Donkey Kong and MTV made their debuts. Metallica forms in Los Angeles. Muhammad Ali fought for the last time and the Rochester Red Wings and Pawtucket Red Sox played the longest professional baseball game ever, a 33 inning, 8 hour and 25-minute affair.
Raiders of the Lost Ark dominated at the movie theater. The music scene was grim. John Lennon and REO Speedwagon had a couple of hits but the rest of the year was mostly unadulterated trash. Do you remember what the #1 song was of 1981? Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes. Is anyone listening to that today? Bonus points if you can name the first band and video to play on MTV.
An unknown musician named Prince opened for the Rolling Stones, in LA, and came on stage wearing nothing but bikini briefs and a trench coat. The audience booed him off the stage and threw beer cans at him. 1981 was some kind of a messed-up year.
Inflation in the United States was running at a 10.35% clip and the Dow Jones Average closed the year at 875. Bob Ross left the United States Air Force, grew an afro, promised to never scream again and started painting happy trees. The world of art would never be the same.
Messed up would be an apt description of the 1981 baseball season. There were some good things. Bob Gibson was elected to the Hall of Fame. Incredibly, 64 writers did not vote for his induction. Evidently, they never saw the man pitch.
Fernando Valenzuela made his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Charlie Lea threw a no-hitter, the first ever in Montreal, and Cleveland’s Len Barker tossed a perfect game. Nolan Ryan threw his fith career no-hitter. The Dodgers finally beat the Yankees for the World Series title. Cal Ripken Jr. made his debut on August 10 in a game against Kansas City.
Tired of being slapped around by Marvin Miller on the issue of free agency, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the owners demanded compensation for losing a free agent player to another team. The two sides could not come to an agreement so on June 12th, Major League Baseball went on strike. By the time the sides reached an agreement, almost 40% of the season had been lost. Play resumed on August 9, with the All-Star game, which was held at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Despite record attendance for the All-Star game (72,086), attendance dropped in 17 of the 24 major league cities once play resumed.
The owners elected to split the season in two halves, with the first and second half division winners both earning playoff berths. This led to some unusual issues. Cincinnati complied the best record in baseball at 66-42 but finished second in both halves of the season and missed the playoffs entirely. Kansas City, on the other hand, became the first and only team in baseball history to qualify for the post-season with a losing record (50-53 overall).
Following their first ever World Series appearance, the big question for Royals fans was “where do we go from here?” 1980 had been a magical year. George Brett flirted with the mythical .400 batting average all summer and had the greatest batting season ever by a Kansas City player. The Royals methodically dispatched the hated Yankees in three games in the Championship Series before losing to the Phillies in a six game World Series.
Kansas City was not immune to the off-season strife. Free agent catcher Darrell Porter offered to re-sign with a hometown discount, but General Manager Joe Burke, wary of Porter’s previous wild lifestyle, elected to let him walk. Porter signed on with former manager Whitey Herzog in St. Louis and during the five years he spent in Cardinal uniform, he produced almost 12 WAR, while Kansas City struggled to find a replacement. Jose Cardenal, Jerry Terrill and Marty Pattin retired, while Pete LaCock signed to play in Japan.
The Royals made a few minor moves, signing bench bats Lee May, Cesar Geronimo, Jerry Grote and former Minnesota Twins folk hero Bombo Rivera. They traded minor league outfielder Marvell Wynne for pitcher Juan Berenguer. Berenguer might have been the original “Gas Can” of Kansas City relievers. He never quite acclimated to the Midwest, pitching in eight games and giving up 21 runs in 19 2/3 innings before Burke mercifully sold him to the Toronto Blue Jays. Wynne went on to have a modestly productive eight-year big league career. Berenguer eventually found his mojo and from 1983 to 1990 put up some decent numbers, primarily the four seasons he spent with division rival Minnesota.
The five additions to the roster combined for 0.7 WAR with Rivera spending the entire season in Omaha. Star players Frank White, Hal McRae and Amos Otis spent most of the off-season grumbling about their contracts and rightfully so. The trio played a large role in the Royals winning four of the previous five Western Division crowns and wished to be compensated accordingly. The balance of power in Major League Baseball was shifting.
When the season did start, the Royals broke from the gate like a lame nag. By April 30th, the Royals stood at 3-10 and we’re already 11 games back of the red-hot Oakland Athletics. Combustible Billy Martin was in his second year as Oakland skipper and willed his team to a 20-4 start. Love him or hate him, Martin was a winner. If you had to select one person to manage a team for one season and get the most out of his players, I can’t think of anyone better than Martin. Over his 16-year managerial career, Wild Bill went 1,253-1,013 with five teams, a sterling .553-win percentage.
There were some strange things that happened to the Royals in 1981. In the sixth inning of a May 29th game, Brett rolled a grounder to first for an easy out. Frustrated by the team’s (and his own) slow start, Brett blew a fuse and took a bat to the visitor’s bathroom at Metropolitan Stadium, inflicting over $2,000 of damages while destroying two defenseless toilets and a sink. Word must have gotten around, because when George came to the plate in the eighth, the Twins gave him a free pass. The 0-for-3 night was part of a miserable 2-for-12 series for George. In September, when asked about the incident, Brett got into an altercation with two reporters, which prompted an apology from General Manager Joe Burke. One of the reporters, Mike Fish, afterwards said that he intended to invite Brett to his next block party.
In a May 27 game at the Seattle Kingdome, Amos Otis laid down a perfect bunt. Mariner third baseman Lenny Randle dropped to his hands and knees and blew on the ball, trying to blow it into foul territory. The ball rejected Randle’s advances and Otis was awarded a single.
In a June 3 game against Seattle, at Royals Stadium, catcher Jerry Grote had a career day, going 3-for-4 with a grand slam and a then club record seven RBI. He also stole a base, the 15th and final stolen base in a 16-year career.
On September 30, the Royals and Twins played the last game ever at Metropolitan Stadium, with Kansas City winning 5-2. No word on the condition of the replacement toilets.
On October 5, the Royals beat the Indians 9-0 in what was supposed to be the first game of a double header. The win clinched the second half title for the Royals, which rendered the second game irrelevant. In a move that would have made Bud Selig proud, Major League Baseball cancelled the second game. That’s the type of year 1981 was.
The Royals went into the strike sitting in fifth place in the West with a record of 20-30. Many of the Royals took side jobs to help make ends meet. Pitcher Rich Gale took a job as a bartender at the Hyatt Regency and was working when the Hyatt walkway collapsed, a stunning tragedy that killed 114 people. The Royals resumed play on August 10 (the Ripken debut game) and after starting the second half with a 10-10 mark, Burke fired manager Jim Frey and replaced him with former Yankee skipper Dick Howser. The move proved to be a good one, as the Royals closed the season with a 20-13 run to capture the second half Western Division title with a mark of 30-23. You must give Burke some credit. He was not one to tolerate losing. Thanks to the strike and the oddball playoff structure, the Royals had now made the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. Winning had become expected not only by the fan base, but by the front office personnel and the players. In those days the Royals were often mentioned in the same breath as other powerhouse teams like the Yankees and Dodgers.
George Brett had a solid year, slashing .314/.361/.484. Willie Aikens led the team with 17 home runs. Willie Wilson stroked 133 hits in 102 games and stole 34 bases, both tops on the team. Clint Hurdle was on his way to the best season of his Kansas City career, slashing .329/.427/.553 in 28 games before a back injury derailed his season.
On the mound, Dennis Leonard was again a workhorse, throwing 201 innings and posting a 13-11 mark. Larry Gura chipped in with 172 innings and a 11-8 record. 21-year-old left hander Mike Jones came out of nowhere to post a 6-3 record. Dan Quisenberry was his usual solid self, posting 18 saves. The Royals broke in some young talent in 1981, most notably Rance Mulliniks, Atlee Hammaker and Ken Phelps. Unfortunately, all three were traded before the start of the 1982 season. The Royals also lost a young pitcher, Tom Candiotti, in the Rule 5 draft. Those four players accumulated over 70 WAR in their post-Royal careers, while the players the Royals received were good for 0.8 WAR. Ouch.
The playoffs weren’t much to talk about. The Athletics, led by budding superstar Rickey Henderson, pushed aside the Royals in three games, winning by scores of 4-0, 2-1 and 4-1.
The amateur draft was broken into two segments in 1981. In the January draft, the Royals selected Bill Pecota in the 10th round. In the June portion of the draft, the Royals selected USC outfielder Dave Leeper with the 23rd pick of the first round. They struck gold in the second and third rounds, drafting Mark Gubiza and David Cone respectively. They also selected Shane Mack in the 4th round but were unable to sign him. They did pick up Mack in a trade with Oakland at the tail end of the 1998 season. Mack got into 66 games in Kansas City before retiring. The 1981 draft was flush with talent, including stars such as Joe Carter, Kevin McReynolds, Ron Darling, Mark Langston, Frank Viola, Tony Gwynn, Paul O’Neill, Mark McGuire, Vince Coleman and a young Roger Clemens among others.
In November, the Royals embarked on a 17-game tour of Japan. The Royals went 9-7-1 during the tour and played against former Royal Tony Soliata, who had led the Japanese Pacific League with 108 RBI. One low light of the series was Japanese reliever Mitsuo Sumi striking out seven consecutive Royals.
1981 was one of those years that nobody ever reminisces about.