All-’80s Baseball Hoops Team

It’s NCAA Basketball tournament time and that can mean only one thing: Baseball!

Not only were the ‘80s a great decade for baseball, you could make a pretty solid hoops team from guys who played baseball in the 1980s. Here’s our team:

Point Guard: Tony Gwynn

Not only was Tony Gwynn one of the top hitters in baseball history, he was also a pretty good hoopster. Tony actually skipped the baseball season in his freshman year at San Diego State to focus on basketball. During his time at SDSU he set the single game, single season and career assist record and in addition to being drafted by the Padres, he was also selected by the San Diego Clippers in the NBA Draft.

Shooting Guard: Danny Ainge

This is a pretty easy selection. Danny didn’t hit much in his time with the Toronto Blue Jays, but he did OK once he switched to basketball full-time. He finished his career with nearly 12,000 points, more than 4,000 assists and two NBA championships. He also authored one of the great moments in NCAA tournament history.

Small Forward: Ron Reed

Reed’s path was the opposite of Danny Ainge. After a standout career at Notre Dame, the 6-5 Reed was drafted in the 3rd round of the 1965 NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons. He spent two season in the NBA, scoring just shy of 1,000 points. Before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, Reed was playing two professional sports at the same time. After finishing the 1966 NBA season, he pitched in two games for the Braves and went back to the Pistons.

Power Forward: Dave Winfield

Winfield was just a phenomenal athlete. In addition to being a Hall of Fame baseball player, he was also a stud basketball player at the University of Minnesota. Over the course of his career, he averaged 10.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and was drafted by both the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA and the Utah Stars of the ABA. Had he chosen the ABA, he could have teamed up with Moses Malone to form a pretty solid frontcourt.

Center: Tim Stoddard

Stoddard won a state title in high school, where he teamed up with future NBA player Junior Bridgeman, and then went to N.C. State where he teamed up with David Thompson and won an NCAA title by knocking off Bill Walton and UCLA. Not too shabby.

6th Man: Frank Howard

OK, Frank Howard was a coach in 1980, but he was also an incredibly talented basketball player. Howard went to Ohio State where he was an All-American in baseball and basketball in the 1950s. In a holiday tournament at Madison Square Garden, Howard once grabbed 32 rebounds in a single game.  In addition to being drafted to play major league baseball, he also was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors, which means he and Wilt Chamberlain could have potentially been twin towers in the NBA, predating Sampson and Olajuwon by decades.

Horner vs. Turner

Bob Horner almost never played for the Atlanta Braves and it would have been Ted Turner’s fault.

Turner purchased the Atlanta Braves in 1976 and immediately began upsetting the baseball establishment. Early in his tenure, Turner ran afoul of MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn over player tampering charges involving Giants outfielder Gary Matthews.

Ted Turner
Turner on Opening Day 1976

Kuhn summoned the maverick owner to his office and informed Turner that he was going to be suspended for his transgression and in addition, the Braves would lose their upcoming first round draft pick in the 1978 draft. The selection happened to be the overall number one selection.

Turner pleaded his case, telling Kuhn that he would be happy to serve a suspension but he didn’t want the Braves to lose their draft pick. Turner’s motivation for accepting the suspension was in part due to the fact that a suspension would allow him to focus on the 1977 America’s Cup which he and the crew of Courageous ended up winning. Kuhn relented and the Braves kept their pick in 1978 which was used to select Horner.

Horner made an immediate impact, slamming 23 homers in just 89 games and winning the Rookie of the Year Award. In 1979, his first full season, Horner hit .314 with 33 homers and 98 RBI. He was a star.

Horner struggled out of the gate in 1980 and Turner had seen enough. After beginning the season two for his first 34 Turner, calling on his four years of baseball experience, felt it best to send Horner down to AAA to regain his stroke.

“This is incredible,” said Horner. “It’s beyond incredible. It’s something words can’t describe, really.”

Horner wasn’t the only one who felt Turner’s wrath. Ironically, Gary Matthews, coming off a season in which he hit .307 with 27 homers and 90 RBI was benched as well. It’s not often that a team dumps their opening day three and four hitters, but Turner did just that.

“I’m confused, worried, baffled, a thousand emotions rolled into one,” Horner said. “I don’t know what they expect out of me, I really don’t.”

After recovering from the shock of being sent down just six months after a 33 homer season, Horner refused to report to the minor leagues and went on the offensive.

”If I felt that there was any justification for being sent down to the minors, I would go,” Horner said. ”But when everyone calls me – fans, friends, teammates, high-level people in the front office – and tells me that it’s just Ted going a little wacko again, it confirms what I already know. Ted Turner is a jerk, an absolute jerk.”

”I don’t want to punish him. That’s ridiculous,” said Turner. “I’ve even been thinking of offering to go with him to the minors. If I was vindictive, why did I give him a three-year, $1-million contract? I didn’t have to do that. It’s me and the Atlanta Braves who are being punished for Mr. Horner’s terrible play.”

The standoff lasted twelve days with the Braves asking for, and receiving, permission to place Horner on the disqualified list for refusing to report to Richmond. He eventually rejoined the team in early May and finished the season with a .268 batting average, 35 homers and 89 RBI.

The Birth of the Game Winning RBI

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

At the beginning of 1980, Major League Baseball implemented Rule 1004-a, which established a new batting statistic called Game Winning RBI. A batter would receive credit for a GWRBI if they recorded ”the r.b.i. that gives a club the lead it never relinquishes.”

Introduced during the spring by the Elias Sports Bureau, the intent of the statistic was to quantify something that many people weren’t convinced even existed; the idea of “clutch hitting.” Throughout baseball history, certain players seemingly always delivered when their team needed it most. This would be a way to reward them.

Of course, the biggest clutch hitters come through after the leaves turn and the lights are at their brightest. A single in the 8th inning of a World Series game can get a player branded as a clutch hitter for years despite the fact that they may have struck out the previous ten times in exactly the same situation.

But baseball is a game driven by numbers, both good and bad, and on the surface the GWRBI was a nice idea. If a player drives in a run in the 8th inning of a tie game and his team wins there should be a way to track that and reward those who accomplish this feat more than others. Unfortunately for proponents of the rule its flaws were exposed the very first time the stat was used.

Flawed from the Start

Foster made history on April 11, 1980
Foster made history on April 11, 1980

It was April 11th, 1980 and the Cincinnati Reds were hosting the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day at Riverfront Stadium. Phil Niekro started the game for the Braves and got himself in trouble right away. In the bottom of the first, after a Dave Collins groundout, Ken Griffey and Dave Concepcion singled to bring George Foster to the plate. Foster doubled to left to give Cincinnati a 2-0 lead. Two batters later, Johnny Bench also doubled to left as part of a four-run first for the Reds.

Two more runs in the second inning chased Niekro and gave the Reds a 6-0 lead. For Niekro, it was the shortest of his seven Opening Day starts in an Atlanta uniform and continued a string of bad luck/bad pitching in season openers. He was tabbed with the loss as the Reds rolled 9-0. The defeat brought his Opening Day mark to an ugly 0-6 with an ERA of 6.88. Clearly, the knuckleball is a warm-weather pitch.

George Foster earned the first Game Winning RBI in the history of Major League Baseball. His first inning double off Niekro drove in the first two runs for his team in a 9-0 shutout. Not exactly clutch hitting on his part.

The rule faded into obscurity in 1989 and is no longer an official statistic, but if you’re looking to win a bar bet, the all-time leader in Keith Hernandez with 129.