Inside, away from the deafening roar of his players, the manager of the Mets tried to play it off as just another baseball game. That’s what managers do after all — and it’s certainly what Joe Torre did, what he was famous for doing as a skipper, surely later on.
But this wasn’t a dynasty-level Yankees team who’d just won a second-straight September cliff-hanger. This was the 1981 Mets, who had mostly inspired a different roster of “d” words — deplorable, disastrous, disgusting — and had forced Torre to ponder depths of the sport during 4 ½ years on the job he’d never thought possible.
Still, the smile that accompanied his postgame cigar was telling. The Mets had won the day before by erasing a 5-0 lead and finishing a sweep of the first-place Cardinals when Mookie Wilson, of all people, drilled a two-run, two-out, walk-off homer off Bruce Sutter. They’d won this night by shaking off a ninth-inning Pirates rally and winning in the 13th when John Stearns scored on a wild pitch.
“It’s a good thing I already have an ulcer,” Torre said between puffs. “Or this team would be giving me one.”
The Mets had won four straight. They were two games out of first place with 12 games to go. It was preposterous, of course, because the ’81 Mets were much like the four Mets clubs that had preceded them and the two that would follow — a 25-man team with, maybe, 15 or 16 major league-quality players. They started the season 17-34. It was widely assumed Torre would be gone soon.
Then a funny thing happened.
At midnight on Friday, June 12, the MLBPA went on strike. The owners, fortified by strike insurance, didn’t cave as quickly as they had nine years earlier and so this time the work stoppage gobbled up the rest of June, all of July. The strike was finally settled July 31, the sport returned Aug. 9 with the All-Star Game in Cleveland, and the season resumed the next day.
But it didn’t pick up where it left off. On Aug. 6, the owners voted for a split-season, and the moment the vote was revealed there were a number of self-fulfilling problems. The four first-half division leaders (including the Yankees in the AL East) were declared half-pennant champs; they would face the winners of the second half in a first-ever best-of-five Division Series. If a team won both halves, they’d face the second-best team, which would have caused a lot of arguments (first half? Second half? Overall?).
Except that never happened because all four first-half teams, their playoff berths secure, essentially took two months off. That alone was problematic. What the split-season format promised in terms of chaos it delivered: the Reds had baseball’s best overall record, 66-42, but won neither half of the NL West and stayed home while the Dodgers and Astros advanced. The Cardinals, 59-43, had the top mark in the NL East but could beat out neither the Phillies in the first half nor the Expos in the second.
That was the downside.
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The up? Every team’s first half was forgiven. Every team started 0-0. They would all play schedules of varying length — mostly between 52 and 55 games — and get one of the great do-overs of all time. And so it was that the 17-34 Mets became 0-0 like magic, started 3-0, and after winning four in a row capped by the 13-inning win over Pittsburgh were 20-20, right in the thick of an improbable pennant race.
It is as close as we have been in modern times to the 60-game sprint baseball is scheduled to kick off next week. And it was every bit as quirky and unpredictable then as it seems it’ll be now. The ’81 Mets were a prime example of that. Think of the Tigers (114 losses last year) the Orioles (108) or the Marlins (105) making a similar push this September.
“I think these guys finally believe like they’re in a pennant race,” Torre said.
Few others did. Only 7,429 came to Shea Stadium for the Pittsburgh game; and even with talk of 1969 and ’73 filling the papers only 6,855 came the next night. The Mets of that era had perfected social distancing, even if they hadn’t coined a phrase for it yet. They were also ready to tumble back to earth, and did, finishing 24-28, 5 ½ games back. Torre was fired on the season’s final day; he gave his executioner, Frank Cashen, one of his private-stock cigars after getting the axe.
And why not? That made as much sense as anything else the last time baseball opted for a sprint over a marathon.