Apparently, Some People Wonder About The 1980s. Here's How The Decade Started.

Duane Kuiper - Thearon W. Henderson

There was no internet. Most people still got off the couch to change the channel, and stuck their pinkies in the rotary dial to call their pals. The Baseball Encyclopedia didn't care about OBA, and their year-by-year accounts limited the stats to AB, BA, HR and RBI. Pitchers got G, IP, W, L, SV and ERA. The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball gave a more detailed statistical accounting of year-by-year results and included a page of prose summarizing the season, but what I think I loved the best about it was the parenthetical injury abbreviations next to the players' names, and I can still remember many from the long list: SJ was a shoulder injury (see Earl Torgeson); BN, a broken ankle (see Hank Aaron's rookie season); BE, a broken elbow (see Ted Williams, 1950); the mysterious RP meant the individual was off attending to personal business (Teddy Ballgame, 1954); and sprinkled here and there were AA, auto accident; the gruesome FA, finger amputated; the gruesomer KB, killed by pitched ball.

WAR was something diplomats did their best to avoid, unless they did their best to engage in it. Bill James was busy putting out Baseball Abstracts, but it would be 1982 before he got a deal with a real publisher with national distribution. 1980 was also an election year, and comprised 366 of the 444 days that 52 American embassy employees in Teheran spent as captives of their host country's new regime. (In October of 1979, with the deposed and despised ex-Shah ill in Mexico City, Jimmy Carter assembled his best and brightest to discuss whether he should be allowed in the U.S. to receive medical treatment for lymphoma. "He went around the room," said Vice President Walter Mondale, "and most of us said, 'Let him in.' 'And if they take our employees in our embassy hostage, then what would you advise? ' And the room just fell dead." Sadly, the Shah himself wasn't one of those falling dead at that moment, and he arrived in New York City on October 22nd; the embassy was stormed two weeks later.)

The Cleveland Indians were riding high as the new decade began, by which I mean to say they were coming off a winning season, by which I mean to say they had managed to win one more game than they lost, despite having a Pythagorean record of 76-85. It was the team's second winning season in their past 11, and it ensured that manager Dave Garcia would return in 1980—well, once both Billy Martin and Bob Lemon rejected job offers from Gabe Paul and Phil Seghi, anyway.

We were entering Year Four of the Free Agent Era, and the Indians were in the tough AL East, in its 7-team incarnation. The division had three powerhouses, the Orioles, Yankees and Red Sox, who each averaged 96 wins from 1977 through 1979; it had two up-and-coming teams, the Tigers and the Brewers, who had each recently debuted brand-new DP combos of 20- and 21-year olds, Trammell and Whitaker in Detroit, Yount and Molitor in Milwaukee. It also had, blessedly for the Indians, the expansion Toronto Blue Jays, whose 59- and 53-win seasons in 1978 and 1979 meant the Tribe wasn't entering the new decade with back-to-back last place finishes. Such was—is?—glory in Cleveland.

The biggest marks the Indians had made in free agency were the 10-year deal they gave Wayne "Grumpy" Garland in November 1976, thus pioneering the 10-year deal; the $10,000 bonus due Jim Bibby for making 30 starts in 1977, which the team, for the sensible reason that they didn't have it, neglected to pay, an omission which resulted in Bibby being declared a free agent before the 1978 season; and the contracts that they mailed out that 1977-78 offseason to Don Hood, Tom Buskey and Rick Manning calling for 25% pay cuts, which violated the CBA maximum of 20% and which made them all automatically free agents. GM Phil Seghi quickly resigned the three, but in Manning's case the 25% would-be cut turned into a 5 year, $2.5 million contract.

Seghi dipped a toe back into free agency in December, 1979, signing Jorge Orta, late of the White Sox, to a 5-year, $1.5 million contract. Orta, a second baseman by trade, wasn't going to displace Duane Kuiper, but instead replaced Bobby Bonds in right field. (Orta would be the Tribe's lone 1980 All-Star, though he spent the game on the bench.) Bonds had been dealt earlier that December to St. Louis for John Denny—a replacement for Rick Wise, the team's top starter in 1979 who left as a free agent—and outfielder Jerry Mumphrey; Mumphrey would be dealt to San Diego before Spring Training for Bob Owchinko (yes, 'owchinko' means 'little penis' in Japanese) to help shore up the rotation. The team also plucked Andres Mora from Baltimore in the Rule 5 draft—Mora had hit .344 with 23 HRs and 102 RBIs in the Mexican League—but when Mora didn't hit in spring training while a kid named Charboneau did, Mora wound up back in his homeland of Mexico, on his way to 419 career homers and induction, in 2003, to the Mexican League Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, the CBA had expired after the 1979 season, and negotiations between management and union were going nowhere, as was usually the case. On March 4th, the players voted 967-1 (Jerry Terrell of the Twins was the dissenter, if you must know) to unilaterally cancel the last week of spring training, return for the start of the opening of the regular season on April 9th and then strike if no deal was reached by May 23. The cancellations came too late for Andre Thornton, who tore up his knee on March 25th. As a result, Mike Hargrove moved from left field, where he had toiled in his first Tribe season, back to first; opening the season in left would be Super Joe Charboneau, fully recovered from being stabbed, with a ballpoint pen, by a fan while the team was set to play a game in Mexico City on March 8th—that fan, Oscar Villalobos Martinez, was fined 50 pesos, or about $2.19, for the assault (that would be $6.80 in current values, to give you a better idea of the seriousness of the charges). Later in the season, with Charboneau continuing his big hitting, a band called Section 36 would get a local hit with this musical offering (note: it's at 1:34 on the pop-up, not at 1:42, and there's a Herb Score nostalgia alert as well).

The season didn't open so well; by the fifth game, the team had found their comfortable spot in 6th place—the first of 95 times the standings would list them there. The rotation was rocky, and the team didn't get their ERA under 5.00 until May 10, after Len Barker, Rick Waits and Dan Spillner had thrown three straight complete games. Their first in-season move came on May 9, when they purchased the contract of Miguel Dilone from the Cubs. Dilone was OPSing .602 in AAA at the time, not that anybody had heard of OPS, but Dave Garcia put him in center in place of the injured Rick Manning, and Dilone got 2 hits. Garcia moved him into the leadoff spot the next night, and Dilone got 2 more hits. He got 2 more hits the night after that. He dipped below .300 only one day all season, stayed in the leadoff spot, moved over to left when Manning returned (which sent Super Joe to DH), and wound up third in the batting race—well, George Brett hit .390, so it was mostly a stroll—with a .341 mark. He was lacing hard liners into the gaps all season long, and he was 25 years old, and his career was the upward arc of a North Korean rocket launch. Having reached his apogee, Dilone was about to return to his humble, earth-bound origins. He would post a .620 OPS in his remaining five MLB seasons. Alas.

A knee injury would end Duane Kuiper's season on June 1st, shortstop Tom Veryzer missed more than a month in the height of the summer, and starter John Denny would be shut down after July 15, all of which contributed to a slide that saw the Tribe hit their low point at 41-47 on July 21, but this was an era that always had a UPI or an AP story headlined "Indians on the Warpath." In 1980 the story under that hed ran on July 30 and began, "The Cleveland Indians are on the warpath and the rest of the league is reading their smoke signals loud and clear." They had won 7 in a row—and would add an 8th win to the streak—and the story quoted Rick Manning saying, "We know we are going to win," and Dave Garcia saying, "When we weren't going so good, I told the guys you are better than you show. We got a good club. We're a little short on power."

In the second game of that winning streak, I was one of 6,387 fans in the stultifying Kingdome cheering on the lads from my seat in the right field bleachers. The game went into extras—it would last 3 hours and 45 minutes—and as the Indians were batting around against Shane Rawley and Byron McLaughlin in the 11th, Charboneau, owner of a homer in the game already, came up with the bases loaded. Sensing history, I got out of my seat and started racing toward left field, but Joe was not patient enough, launching his only career grand slam when I had barely reached the center field black. Joe has two baseball souvenirs from his playing days: his first MLB homer, which he hit on opening day, and that grannie.

I would have given it to him, really.

The season bumbled along as it usually does for the Tribe. The 8 straight wins moved them from 6th place all the way to 5th, and there was a later stretch of non-horribleness that saw them wake up on the morning of August 31st in 4th place, if you can believe it, 10 and a half games out. I'm sure I had that familiar late-season thought, the one that goes something like "geez, if they can go 25-10 the rest of the way. . ." That day, the 31st, the team was hosting a bad White Sox club in a doubleheader. In the first game, the usually reliable Sid Monge and Victor Cruz coughed up 5 runs in the top of the 8th and wasted a Rick Manning home run, as well as Rick Waits' valiant, 7-walk start. In the nightcap, Ross Grimsley, a mid-season acquisition busily crafting a 1.7 WHIP campaign, got pecked for four runs in the first, the Little Penis got nicked for three more in the eighth, and a further run came across on a double play ball in the ninth, giving the Sox just enough to withstand Charboneau's 2-out, 3-run homer in the bottom of the frame to win 8-7.

What did it matter? Even had the Indians reversed the 6-20 mark they put up against the Brewers and Tigers, they still would have finished 10 games behind the Yankees, who won 103 games that year.

September saw both Orta and Charboneau go down with injuries that limited them to pinch hitting duties, and the team coughed up their winning record by dropping 3 of their 4 October contests, concluding their efforts in, of course, 6th place. On the labor front, that May 23 strike was averted with a last-minute deal, but the real sticking point—free agency and compensation thereof—got kicked to a 4-man "study group" (Frank Cashen and Harry Dalton for management, Sal Bando and Bob Boone for the proletarians), who were charged with issuing a report on the matter by the end of the year. The study consisted, apparently, of one side plugging their ears while the other talked and then, in the interest of fairness, reversing the roles. The report the group issued consisted of two entirely oppositional opinions, and the CBA would have to wait for the 1981 strike to be salvaged.

Gabe Paul was famous for finding millionaires with no knowledge of baseball who would front the money to run, barely, the team, without interfering in Gabe's management style, and the owner in 1980, Steve O'Neill, was one of that variety. He was by then quite advanced in years—he was 78 when he bought the Indians—and the team was up for sale. On October 31, it was announced that new buyers had been found: LA lawyer Neil Papiano and NY theater mogul James Neiderlander would acquire 58% of the team for $8.7 million; Steve O'Neill would keep 10%, Gabe Paul would retain his 7%, and the rest would be in the hands of all those minority owners Gabe Paul would scare up whenever a cash infusion was needed. (Might Oscar Villalobos Martinez have been among them?) All Papiano and Neiderlander had to do was put up 10% and assume the $2.1 million operating deficit from the 1980 season and the $2.75 million long-term debt the team had accumulated.

Somehow it never happened, and the deal was officially called off on January 6th. O'Neill continued to own the Indians until 1986, notwithstanding the fact that he was, for the last three years of that reign, dead.

A bit of 1980, for those who wondered.

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