Today’s Postseason Series From The Baseball Project That May Or May Not Amount To Anything is the 1981 National League Eastern Division Champion Series.
1981 was a strange year. The 1970’s turmoil which led to free agency left the owners with several other issues. The biggest sticking point was compensation for losing players who signed with other clubs. The two sides (actually, for anyone who remembers any of the negotiations through the 1980’s and 1990’s will tell you that there were 27 sides in 1981 – the players and the 26 owners) were far enough apart that on June 12 the players went on strike. Once play resumed on August 9 one of the goofier ideas was to split the season into two halves, with the first half division winners playing the second half division winners. There were a lot of things that are bad about split seasons, and in three divisions things did end up bad. For starters the Royals won the second half in the AL West and reached the postseason despite a losing record. In the NL West the Reds finished a half game behind the Dodgers in the first half and a game and a half behind the Astros in the second half. Overall, though, the Reds finished FOUR games ahead of everyone, but missed the playoffs. And then in the NL East finished a game and a half behind the Phillies in the first and a half game behind the Expos in the second, but were two games ahead of the Expos overall. Regardless, it would be the Phillies and Expos playing for the NL East title.
The Phillies were the defending World Series champions. Led by future Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton as well as Pete Rose, the Phillies were a veteran team who had made the postseason in 1976, 1977, 1978 before finally getting over the hump in 1980. Add that in 1980 they Phillies beat out the Expos on the next to last day of the season for the NL East crown.
The Expos were arguably the most talented team of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Founded in 1969, the Expos’ brass believed the best way to build was through the farm system, and it was a gold mine. The 1981 team featured Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson to go along with Tim Raines, Warren Cromartie, Steve Rogers, Tim Wallach, Larry Parrish, Jeff Reardon, and two who would later on win AL Manager of the Year honors (Terry Francona and Jerry Manuel). The team was underachieving, though, and finished third in the first half. After some inconsistent play to start the second half, Expos’ GM John McHale did something unbelievable. On September, he fired manager Dick Williams. Williams would eventually get his plaque in Cooperstown, but the combination of erratic play, questionable decision making, and rampant drug use was too much for a team that in the two previous seasons finished second in the division to the eventual World Series champions. McHale followed that up by hiring Jim Fanning to replace Williams. Fanning had built a reputation as a scout, but also hadn’t worn a baseball uniform in two decades. In spite of that, the Expos went 16-11 the rest of the way to win the second half and earn the first playoff berth in franchise history.
Game 1 of the best-of-five series was in Montreal as Carlton and Rogers squared off in a duel between two of the NL’s best pitchers. The Expos used RBI doubles from Carter, Cromartie, and Chris Speier to take the series opener, 3-1. In Game 2 Carter’s two-run homer proved to be the difference as Bill Gullickson scattered six hits (I’ve always loved that phrase; as if he just randomly decided who got a hit and who didn’t) in the Expos’ second straight 3-1 win. When the series moved to Philadelphia the tide turned. The Phillies chased Ray Burris in the sixth and then touched up Elias Sosa for two more runs in the seventh for a 6-2 win. Game 4 was a seesaw affair as neither the Expos’ Scott Sanderson or the Phillies’ Dickie Noles could get through five. The Phillies led 4-0 through three when the Expos pecked away. A Carter homer in the third and a Jerry White sac fly in the fourth cut the lead in half, then a two out rally in the sixth with three straight singles tied the game at four. A Gary Matthews homerun in the bottom half of the frame put the Phils back on top, but Carter plated White with a one out double in the top of the seventh. The game remained tied through nine and in the tenth pinch hitter George Vuckovich – he of one career homerun up to that point and 27 total to go with a .379 career slugging average – led off with a homerun off of Jeff Reardon to force a fifth and deciding game. In a Game 1 rematch, Carlton and Rogers would take the hill at the start. The two would match zeroes through the first four frames. Then in the top of the fifth, Larry Parrish led off with a single and Tim Wallach followed with a walk. After Speier grounded out, Jerry Manuel drew another walk, bringing Rogers up to the plate. Carlton hung a slider and Rogers slapped it back through the box, scoring two. Parrish added another run in the sixth, doubling in Andre Dawson. From then on Steve Rogers took over. He dodged a bullet in the bottom of the sixth, getting Mike Schmidt to ground into an inning ending double play, then worked around an error in the eighth. And then in the ninth he got Schmidt to fly out to center and Matthews to fly out to left. Manny Trillo then lined a 1-1 pitch towards right field, but Warren Cromartie leapt and caught it. The Expos charged the field to celebrate. One of the iconic images of the celebration was Warren Cromartie waving the Canadian flag in celebration, a flag he had gotten from a set of twins who came down to attend the game. Photos of Cromartie’s celebration were all over the newspapers across Canada. Little did anyone know that it would be the only postseason series the Expos would ever win. Even now with the franchise in Washington, the 1981 NLEDS remains the only postseason win in franchise history.