allow himself to look back and wonder. It was a great year anyway.

"Who knows what would have happened?" he said. "I might have hurt my arm and never finished the season."

Instead, the Dodgers were granted the first-half championship when the players returned to work and Valenzuela traded the opportunity to win 20 games for a chance to pitch in the playoffs and World Series.

There were others who were far less fortunate . . . others who would not directly benefit from the players' victory in the longest labor standoff in baseball history.

Just ask manager John McNamara, whose Cincinnati Reds had the best record in the major leagues that year (66-42) and did not even make the extra divisional playoff series that was part of the hybrid split-season concept that was instituted to rekindle interest in the four division races.

The Reds were a half-game behind the Dodgers when the strike began, but only because they had fallen victim to a series of rainouts that had washed away early-inning leads. If those games had been made up -- as they would be during a normal season -- the Reds might have overtaken the Dodgers and supplanted them in the postseason tournament.

McNamara was incensed. He realized the implications immediately, though the full weight of the injustice would not be apparent until the Reds finished second to the Houston Astros in the second half.

"We were behind by seven percentage points and we were ahead in three or four ballgames that got rained out," said McNamara, who would later go to the World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 1986. "To this day, I don't think that decision was fair. I still think it was just done to help the big-market teams."

He was not the only one to harbor that suspicion. Major League Baseball was trying to dig out of a nightmarish situation and -- as luck would have it -- the four teams that were in first at the time of the strike all came from major media markets. The Dodgers, Phillies, New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics were seeded in the playoffs, and new mini-races were started in each division.

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