In my three-plus decades as a Reds’ fan there have been hundreds of examples of thinking what might have been surrounding the team. Perhaps the most overlooked one during my lifetime took place exactly 30 years ago.
With the NFL Lockout now threatening the 2011 football season, the thought of Major League Baseball and its work stoppages through the years quickly come to mind. While the strike season of 1994 is freshest in the minds of most fans, the strike of 1981 hit home in Cincinnati.
Nearly two months of the season was lost by the time the dust settled so the owners decided to split the 1981 season into two halves, with the first-place teams from each half in each division meeting in a best-of-five divisional playoff series. The four survivors would then move on to the two best-of-five League Championship Series. It was the first time that Major League Baseball used a split-season format since 1892.
The Reds finished that year with an overall record of 66-42 (.611) which was tops in the National League West. Over a 162-game season their record would have projected out to be 97 wins. That's six more than 2010's Division Champs and nine more victories than the 1990 Wire-to-Wire team managed. However, they failed to make the MLB Playoffs that year.
The team finished the first half of the season in second place with a record of 35-21, just one-half game behind the eventual World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers, and one-and-a-half games behind the Houston Astros in the second half, in which the Reds were 31-21, good for second place, again.
To make matters worse, the team wasn’t even appreciated for how good it was. It marked the end of the Big Red Machine, a team that won 98 or more games six times during the 1970’s and back-to-back World Championships.
John McNamara was the manager of the team and he had a roster mixed with mostly with aging veterans and a few youngsters sprinkled in. Hall of Famer Tom Seaver (14-2, 2.54 ERA) anchored the rotation at the age of 36 and in his twilight. Mario Soto (12-9, 3.29 ERA) fanned 157 batters (7.8 K/9innings) and threw 10 complete games. Tom Hume (13 saves) anchored a decent bullpen.
George Foster provided most of the offensive spark by hitting .295 with 22 HR and RBI in just 472 at bats. Johnny Bench hit .309 with 8 HR and 25 RBI in only 196 at bats while playing mostly at first base rather than his customary catcher spot. Dan Driessen, Ron Oester, Ray Knight and Dave Concepcion were the regular infielders. Ken Griffey and Dave Collins joined Foster in the outfield.
The team began to implode the following offseason as the organization opted to let Foster, Knight and Griffey depart and the players that did stay only got a year older. The ever-changing free agent market which the 1981 strike revolved around began to affect the team’s ability to keep players even before the decade began. The Reds would finish with a franchise-worst 101 losses in the 1982 season, ending one of the most dominant eras of baseball in the history of the game. Perhaps 30 years later it’s time to finally pay tribute to this team for they accomplished as few did then.
COMPLETE TEAM INFO (Baseball-Reference.com)