The 80’s are my 50’s

I grew up reading Angell, Halberstam, Kahn and others wax nostalgic about baseball in the 1950’s. The pictures they painted of sun-drenched afternoons at Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds made the era come to life. I’m sure it was a magical time with great baseball. They can have it.

This isn’t an indictment of them as baseball men and it’s most certainly not an indictment of them as writers. The point is that was their time. The 80’s were my time. My affection for the 80’s comes not from the ballparks or the innocence of the time, but from being young and watching my heroes play baseball.

I’ve read countless accounts of people walking up the ramp and seeing the green grass at Yankee Stadium or some other baseball cathedral for the first time. You really get a sense of the awe they felt. I don’t have a similar memory of seeing the turf at Riverfront Stadium for the first time. Not the same, although the outfield at Riverfront was undoubtedly the greenest Astroturf I had ever seen in my life.

Riverfront Stadium
Behold the beauty

But I do have a brief but amazing memory of having blue seats for a Reds/Phillies game. I spent the pregame standing near the Phillies bullpen watching watch Steve Carlton warm up before the game. I don’t remember what year it was or who won. All I remember is that I was 10 feet away from Steve Effing Carlton! The guy who had won Cy Young Awards and had pitched my favorite team to a World Series Championship. And I was RIGHT NEXT TO HIM.

Steve Carlton
Lefty!

I didn’t watch games through knotholes, but my buddies and I did learn how to jump over the railing from the green seats at Riverfront into the blue seats and dash down the aisle before the usher could catch us. Once in the blue section, the world was ours and we could really see up close the same guys we watched on TV, back when Monday Night Baseball and the Saturday Game of the Week were a big deal.

Willie, Mickey & the Duke were amazing players. Hall of Famers all of them. I never saw any of them play live. But I did see Mike Schmidt play.

I saw Tom Seaver

And Johnny Bench

And Nolan Ryan

 

I saw Rod Carew

And Reggie Jackson

And Andre Dawson

Chicki-Crunch
Chicki-Crunch

 

I also saw Wayne Krenchicki

With the Reds AND the Expos

Were Feller, Yogi and Musial better than Seaver, Bench and Reggie? Maybe. Maybe not, but here’s the thing: I don’t care.

 

You can have Joe Black. I’ll take Bud Black

You take Campanella. I’ll take Carter.

You take Eddie Mathews and I’ll take Gary Matthews.

You can have Vin Scully. I’ll take… well, Vin Scully.

Garvey, Winfield, Schmitty, Luzinski… they were all my guys. They were larger than life. They were who I grew up watching, and the guys you grew up watching are mythical figures by definition.

The 80’s was the decade I came of age as a baseball fan. Willie, Mickey and The Duke were great, but I’ll take Willie Wilson, Mickey Hatcher and John “Duke” Wathan.

With no regrets.

Welcome to 1980!

 

“He really mows ‘em, doesn’t he?” asked Howard Cosell.

“He is spectacular.” replied Cosell’s ABC broadcast partner Don Drysdale. “He’s the one guy that if you met him on the street in civilian clothes he’d be the last person you’d think was a major league pitcher.”

And yet here Kent Tekulve was, bent at the waist, hands on his knees, peering in for Steve Nicoscia’s sign.

“The Birds had their big shot last inning. Bases filled, two out Eddie Murray up…” said Cosell in the way only he could.

Sporting black pants, a yellow jersey and a pillbox hat adorned with Stargell Stars, Tekulve had the Pirates on the cusp of a World Championship. They led Game Seven of the 1979 World Series 4-1 with two out in the bottom of the 9th inning in Baltimore. The field at Memorial Stadium was scarred with white lines from the NFL’s Colts. Two zeros were painted in foul territory on either side of the plate.

Tekulve had struck out Gary Roenicke, and Doug DeCinces to begin the inning. He needed just one more out to secure Pittsburgh’s 5th World Series championship. Pat Kelly was pinch hitting for Rick Dempsey and sent Tekulve’s first pitch to center field. Omar Moreno settled under it and one of the most eventful and seminal decades in major league history had come to a close.

The Pirates had won their second World Series title of the 1970s. It was a decade dominated by a select few teams. The Oakland A’s won three consecutive World Series titles (1972-74), followed by back-to-back titles in ’75 & ’76 from the Reds. The Yankees beat the Dodgers in 1977 & 1978. Baltimore won it in 1970 and lost to the Pirates in ’71 and again in ’79.

But the dynasties were crumbling. The A’s had been blown up shortly after winning their third straight championship and the Reds had begun to disassemble their Big Machine piece by piece. A new decade of parity was about to begin.

The 1970s saw the biggest single change in the history of the game: Free Agency. It also saw the tragic deaths of two superstars, the introduction of the Designated Hitter, the fall of the game’s most sacred record, and the installation of plastic grass in many stadiums.

Pete Rose
Pete Rose dives into 3rd

By contrast, the 1980s are a somewhat forgotten era of Major League Baseball. They didn’t even get a full inning in the Ken Burns series. But the ‘80s were when the changes instituted in the 1970s began to seriously alter the game. Players began moving freely from team to team and general managers built teams suited to play on plastic grass. It was the last time small market teams still had a shot at the post-season until the “Moneyball” philosophy entered the game nearly 30 years later.

The other thing the 80s had was parity. The Dodgers were the only franchise to win more than one World Series during the decade. Baseball has not seen such parity before or since. The 80s saw Fernandomania, Joe Charboneau, Harvey’s Wallbangers, the Wheeze Kids, the first significant work stoppage, two hits in two cities for two different teams, Baltimore’s 0-21, Don Denkinger, Orel Hershiser, Rose vs. Pallone, Rose vs. Cobb, Rose vs. Giamatti, Big League Chew, cocaine, earthquakes, drug trials… the list goes on and on.

Sufficient time has passed that we can now look upon the 1980s as a different era; in the same vein that some view Twisted Sister as “Classic Rock.” In baseball, technology and pop culture, the 1980s have a distinct personality. What follows is a look back at the first year of a transitional decade in baseball and in the United States. Off the field, exciting new technologies changed forever the way we lived our lives. Cars couldn’t yet fly, but we could make a phone call from them. On the field, speed and pitching were phased out and replaced by juiced up sluggers. Just one new stadium opened, as opposed to nine the following decade.

This is the story of 1980, the personalities involved, and in some cases, the stories behind the stories.