Dodgers Astros Showdown

“For you guys who don’t think we can win four in a row, do us a favor. Don’t get dressed.”

So read the sign in the Dodgers clubhouse on Friday, October 3rd. L.A trailed the Astros by three games with three remaining in the season. Anything less than a four-game sweep would end their year.

Game 1 – October 3rd, 1980

Despite the inspiration, the Dodgers were in trouble late in Friday’s opener. Alan Ashby’s 8th inning sacrifice fly gave the Astros a 2-1 lead and L.A. had just two at-bats left to save their season.

Houston starter Ken Forsch, whose 2nd inning single off Don Sutton gave the Astros a 1-0 lead, set L.A. down in order in the bottom of the 8th and was scheduled to lead off the top of the 9th. Astros manager Bill Virdon opted to let Forsch hit for himself against Valenzuela, who had still not yielded a run on the season and Forsch lined out to 2nd baseman Davey Lopes.

 

Forsch got Jay Johnstone to ground out to open the 9th, but a Rick Monday single was followed by an error on Rafael Landestoy. Two batters later, Ron Cey singled to left field to tie the game.

Valenzuela again set the Astros down in order in the top of the 10th inning and Virdon again sent Forsch out in the bottom half of the frame. Former Astro catcher Joe Ferguson sent Forsch’s first pitch into the stands over a leaping Cesar Cedeno in left-center field for a walk-off homer, giving the Dodgers new life. Ferguson celebrated his game winning homer by throwing his batting helmet into the air as he rounded 3rd base and, after crossing home plate, picked up Lasorda in a bear hug before mobbed by his teammates and blowing kisses to the fans.

“Sometimes we don’t look pretty out there,” said Ferguson, “but this team has shown more heart than any team I’ve ever played on.”

Game 2 – October 4th, 1980

The two teams squared off the following afternoon with L.A.’s Jerry Reuss against Houston’s Nolan Ryan. L.A. took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second when Derrel Thomas singled to left to score Steve Garvey. Art Howe’s RBI single in the 4th tied the game at one, but Garvey led off the top of the 5th with a home run, his 26th, and Reuss shut out the Astros the rest of the way for his 18th win.

“I’ve never seen him more aggressive,” Lasorda said of his starter. “I’ve seen him throw better, but he went after every batter today.”

The win meant Houston’s lead was down to just a single game with one game remaining. A Dodger win on Sunday afternoon would force a one-game playoff in Los Angeles, while a Houston win wrap secure the division title.

“The fact is this: We can win it tomorrow. They can’t,” said Morgan. “We win tomorrow and it’s all over. The percentages are in our favor. The Dodgers haven’t beaten us four straight all year and I don’t see them doing it.”

Game 3 – October 5th, 1980

For game three of the series, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda started 14-game winner Burt Hooton, while Houston skipper Bill Virdon went with Vern Ruhle, who was dealing with a finger injury he suffered when he cut his right index finger on a nail in the dugout on Friday. The wound required two stitches to close and left Ruhle unsure how long he could go in the season’s final game.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a factor, but I’m going to let the trainer work on it,” Ruhle said. “Obviously I can’t pitch with a Band-Aid on, but I think I’ll be all right. If I can’t (pitch) I’m sure Joaquin will be ready.”

In addition to Ruhle, Joe Morgan injured himself in Friday’s game sliding back into 1st base on a pickoff attempt. The Dodgers weren’t faring much better though as Davey Lopes was battling a sore neck and both Ron Cey and Dusty Baker were dealing with hamstring pulls. But minor injuries wouldn’t keep anyone out of game of this magnitude.

It didn’t take long for the Astros to get to Hooton or to practice a little gamesmanship. Cesar Cedeno led off the top of the 2nd inning by testing Ron Cey’s sore hamstring with a bunt down the 3rd base line that turned into an infield single. A stolen base and a Hooton error put runners on the corners with no one out. Alan Ashby singled to center to score Cedeno and Craig Reynolds singled to right to give Houston a 2-0 lead and chase Hooton from the game.

Ruhle wasn’t around much longer than Hooton but it wasn’t the Dodgers that knocked him out of the game, it was his finger. The stitches opened up early and by the third inning he had to come out of the game.

“I went as far as I could as hard as I could,” he said afterwards. “It started breaking by the first inning, but it didn’t start bleeding. It just started tearing downward and by the last two pitches I made, I just didn’t see any point in going on. I would have been hurting the team.”

Houston increased their lead to 3-0 in the top of the 4th but the Dodgers got one back in the bottom of the 5th on a Davey Lopes single off Joaquin Andujar. Down 3-1, Lasorda once again called on Fernando Valenzuela to keep his team in the game and once again, the rookie delivered, throwing two scoreless innings. When he was due to hit in the bottom of the 7th with two men on base, the 19-year-old Valenzuela was replaced by 42-year-old Manny Mota, whom the Dodgers activated as a pinch-hitter in September. This presented a slight problem as Mota was also the Dodgers’ 1st base coach. Ever the strategist, Lasorda sent pitcher Don Sutton to take Mota’s place in the coach’s box while Mota took Valenzuela’s place at the plate against Joe Sambito.

The two had faced each other on September 10th and Sambito had induced Mota to ground into a double play in the 9th inning of a 6-5 Houston victory. This time, Mota stroked an RBI single to right field to cut the lead to 3-2 and end Sambito’s afternoon. Houston manager Bill Virdon summoned Frank LaCorte from the bullpen, who retired Lopes and Dusty Baker to escape the inning.

Steve Garvey to hit a ground ball to 3rd baseman Enos Cabell to open the 8th inning, but Cabell couldn’t handle it and Garvey was safe at 1st base to bring up Cey. Conventional wisdom called for Cey to bunt, especially since he was nursing a sore hamstring, which not only prevented him from running well but also sapped a lot of his power. Cey squared around to bunt twice, but couldn’t get it down. He then worked the count full and when LaCorte delivered his next pitch Cey drove it straight into his left ankle. Now both legs were hurting, but the count was still full and Cey looked to put a ball in the gap.

He fouled off two more pitches before LaCorte delivered a fastball that caught too much of the plate and Cey pounced on it, sending the ball deep to left field. “You gotta be kidding me,” Sambito thought as the ball sailed into the left field seats.

The two run homer, Cey’s 28th of the season, gave L.A. a 4-3 lead, but there was plenty of drama left. Houston put two on in the top of the 9th, which brought Lasorda out of the Dodgers dugout and drew a round of boos at the prospect of his removing Steve Howe from the game, who had replaced Valenzuela in the 8th. But the boos turned to cheers when starter and ersatz 1st base coach Don Sutton emerged from the Dodger bullpen and trotted to the mound. Two pitches later, Sutton got Denny Walling to bounce out to Lopes to end the game and force a one Monday afternoon playoff at Dodger Stadium.

“This team’s going to grow up a lot tomorrow,” said Morgan, “or it’ll die. It’ll be strong, I’ll tell you that, one way or another, or it’ll die.”

Game 4 – October 6th, 1980

The man charged with staving off the Astros’ death was knuckleballer Joe Niekro. In 14 big league seasons, Niekro had thrown more than 2,100 innings and not one of them had come in the postseason. Whether or not that streak continued was up to him, but his two previous outings against L.A. had not gone well.

“The challenge is out there, and I’ve got to go out and get it,” Niekro said. “I accept it. If we had to have a playoff game, I wanted to pitch it.”

Niekro was gunning for his 2nd straight 20-win season while the Dodgers starter, Dave Goltz, was trying to redeem himself after not living up to the free-agent deal he signed at the beginning of the season.

“I’m excited about being given the chance to win it,” Goltz said. “I’ve never been in a situation where a game meant so much. I’m really looking forward to this.”

Astros General Manager Tal Smith got caught up in the excitement as well, but he also could have lived without it. “It’s just like a World Series,” he said. “Three of the most exciting game you’ll ever see, especially if you’re an impartial observer, which I’m not.” Few of the 51,000 fans people who showed up for the playoff game were impartial, either and there was another biased observer sitting on the Dodgers bench.

Ron Cey woke up on Monday morning with a badly swollen ankle, the result of the previous day’s foul ball, and was in enough pain that Lasorda had no choice to remove him from the lineup. For a team already missing Reggie Smith and Bill Russell it was a big blow and the first sign of trouble for the Dodgers.

The next sign came when Terry Puhl led off the game with a ground ball to Lopes, who had the ball pop out of his glove for an error. Enos Cabell then singled to center and stole 2nd. After two batters, Houston had runners on 2nd and 3rd with no one out and the Dodger bullpen began to stir. Two batters later, Jose Cruz hit a ground ball to Mickey Hatcher, who had taken Cey’s place at 3rd base. Hatcher came home with the throw but Joe Ferguson couldn’t hold onto it after Puhl collided with him. Cesar Cedeno’s groundout gave the Astros a 2-0 lead despite their only having one hit.

While Goltz and the Dodgers looked a bit shaky in the early going, Niekro was anything but, retiring the first six batters he faced on the strength of an active and unpredictable knuckleball. In the top of the 3rd, Art Howe faced Goltz with two out and a man on and deposited Goltz’s offering into the left field seats to give his team a 4-0 lead. For Howe, it was his 10 home run of the season and the 33rd, and most important of his career.

Houston added three more the following inning and Niekro handled the rest. When Jack Perconte came up with two outs in the 9th inning and his team down 7-1, the Dodger Stadium organist broke into the inspirational World War II tune, “We did it before and we can do it again.” But there was no miracle comeback this time. Perconte popped out to Dave Bergman at 1st base and the Astros, for the first time in their 19-year existence, were headed to the playoffs.

“No team beats us four in a row,” said Joe Morgan. “No team does that to us. Our pitching is too good. The Dodgers learned that today, no matter what kind of momentum they thought they had.”

 

The Best of 2016 on ’80s Baseball

I started this blog 364 days ago. Since then, I’ve published 64 posts, including guest posts, for which I’m very grateful.

It’s been a great year and I thought I’d take a look back at the Top 5 posts of 2016 based (unscientifically) on page views.

Number 5: George Brett’s amazing 1980

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Brett was absolutely ridiculous in 1980 and this post tells the story of his remarkable season. If you’re going to hit .400, or even have a shot, it helps to have a summer like George Brett did in 1980.

 

Number 4: Schmidt and Brett in 1971

The Reds passed on a kid in their back yard. The Phillies snapped him up

The most important day of the 1980 baseball season may very well have taken place in 1971. One decision would have put Mike Schmidt in a Royals uniform and given the 1980 World Series a completely different look.

 

 

Number 3: Missed it by That Much: The Mike Parrott Story

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Mike Parrott was the opening day starter for the Seattle Mariners in 1980. Unfortunately for him, 1980 was just a horrible year, in more ways than one.

 

 

Number 2: You Forgot How Good J.R. Richard Was

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James Rodney Richard was absolutely dominant and 1980 was shaping up to be the best year of his career. Then tragedy struck and he never pitched again.

 

 

 

Number 1: Missed it By That Much: The Drungo Hazewood Story

<a rel=Drungo Hazewood had all the talent in the world. He was a can’t miss prospect for the Baltimore Orioles. Then he missed.

 

 

 

 

Thanks so much for reading and I look forward to 2017!

-J.D.

Joe Morgan’s Mysterious Dodgers Connection

Joe Morgan made a career out of beating the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The damage varied from beating L.A. in the regular season to knocking them out of the playoffs. Over a nine year span, Morgan’s teams ended the Dodgers season five times, including two defeats on final day of the season. But one thing many don’t know is that Joe Morgan nearly became a Dodger. Twice.

Mr. Red

Joe MorganDuring his eight seasons as a member of the Cincinnati Reds Morgan was one of the top players in the game. From 1972 through 1976 he was dominant. During that time he hit 108 homers, drove in more than 400 and drew nearly 600 walks while stealing 310 bases. After Morgan won his second consecutive MVP award in 1976, Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray called him, “pound for pound the best player ever to play baseball.”

“What other guy 5 feet 6 inches, 150 pounds in any sport dominates the way Joe Morgan does?” Murray wrote in an October 1976 column. “It’s like a 4-9 guard in basketball throwing in 50 points a game.”

But by 1979 it was obvious his time in Cincinnati was over. Injuries and age limited him to just a .236 batting average in 1978. In 1979 his home run total slipped from a high of 27 to just nine. He also wanted out of Cincinnati. In his 1993 autobiography, Joe Morgan, A Life in Baseball he cited the Reds firing Sparky Anderson after 1978 as a tipping point for him.

“With Tony, Pete and now Sparky gone, the heart of the Big Red Machine had all but ceased. It was… before the 1979 season was even under way that I decided to play out my contract and move on.”

Free Agency

Morgan entered the 1980 Free Agent Draft and was selected by the Rangers, Giants, Padres and the Dodgers. Morgan wanted to go to a winner and the Dodgers were at the top of his list. L.A. was set at 2nd base with Davey Lopes, who hit .265 with 28 homers the year before, but they weren’t set in center field. Derrel Thomas was the incumbent but the Dodgers weren’t sold on him offensively.

Signing Morgan would allow Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda to move Lopes to the outfield and plug a future Hall of Famer into one of the best infields in the major leagues. There was just one small snag.

Morgan’s signing was predicated on Lopes agreeing to move to center field. But Lopes balked and Morgan didn’t want to be the reason for a fracture on a pennant-contending club.

“I don’t want to be used as a scapegoat,” Lopes told the L.A. Times. “But I don’t want to throw all that work out the window.”

Joe MorganIt was clear the Dodgers longed to add Morgan to their lineup but not at the risk of upsetting Lopes and Morgan knew it. His agent, Tom Reich, did his best not to upset anyone by saying there were “no villains in  this matter, certainly not Davey Lopes. He’s the best second baseman in the league. Joe knows that.”

Morgan signed with the Houston Astros and beat the Dodgers in the N.L. West in a one game playoff.  In 1982, as a San Francisco Giant, Joe Morgan’s homer off Terry Forster on the final day of the season knocked L.A. out of the playoff hunt.

1983

The following year, Morgan moved to Philadelphia. Reunited with Pete Rose and Tony Perez Morgan did what he did best: beat the Dodgers. The “Wheeze Kids” beat L.A. in the NLCS before losing to Baltimore in the World Series.

At the conclusion of the ’83 season, Lasorda decided he was due a raise. He was fresh off leading the Dodgers to their first World Series win since 1965 along with back-to-back playoff appearances and he wanted to get paid.

In his book, My 30 Years in Dodger Blue, Fred Claire described what happened next.

“Tommy and I met for breakfast at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I made my best pitch… Still Tommy knew Peter (O’Malley) was going to have the final say when it came to the manager of the Dodgers.”

The two returned to Dodger Stadium where Lasorda met with O’Malley. According to Claire the meeting didn’t last long and when it was over he went to O’Malley’s office while Lasorda headed to his office to make some phone calls.

When Claire arrived he was informed it was time to search for a new manager. In the room was Claire, O’Malley, G.M. Al Campanis and Scouting director Ben Wade. Claire suggested Morgan and there was soon consensus.

Morgan was still technically a member of the Phillies, so Claire called Phillies owner Bill Giles to request permission to speak to Morgan.

No sooner did O’Malley hang up with Giles did the phone ring again. It was Lasorda calling from his office asking if O’Malley’s previous offer was still on the table. Informed it was, Lasorda took it.

Joe Morgan spent 1984 with the Oakland A’s and then retired. According to Claire, he never realized how close he came to becoming Lasorda’s replacement.

 

That Time I Met Nolan Ryan

Note: This is a guest post from Scott Ottenweller

In the late 70’s my family moved from New York to Columbus, Ohio. The Yankees had finally returned to prominence, winning the World Series in ‘77 and ‘78, I naturally became a Yankee fan. And I still am to this day. I was still relatively young at the time, so I didn’t get to watch many baseball games back then (except the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week!) but I remember “stealing” my Dad’s Sports Illustrated magazines and plastering my bedroom walls with pictures of my favorite Yankee players- especially Graig Nettles, my all-time favorite Yankee. When I was playing Little League I ALWAYS wanted to play third base, like my idol. I was officially hooked on baseball.

At that point, I also became an avid baseball card collector. I couldn’t get my hands on enough cards! I would try to collect all of the Yankee players of course, but I then became fixated on collecting an entire set of cards. As I would work on building a set, two things would happen. I would collect as many all-stars player cards as possible (like everyone else), but I would study the cards. I became fascinated with reading the player’s career stats, which led to learning more about the history of baseball, records that were broken and milestones hit. It was then that I realized that Nolan Ryan was in a class by himself when it came to starting pitching.

In the early 80’s, Nolan Ryan was THE strikeout king. No one came close to his stuff. In 1973 he set a record with 383 strikeouts in one season! By 1980, Ryan already had five seasons with 300+ strikeouts and had amassed nearly 3,000 career strikeouts. He had a legitimate chance of breaking Walter Johnson‘s record of 3,509 strikeouts, a mark that had stood since 1927. In 1983, he did indeed pass Johnson to become the all-time leader in career strikeouts (he ended his career with an astonishing 5,714 career strikeouts).

It was also 1983 when my family went to St. Petersburg, Florida for Spring Break. While the beach and sun was great, I was most excited to see a spring training game. The Cardinals’ spring training was held in St. Petersburg so my brother and I ventured over there one afternoon to watch a game and see if we could get some autographs. Before the game we managed to get a ton of autographs- guys like Dickie Thon, Denny Walling and Vern Ruhle among others. We then watched a rather boring affair as the Cardinals rolled to victory.

After the game, my brother and I stalked some players and coming out of the clubhouse we met Ozzie Smith! He was holding his son yet was still gracious enough to sign autographs for us as well as others. I was so pumped to meet “The Wizard”! But that wasn’t the highlight of the day.

As we were leaving the stadium, we noticed that the Astros players were out doing practice drills (batting, fielding, etc). I chalked it up to the coach being upset at the poor play of the day, but I was curious. So my brother and I walked around the stadium to a gate where we could look onto left field. We watched batting practice for a bit (ran down a BP homerun ball from Dickie Thon!) but then I saw a player doing calisthenics with the trainer. At first from a distance I couldn’t tell who it was but then I saw the number: ‘Ole #34. It was Nolan Ryan! My brother and I just watched- mesmerized. After a while, he finished up and started to come over. Nolan Ryan was coming our way!

Nolan Ryan Autograph
Ryan’s signature. The reward for their patience

It was just my brother and I and our patience was about to pay off. No one else was with us; other kids had taken off by then. Ryan gets to the gate and asks, “How are you boys doing today?” I could only muster one word: ”Good”. He then asks if we want him to sign the piece of paper we had in our hands. Another well thought out response: “Yes”. So I watched in amazement at the very moment I was getting Nolan Ryan’s autograph. Nolan-flipping-Ryan! A sure-fire Hall of Famer! One of the premier players in the league! And he was right in front of me. Just me and my brother. As he signed our papers, said goodbye to us and walked away, my brother and I looked at each other in astonishment. We just got Nolan Ryan’s autograph!! We gave each other a high-five and with huge smiles on our faces, took off to tell our parents and whomever else might be interested in our story. It was a moment I’ll cherish forever and is still my favorite autograph that I own to this day. Even better than the Derek Jeter autograph my Mom bought me for Christmas one year. That’s saying something…

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Scott Ottenweller lives in Columbus, OH where he roots for the OSU Buckeyes, Columbus Blue Jackets and the New York Yankees.

 

Have you met one of your baseball heroes from the 1980s? I want to hear about it! Click here for details and tell me your story.

Schmidt, Carlton and the 1980 Phillies

 

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The poster hung on the wall of my bedroom in southwest Ohio for years. MVP and CY. Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. My guys. I was far from unique in worshiping the two future Hall-of-Famers, but to this day the site of this poster still makes me smile.

The Phillies were considered underachievers entering 1980 because they hadn’t been able to reach the World Series. NL East crowns in 1976, ’77 and ’78 had resulted in being bounced from the playoffs by the Reds (1976) and Dodgers (1977 & 78). Signing Pete Rose for the 1979 season was thought to be the answer but injuries decimated the roster. It was do or die in 1980 and the Phils struggled out of the gate, going 6-9 in late March and into April. Then MVP and CY took over.

Schmidt earned Player of the Month honors in May by hitting .305 with 12 home runs and 29 RBI to pace the offense, while Carlton earned the Pitcher of the Month award, turning in a 6-1 record with an E.R.A. of just 1.66. Carlton flirted with a no-hitter against Atlanta on May 5th, going seven and a third before yielding his first hit.

There was one game that served as a microcosm of the month for the Phillies. On May 23rd, Carlton was just dominant against Nolan Ryan and the Houston Astros, throwing a complete game, four-hit shutout. The only runs he needed came in the 3rd inning when Schmidt homered with Rose and Bake McBride aboard.

Philadelphia went 17-9 in May and their 144 runs scored led the National League. It wasn’t enough to get them to the top of the division, but it was a much-needed step in the right direction. Another rough month early in the season coupled with strong play by the Pirates and the Montreal Expos could have spelled doom for the Phillies.

The NL East race went down to the final weekend of the season and the Phillies ultimately prevailed and went on to win their first World Series. But it may not have happened had their two best players not stepped up early in the year to get them back on track.

 

 

April Crossword Puzzle

How much do you remember about the 1980 baseball season?

April Crossword

April clues

 

To download a PDF version, please click below.

April, 1980

Joe Morgan and J.R. Richard’s (not so ) Secret Mission

On April 1st, 1980, members of the Major League Baseball Players Association voted to walk out of the final week of spring training. The move was a warning shot intended to get the attention of the team owners who were longing for the good old days before free-agency.

Some teams stayed at their spring training sites and hosted informal workouts. Some teams disbanded and went home for a quick break before opening day.

But the most bizarre incident took place in the Orlando airport when Houston Astros third baseman Enos Cabell decided to head home after the strike vote. Teamates Joe Morgan and J.R. Richard wanted Cabell to stay in camp and continue to work out with the team. Their desire for team unity was so great that the two of them, 5 foot 8 Morgan and 6 foot 8 Richard, were seen sprinting through the airport in full uniform trying to track down Cabell before he boarded his 12:40 p.m. flight to California.

“We didn’t know which airline,” said Morgan. So we had to run around the airport looking for a flight that left at that time for Los Angeles.”

“It tripped me out,” said Cabell. “When I saw Joe and J – man, I couldn’t believe it. Neither could anyone at the airport.”

“We thought he should stay along with the rest of us,” said Morgan. “I told him if I’d done all that running around the airport, making a spectacle of myself with my uniform on and found out he wouldn’t come back, there was gonna be a fight right there on the spot.”

You Forgot How Good J.R. Richard Was

In December of 1979 the Houston Astros made Nolan Ryan the first million-dollar man history. Ryan won 324 games, threw 7 no-hitters and would lead his league in strikeouts eleven times en route to amassing more strikeouts than any other pitcher who ever player. But in 1980 he wasn’t even the best pitcher on his own team.

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in 1980, Richard and Ryan gave the Astros both reigning strikeout champs.

That honor belonged to James Rodney Richard. He stood 6 foot 8 inches tall and regularly hit 100 miles per hour with his fastball. If that wasn’t enough, he also possessed one of the league’s most devastating sliders. As a senior in high school, he allowed ZERO runs and was selected in the first round of the draft by the Astros in 1969. The 1971 Astros Media guide listed him as a “giant youngster who has an overpowering fast ball, but who obviously lacks control.”

J.R. Richard made his debut against Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants in September of 1971. Apparently he wasn’t intimidated as he threw a complete game shutout and struck out 15, including Mays three times.

As his career progressed, control was still an issue. He led the league in walks three times and set a major league record in 1979 by throwing six wild pitches in an April 10th game against the Dodgers. He also struck out 13 Dodgers that day, allowing just six hits in a complete game 2-1 win.

From 1976 through 1979, he was one of the top pitchers in the National League, amassing a 74-51 record with 1,044 strikeouts in 1,125 and two-thirds innings and a 2.89 ERA. Only Steve Carlton won more games during that four year period in the N.L.

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Richard was dominant in 1980

In 1980, he was even better. Richard got the nod on Opening Day against the Dodgers and was perfect through six and a third innings before Rudy Law singled in the seventh. J.R. went eight and struck out 13 before giving way to Joe Sambito who earned his first save.

“It was coming out of a cannon,” said Law. “I’ve never faced anybody who can throw the ball like that, it was unbelievable. He’s one of the greatest pitchers in the major leagues. I don’t look forward to facing too many more like him.”

What made his Opening Day start different was that the 98 MPH fastball and the 13 strikeouts went with zero walks, something he was able to do just three times in 1979. To begin the season that way was a big boost for him.

“I think this was the best night I’ve had since I was in the major leagues,” said Richard. “Just getting the ball over the plate was my secret.”

On April 19th, more than 50,000 fans packed the Astrodome to watch Richard outduel Bob Welch in a 2-0 Astros win. Two starts later, Richard beat Tom Seaver 5-1 in Cincinnati to run his record to a perfect 4-0. But the undefeated record doesn’t pay justice to how dominant he was. In 37 and two-thirds innings, the big right hander surrendered just 13 hits while striking out 48 and recording a 1.67 ERA. Perhaps most impressive was the paltry .104 batting average the National League posted against him. The dominance continued through May and June and at the All-Star break his record stood at 10-4 with a 1.96 E.R.A.

1980 was shaping up to be his finest season. But Richard had also been plagued by health problems all year. He left his April 14th start against Atlanta with shoulder stiffness. The same issue kept him from finishing his April 25th start against the Mets. He left his June 17th start against Chicago due to a “dead arm.” Forearm trouble chased him early from his July 3rd start against the Braves. Obviously, something was wrong.

A Sporting News article on Richard’s situation trumpeted, “Houston has own JR Mystery,” a play on the “Who shot JR?” mystery of the popular TV show, Dallas.

In the Sporting News piece, Harry Shattuck wrote, “Pardon us Dallasites, but our JR saga may be as intriguing as yours… and Houston’s JR is real. Hard to believe, perhaps, but real”

On July 11th while the Astros were in Los Angeles, Richard was examined by renowned surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe who didn’t find anything wrong. On the morning of July 14th, Richard called Astros team doctor Harold Brelsford and told him he was ready to go that night against the Braves but on the mound he had trouble seeing the signs from the catcher. He lasted just three and a third before leaving with what the Astros called an upset stomach.

The fans and Astros General Manager Tal Smith were growing impatient and the rumors and accusations began to swirl. J.R. was accused of everything from being jealous of Ryan’s $1 million contract to just being lazy.

After the July 14th start, Richard was placed on the disabled list and underwent a series of tests at Methodist Hospital in Houston which uncovered arterial blockage in his right arm. The blockage was not considered serious however and no surgery was recommended.

Richard was released from the hospital and cleared for supervised workouts on July 26th. Four days later, during a workout at the Astrodome, he collapsed in the outfield. He was rushed to Methodist Hospital where tests revealed he had suffered a stroke. Apologies rained down from media members who had criticized Richard for asking out of games.

Richard being put into an ambulance after his stroke
Richard being put into an ambulance after his stroke

“Guilt has seized a lot of people in this town who believed in the weeks before his problem was diagnosed,…that Richard was playing his own kind of game.” wrote columnist Mickey Herskowitz of The Houston Post on August 3rd.

“Some wrote or said as much, and if anyone expressed any sympathy, or offered him the benefit of the doubt, no real notice was paid…. Our concern and shock were mixed with embarrassment and we ought to admit it.”

Richard never pitched in the big leagues again.

The Courtship of Nolan Ryan

The Houston Astros had one of the best pitching staffs in the National League in 1979, finishing second in the league with a 3.20 team E.R.A. Joe Niekro won 21 games, Ken Forsch threw the major league’s only no-hitter and 6 foot 8 fireballer James Rodney Richard led league in strikeouts. But new owner John McMullen wasn’t satisfied. In November he shook up the baseball world, and angered his fellow owners, by signing Nolan Ryan for the unheard of price of $1 million per season.

Ryan had established himself as one of the top pitchers in the game in his eight seasons as a member of the California Angels. He won 138 games and recorded nearly 2,500 strikeouts, leading the American League every year but one (1975). But a rift developed between Ryan and Angels General Manager Buzzie Bavasi in 1979 and that rift grew to a chasm as the season progressed.

Nolan Ryan with Angels
Ryan won 138 games as an Angel

Ryan’s contract was up at the end of the year and after a 1978 season in which he went 10-13, Bavasi was in no hurry to sign him to a big money, long-term contract. Things got more contentious as the summer wore on. Ryan and his agent Dick Moss gave Bavasi permission to seek a trade to Texas or Houston but a proposed swap involving Al Oliver was turned down by the Rangers and Houston’s offer of Bob Watson and Joe Sambito was rejected by Bavasi.

Ryan finished 1979 at 16-14 with a league-leading 223 strikeouts and a 3.60 ERA while helping the Angels win their first ever division title. His 16 wins tied for the team lead, but Bavasi wasn’t impressed, telling the media he could simply replace Ryan with two 8-7 pitchers.  “Buzzie did not understand,” said Don Baylor in his 1989 biography, Nothing but the Truth: A Baseball Life

“They could replace the win total, but they could not replace the pitcher, the wear and tear he saved the bullpen, the fear he put in the opposition. He was the only pitcher in the majors capable of pitching a no-hitter any time he took the mound.”

So Ryan entered the free-agent draft and had multiple suitors. George Steinbrenner and the Yankees offered $1 million per season but after beginning his career with the Mets, Ryan had little interest in returning to New York. He told Moss that if the Astros would match the Yankees’ offer he would sign.

Nolan Ryan
Nolan Ryan at the Astrodome

His three-year, $3 million deal was the richest in team sports history and gave Houston both defending strikeout champions in Ryan and Richard. They became even more devastating as bookends to the knuckleballing Niekro.

“Can you imagine this?” joked Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell. “Hitting Niekro is like chasing a butterfly with the hiccups. Now they can sandwich him in there with Ryan and Richard. The commissioner should tie up the deal for the next five years. By then, I’ll be out of baseball.”

Joe Morgan Comes Home

joe-morgan-photoAfter eight seasons in Cincinnati, second-baseman Joe Morgan was looking to prove he could still contribute as he entered his age 36 season. He won back-to-back MVP awards and two World Series with the Reds in 1975 & ‘76 but his offensive numbers fell sharply after that. He hit just .236 in 1978 and .250 in ’79 while his home run total slipped from a high of 27 in 1976 to just nine in 1979. He also wanted out of Cincinnati. In his 1993 autobiography, Joe Morgan, A Life in Baseball, he cited the Reds firing Sparky Anderson after 1978 as a tipping point for him.

End of an Era

“With Tony, Pete and now Sparky gone, the heart of the Big Red Machine had all but ceased. It was… before the 1979 season was even under way that I decided to play out my contract and move on.”

Morgan entered the Free-Agent draft and was selected by the Dodgers, his preferred destination. His signing with Cincinnati’s long-time rival was predicated on incumbent second baseman Davey Lopes agreeing to move to center field.  But Lopes balked and Morgan didn’t want to be the reason for a fracture on a pennant-contending club so he announced he wouldn’t be signing with anyone and went back into the secondary phase of the draft.

This time he was selected by the Yankees and the Astros. As was the case with Nolan Ryan, George Steinbrenner’s Yankees lost out to Houston.

Morgan_Joe_113

On January 31st, Joe Morgan agreed to a deal to return to the city where he began his career in 1963.

“The Astros already have a winning attitude,” Morgan said at his introductory news conference. “With a starting rotation of Joe Niekro, J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan and Ken Forsch and Joe Sambito in the bullpen, I’d rather be playing behind them than trying to hit against them.”

The additions of Ryan and Morgan and a talented young outfield of Jose Cruz, Jeoffrey Leonard, and Terry Puhl had Astros manager Bill Virdon feeling good about the upcoming season.

“We made great strides during the 1979 season and the pennant race provided some experience for us,” Virdon told reporters in Cocoa, FL that spring. “That should make us a better club in 1980. If we can get good offensive production and pitching we’ll be legitimate contenders.”