Monday, May 7, 2012

1981 World Series: Sweet Revenge

The Teams
National League: Los Angeles Dodgers (63-47) - Eighth World Series (won in 1959, 1963, 1965)
American League: New York Yankees (59-48) - 33rd World Series (won 22 previous times)

What Happened
The strike-shortened 1981 season was, in a word, weird. With the season split in half because of the players' strike, there were some weird postseason berths: the Reds and Cardinals were the best teams in their respective divisions in the National League, but neither made the playoffs, while the Yankees made the American League playoffs despite being only the fourth best team in the AL East.

The main positive storyline of the 1981 season was the Dodgers' rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela, whose unusual windup and unhittable screwball made him the best pitcher in baseball. His 13-7 record didn't do his season justice, as his league-leading 11 complete games and 8 shutouts helped make every one of his starts a must-see event. Valenzuela helped draw Hispanic fans to Dodger stadium in larger numbers than ever before and he lead the Dodgers through the extended the playoffs and into the World Series.

If the 1981 regular season was unusual, the World Series matchup was not. For the third time in five years, and the 11th time in history, the Dodgers and the Yankees met in the World Series. And while there were many of the same players from when the Yankees beat the Dodgers in back-to-back Series in the late 70s, there were enough differences - most notably Valenzuela - to make people think the Dodgers had a much better chance.

The first two games, though, made it look like it'd be the same old song, as the Yankees won the first two games in Yankee Stadium rather easily. But the Dodgers had Valenzuela on the mound at home for Game 3, and after Ron Cey's three-run home run in the first inning, they seemed to be in the clear. Valenzuela gave up the lead in the fourth, but like any good ace, he got stronger as the game went along, giving the Dodgers a chance to reclaim the lead, which they did on a double-play ball in the fifth. Having given up one lead, Valenzuela made sure not to do it again. Helped by a double play on a bunt popup in the eighth, he threw yet another complete game, throwing 145 pitches to give the Dodgers their first win of the series.

The runs came easily in Game 4, as the Yankees took a 4-0 lead into the third and a 6-3 lead into the sixth. Then the Dodgers responded with three in the sixth to tie and two in the seventh, then held on to tie the series. Game 5 was another come-from-behind win, as the Dodgers could do nothing against Yankees ace Ron Guidry for six innings. They were trailing 1-0 before back-to-back home runs by Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager gave them the lead and, eventually, the ballgame.

Taking a series lead back to the Bronx, the Dodgers wasted no time clinching the series. Yeager, Cey, and Guerrero drove in runs to give the Dodgers a 3-1 lead after five, and then they pile don with four runs in the sixth. It all lead to a 9-2 win, clinching the Dodgers first title since 1965 and giving them sweet revenge for 1977 and 78.

Defining Game
Game 5 was defined by the back-to-back home runs by Guerrero and Yeager to let the Dodgers tie and then take the lead, but those home runs might have been rendered moot if the Yankees had done a better job of taking advantage of their early opportunities. They scored on the second after a dropped popup, but left two runners on base that inning. They got two runners on base with one out in the third but couldn't score, then loaded the bases with one out in the fourth with nothing to show for it, done in partially because of a failed bases-loaded squeeze bunt. Whether you want to credit Dodger starter Jerry Reuss or blame the Yankees weak bats, the Dodgers were still in a game when they had no business to be, giving Guerrero and Yeager a chance to play hero.

The voters either had no idea what to do for this World Series, or they just wanted this long, strange season to be done. Whatever the reason, they picked three co-MVPs for the series. Ron Cey and Pedro Guerrero were decent enough choices, as they led the Series in runs driven in, but Steve Yeager was an odd choice. In any case, it's hard to call a player the MVP if you can't decide on just one of them. I'd have voted for Guerrero - his hits came at more crucial times, and he had five runs batted in in the clincher.

(Home team shaded; winners in Bold)

Los Angeles 305 829
New York 534 712

The List
I'm ranking all the World Series, from worst to best. Here are the ones I've done so far:

65. 1981 - Los Angeles (N) def. New York (A) 4-2
66. 1943 - New York (A) def. St. Louis (N) 4-1
67. 1954 - New York (N) def. Cleveland (A) 4-0
68. 1978 - New York (A) def. Los Angeles (N) 4-2
69. 2006 - St. Louis (N) def. Detroit (A) 4-1
Numbers 70-79
Numbers 80-89
Numbers 90-99
Numbers 100-107

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