Baseball-Almanac.com's Divisional Series section
Although the Divisonal Series did not "officially" become part of Major League baseball's post season until 1995, an earlier version did take place in 1981 due to a split-season caused by strike action. The Executive Board of the Players' Association voted unanimously to strike on May 29th due to the unresolved issue of free-agent compensation. The deadline was extended briefly, however, after the Players' Association's unfair labor complaint was heard by the National Labor Relations Board. At 12:30 A.M on June 12th, union chief Marvin Miller announced the player's strike beginning the longest labor action to date in American sports history. By the time the season finally resumed on August 10th, seven hundred and six games (or 38 percent of the Major League schedule) had been canceled. As a result, it was decided that the first-half and second-half winners in each division would face each other in elimination rounds.
1981 American League Divisional Series:
New York Yankees (3),
Milwaukee Brewers (2)
The New York Yankees were anxious to be back in post-season contention after winning their 21st and 22nd World Series titles in 1977 and 1978. With a clubhouse that include All-Stars Ron Davis, Bucky Dent, Rich Gossage, Reggie Jackson, Willie Randolph and Dave Winfield, the newest generation of Bronx Bombers looked to be the favorite over the much improved - but inexperienced Brewers. Despite winning the "first-half pennant", the Yankees fired manager Gene Michael in favor of Bob Lemon, (who had managed the club in '78-'79) after the team stalled at only 2 games over .500 in the second half of the season. On a side note, the Yankees also signed a promising Stanford University outfielder named John Elway to a minor league contract. (Elway opted to play professional football with the Denver Broncos instead, a decision that would later propel him to 2 Super Bowl Championships and the Pro Football Hall of Fame).
Their opponents, the Milwaukee Brewers, were reaping the rewards of a brilliant off-season in which General Manager Harry Dalton made several deals of historic proportions. In an effort to improve the struggling ball club, Dalton traded with the St. Louis Cardinals for All-Star Catcher Ted Simmons, steady starter Pete Vuckovich and the all-time save leader in baseball, Rollie Fingers. He also picked up third baseman Roy Howell in the Re-Entry Draft and later signed pitcher Randy Lerch, making Milwaukee the team to beat in 1981. As a result, Fingers went on to become the first relief pitcher in Major League history to win both the Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player Award (in the same season) and the Brewers went on to their first playoff competition.
Ron Guidry was given the start for New York in the Opener, and with strong relief by set-up man Ron Davis and Goose Gossage, managed to top Milwaukee 5-3. Game 2 also belonged to the Yankees pitching staff as Dave Righetti and Gossage combined to toss a 3-0 shutout that was sweetened by two early homers courtesy of Reggie Jackson and Lou Piniella. Now down two-games-to-none, the Brewers were on the verge of elimination. Catcher Ted Simmons stepped up in Game 3 with a 2-run homer that set the momentum that Milwaukee desperately needed. Randy Lerch did his part on the mound, tossing 6 solid innings, but it was Paul Molitor's solo home run in the 8th that pushed the Brewers ahead, 5-3 and extended the Series to a Game 4. The Brewers repeated their clutch performance from the previous game, winning 2-1 thanks to a crucial save by Rollie Fingers. However, that would be all Milwaukee would muster as the Yankee bats proved to be too much in Game 5. After surrendering 13-hits and 3 home runs (including the 2nd of the series by Jackson) the Brewers fell 7-3 finishing 2 games short of a trip to the ALCS.
The Oakland Athletics got off to a great start after winning their first eight games of the season on the road. They then went on to pound the Seattle Mariners 16-1 in their home opener before a crowd of over 50,000. Their "emotionally charged" skipper Billy Martin kept things interesting throughout the 1981 season although he was known to go overboard on several occasions. On May 29th, Martin flew into a rage and heaved two handfuls of dirt on home plate umpire Terry Cooney's back after being ejected for arguing ball and strike calls. The American League's president, Lee MacPhail, later suspended him for seven days. Even more of a threat than their manager was their 1981 Gold Glove winner Rickey Henderson, who is still considered by some to be the greatest base robber in baseball history.
After finishing second in the American League West in 1979 and first in the American League in 1980, the Kansas City Royals "three-peated" with another stellar performance in 1981. One of the biggest stories of the season was standout slugger George Brett's pursuit of .400 (He finished with a .390 average), while another was the return of catcher Jerry Grote, who had emerged from a 2-year retirement to win a spot with the Royals as a free agent during spring training. On June 3rd, Grote hit a grand slam (his first home run since 1976) while going 3-for-4 with a club-record seven RBIs to lead Kansas City to a 12-9 win over the Seattle Mariners.
Mike Norris took the mound for Oakland in Game 1 ready to regain the edge that had made him a Cy Young runner-up in 1980. Norris had led the American League in fewest hits per nine innings (6.8), tied for second in wins, was second in ERA (2.54), second in complete games (24), and second in innings (284), but had declined in the first half of '81 with a 12-9, (3.75) effort. Those statistics were long forgotten though after he pitched a four-hit shutout in the first game of the divisional playoff, working out of two bases-loaded jams and coasting his team to a 4-0 victory. Teammate Steve McCatty followed suite the following day with another 2-1 win. The 6'3" power pitcher had a league-best 2.32 ERA and tied for the AL lead with 14 wins and 4 shutouts. He later finished second to Rollie Fingers in Cy Young voting. Now down two-games-to-none, the Royals were desperate to generate some offense. Unfortunately, the A's refused to let up and completed the sweep over Kansas City in Game 3 by winning 4-1 courtesy of Rick Langford. Even more impressive, Oakland had held last year's pennant winners to only two runs in the entire Series.
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