High and Tight

Baseball’s Forgotten Team: The 1981 Cincinnati Reds


This sign for the 1981 Cincinnati Reds says it all. Image: mlb.com

Sometime within the past week, MLB Network ran one of their Prime 9 episodes, this one featuring the Top 9 non-playoff teams.  The team sitting in the number nine position is also the one that has the most legitimate gripe about not making the post season.  The 1981 Cincinnati Reds finished with the best record in the game yet did not partake in any playoff activity.  How can this be, one might ask?  Well, 1981 was the year of the longest work stoppage in baseball history until the 1994 strike which cancelled the World Series.  As a result of the interruption in play, the season was split into two halves.  The Reds finished the first portion a half game behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and the second half a game and a half behind the Houston Astros.  Cincinnati’s overall record of 66-42 was the best in baseball but alas they did not have a chance to play for the World Series.  Ironically, the St. Louis Cardinals had the best overall record in the National League East yet like the Reds, did not qualify for the playoffs as they finished second in both halves, the first time to the Philadelphia Phillies and the second time to the Montreal Expos who would be making their first and only postseason appearance in Montreal.  So the two teams in the National League that finished with the best overall records in their respective divisions did not make the playoffs.  This was also the first year there were divisional playoffs, an event that did not occur again for another fourteen years.

Many members of the famed “Big Red Machine” were gone by the time the 1981 season started.   Future Hall of Famers Joe Morgan and Tony Perez as well as Pete Rose departed Cincy by 1980 but the team still had some formidable stars.  Johnny Bench, though at the end of his Cooperstown career still had some pop in his bat.  Outfielders Ken Griffey and George Foster were still excellent ballplayers and star pitcher (also another future Hall of Famer) Tom Seaver was able to anchor the pitching staff.  The Reds finished 1980 with an 89-73 record, good for third place, three and a half games behind the division champion Astros.  It marked the first time since 1971 that Cincinnati did not finish first or second in the National League West.  At the start of the 1981 season, the Reds were expected to contend for the top spot in the West.  Indeed, when the strike began on June 12th, the Reds had a 35-21 record, one win less than the Dodgers and their won-loss mark was also good enough for the second-best record in all of baseball.  Play resumed on August 6th and the winning by Cincinnati continued.  As late as September 30th, the Reds were within a half game of Houston but lost three of their final four contests to finish with a 31-21 record and another second place finish.  Once again, the only record in all of baseball that was better than theirs belonged to the team that finished ahead of them in their division.

Many Cincinnati players enjoyed outstanding individualseasons in 1981.  Griffey finished tied for fifth in batting with a .311 average and shortstop Dave Concepcion placed ninth in the same category hitting .306.  Concepcion finished third in hits and placed fourth in the voting for the NL MVP award.  Foster had one of the best years in the game finishing third in home runs with 22 and second in RBI’s with 90.  He also finished in the top ten in hits, runs scored, doubles and total bases.  These numbers were good enough for third place in the MVP balloting.  Outfielder Dave Collins tied for fourth in stolen bases with 26 and tied for tenth in triples with six, the same number as teammate Griffey.  On the mound, Seaver was his usual, outstanding self, pacing the Senior Circuit in wins with 14 and winning percentage with .875.   He finished in second place for the Cy Young Award and tenth for the MVP.  Mario Soto was tied for fourth in wins with 12 and had 151 strikeouts in 175 innings finishing third in both categories.  Bruce Berenyi punched out 106 batters, good for sixth in the league and tossed three shutouts, the same number as Soto.

1981 proved to be the last hurrah for what was left of one of the greatest teams baseball has seen.  The starting outfield of Foster, Griffey and Collins all departed after the season and Bench was shifted to third base.  The 1982 season was a complete mess.  Seaver slipped to a frightening 5-13 season with an ugly 5.50 ERA.  Other than Soto’s 14-13 mark, none of the other main starting pitchers were better than five games under .500.  It resulted in a disastrous 61-101 record that landed the team in the basement, the worst mark in the club’s storied history.  It would be  another eight years before Cincinnati got another taste of the playoffs, winning it all in 1990.  However, that doesn’t make the fans in Cincinnati feel any better about their team posting the best record in the game in 1981 without getting a chance to play for all the marbles.

Follow me on Twitter @ltj41 and covering the Arizona Diamondbacks at http://venomstrikes.com