“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.
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.