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06/23/11 9:00 AM ET

1981: The Year Baseball's Best Record Wasn't Good Enough

How could a team with the best record in the game fail to qualify for the postseason?

1981 Reds

By 1981, labor disputes between owners and players had grown commonplace. The landscape of labor relations in baseball had been transformed in the 1970s with landmark victories by the Marvin Miller-led Players Association that brought about free agency and the arbitration process. Owners bristled at ever-increasing salaries (even though they were the ones paying those salaries) and resented the loss of control over player movement they had enjoyed from the game's earliest years. Desiring to reassert their control over players and their salaries, owners sought to mute the impact of free agency by requiring that significant compensation being given to any team who lost a free agent. Specifically, they wanted any team that signed a free agent to give that player's former club a player of comparable quality. The net effect would be the virtual elimination of player movement via free agency. Such draconian terms were completely unacceptable to the players. This stark divide between the two groups almost resulted in a strike during the 1980 season until both parties agreed to table the compensation issue until the next year. While a work stoppage was averted, all concerned felt that the agreement had only succeeded in delaying the inevitable.

The inevitable came to pass on June 12, 1981 when Major League players went on strike to block the owners from unilateral implementation of their plan for free agent compensation. At the time of the strike, the Reds stood a half game behind the Dodgers in the National League West standings. For the next 50 days, players and owners conducted numerous negotiating sessions that were marked by ever-increasing frustration over the owners' intractability. The players suggested multiple compromise solutions, each of which was rejected by ownership. The impasse was finally broken on July 31 when the owners finally pulled their original compensation demand off the table and accepted a watered down compensation plan that assured players that their free agent rights would not be significantly compromised. It was an almost complete victory for the players, one that would haunt owners well into the next decade and contribute to the 1994 work stoppage that forced the cancellation of the World Series.

Before play resumed, it had been decided that the season would be broken into two halves. Each club's record would revert to 0-0 with the division leaders at the time of the stoppage being declared first-half "champions" that would square off against the division winners in the season's second half in an extra round of playoffs. If the same team won both halves of the season, it would play the second-half runner up in the newly-created postseason "division series." The schedule would pick up as though it had not been interrupted and no allowances would be made for differences in games played by individual teams.

For the Reds, the pressure was on to win the second-half title or, failing that, hope to finish second to the "repeat champion" Dodgers. Unfortunately, neither proved to be the case as Cincinnati again finished second but this time to the Astros (they pulled to within a half game of Houston on September 30 but lost three of their next four to finish 1.5 games back) with the Dodgers falling all the way to fourth. And so it was that despite having the best overall record not only in the National League but in all of Major league Baseball, the Reds were left out of the postseason. In the Eastern Division, the Cardinals suffered a similar fate. St. Louis finished with the best overall record in the division but failed to win either half-season championship and, as a result, were reduced to postseason spectators. Ironically, the Reds and Cardinals were two of the three NL teams (the Phillies were the other) to vote against the split-season plan.

The Reds were a very good team in 1981, boasting one of the league's strongest offenses and a starting pitching staff that was led by ace Tom Seaver and a passel of up -and -comers like Mario Soto, Frank Pastore and Bruce Berenyi. In the bullpen, Tom Hume remained one of baseball's best closers. For Seaver, it was the last great season of his remarkable career. He recorded the best winning percentage the league had seen since 1959 and racked up his 3000th career strikeout. He fell three votes short of his fourth career Cy Young Award, the closest any Reds pitcher has come to claiming the league's top pitching honor.

The sense of outrage Reds fans felt over the events of the 1981 season was only heightened by the complete collapse of the club in 1982. By the start of the 1982 season, the Reds starting outfield of Ken Griffey, Sr., Dave Collins and George Foster, which had been one of the most productive in baseball, was gone. Foster and Griffey were traded in what amounted to salary dumps by the penurious Reds and Collins left as a free agent. The ill-fated shift of Johnny Bench to third base and the disastrous season turned in by Tom Seaver only added to thoughts of "what might have been" had the team with baseball's best record been allowed to compete in the playoffs. Perhaps a championship would have discouraged the Reds from taking such drastic measures in remaking the club. Such "What ifs?" will always be part of the story of the 1981 Reds and will remain as they have been, questions without answers. The only thing Reds fans can say with absolute certainty about 1981? "We Waz Robbed!"

You can learn more about the 1981 Reds and the rest of the 1980s Reds clubs at the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum's special exhibit on one of the most fascinating decades in franchise history.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.