Alternate baseball, chapter six

My series of speculations on alternate history baseball scenarios began just over a year ago. Since then, I’ve managed to put Gil Hodges in the Hall of Fame, win George Steinbrenner the Vince Lombardi Trophy, bring down baseball’s antitrust exemption, five golden riiii—sorry, got my wires crossed—save a National League president’s life, and produce a new home run king. And all without aiming for those goals in the first place.

My trick in all of those thought experiments has been to create the biggest change I could with the smallest alteration in the original conditions. Big, obvious turning points in baseball history that I can alter with a shorter fly ball or an un-booted grounder are instruments too blunt for my purposes. If I can get those big turning points to change with a nudge in some forgotten game or un-noticed front office move long beforehand, that’s a much more satisfying maneuver. It’s almost like a magic trick: I draw your attention over here for a moment, and poof!, over there the elephant has disappeared.

Today, I’m doing things a bit differently. I’m tackling one of the elephants of baseball history, if perhaps not head-on. My point of departure is the 1981 players’ strike.

What I will not be doing is conjuring a scenario where the strike does not happen, or ends up shorter, or ends up longer, or wipes out the 1981 season altogether. To my frankly limited historical knowledge of it, the ’81 strike was like the First World War. A big clash was coming, it was just a matter of when. There may have been hidden turning points that could have averted or exacerbated it, or changed the resolution between players and owners. They are a little too hidden for me right now.

But there are quiet pivot points that affected the races in the standings, and games on the field. And some very interesting and unexpected effects can follow from them. Their numbers are close to infinite, for reasons that will become clear as my tales develop. I will be concentrating for the most part on two of them, that take the game in very different directions—and in a couple of cases, very similar directions.

If I start getting angry letters from Tommy Lasorda, you will know why. If they also start coming from Jeffrey Loria … well, read on and see.

Reunifying the season

One of the most controversial after-effects of the strike—and one that presaged the playoff system we have today—was the split-season format imposed upon the results of 1981. The teams leading their divisions when the strike came were proclaimed first-half champions, and the rest of the season was made a new pennant race, for which second-half champs would be named. The two winners in each division would play each other in an added playoff round to produce the four teams advancing to the League Championship Series.

The format had loads of precedent in the minors, where leagues had been playing split seasons for decades, and very frequently still do. Of course, split seasons usually weren’t imposed in the middle of that season (though it was occasionally done in the distant past when one team was totally running away from the league, to revive interest). This was a rough solution for a very rough situation, and despite what we may think of it today, it had strong support from the owners at the time.

According to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, 15 of the 26 teams came into a meeting on post-strike logistics favoring the split season, with only five wanting to play through to single division champions. Teams in strong second-place positions, such as St. Louis, Cincinnati and Baltimore, favored the latter. They were overwhelmed by division leaders locking in their success, tail-end teams wanting a second chance, and clubs in general hoping the immediacy of an eight-week sub-season plus an added playoff round would goose fan interest and attendance.

The split season may have accomplished that, but it left excellent teams out in the cold. The Cincinnati Reds owned baseball’s best overall record in 1981, at 66-42, but by finishing half a game behind the Dodgers in the first half, and 1.5 games behind Houston in the second half, they missed the expanded playoffs. Over in the NL East, the tale repeated itself with the Cardinals: one and a half behind Philadelphia early, one-half behind Montreal late, and the division’s best total record went for naught.

Fans of both teams, and other observers, lamented this shutout then and now, wishing the season structure had been different. It isn’t as easy as wishing: changing a single owner’s opinion would not deflect this course. Support for the split season was too strong, even with one persuasive voice added to the outmanned opposition. It would take some complicating factor that made a split-season more impracticable. Something like a tie in one of the divisions when the strike came.

In two divisions, this would have been tough to arrange, as the leaders were a game and a half up at strike time. In the NL West, as mentioned, the Reds trailed L.A. by half a game. If one Cincy rainout had been played instead, and the Reds won, they would have been tied with the Dodgers at 36-31 through the first half. Cincinnati actually had three rainouts early in the ’81 season. One was made up before the strike hit, but two were not: one hosting St. Louis on April 19, the other hosting San Francisco on May 26.

Weather being so unpredictable, one can always concoct “what if” scenarios about it, so this is a plausible route. Indeed, conjuring a rainout on a day the Dodgers won would also create a tie. But there is something unsatisfying about alternate histories that play out beyond human control. We like to believe ourselves masters of our fate, even when we’re fumbling it. If there’s a way to create the effect through the actions of people rather than the vagaries of meteorology, I prefer to take that route.

And there is such a route available, one with even more promise for scuttling the split-season scenario: the Orioles and Yankees in the AL East.

Scenario No. 7.1
Change: Dave Winfield gets wall-shy at the wrong time
Result: Dallas Green wins more Philly gold, bleeds Dodger blue, and earns Cooperstown bronze. Oh, and the Cubs reach the World Series.

George Steinbrenner’s Yankees put on a surge in the two weeks before the strike, overcoming a 4.5 game deficit to pull two games ahead of Baltimore. To that point, the teams had played each other six times, each sweeping the other at home. If one New York win at Yankee Stadium had gone instead to the O’s, the two-game lead would have narrowed to zero.

There were opportunities galore in the first two games of the series, June 2 and 3, both decided in 11 innings. New York needed a bottom of the ninth comeback to force extras, then seriously began reeling around on the tightrope. In the visitors’ 10th, with two outs and runners at the corners, Lenn Sakata blasted a fly to left that Dave Winfield leaped against the wall to bring in. In the top of the 11th, Goose Gossage loaded the bases with nobody out, but Houdini-ed free with no runs. Anonymous first baseman Dave Revering homered in the bottom half for a 5-3 Yankees win.

The next night went scoreless through the 10th, despite a comical play in the top of that frame. Jim Dwyer led off with a line drive to right that Bobby Brown tried to catch with a sit-down slide on wet grass. He missed, the ball skidding far past him, and Dwyer fetched up at third on a single and an error. Reliever Ron Davis buckled down and kept him there, and Graig Nettles hit the Yankees’ second two-run walk-off homer in two nights in the 11th.

The most dramatic of those potential turning points is Winfield’s play on Sakata’s drive, even if the other two had the Orioles as bigger favorites to win at that moment. It also allows me to posit this call of the alternate play, taken from Winfield’s earlier days in San Diego (with apologies to Jerry Coleman):

“There’s a deep fly ball. Winfield goes back, back … his head hits the wall! It’s rolling towards second base.”

We’ll assume that the results of following games are not altered by this change, and that aside from Winfield finding his route to Steinbrenner’s doghouse a little shorter, it doesn’t alter personal trajectories too greatly. What it does to the bigger picture is another matter.

When the strike comes, Baltimore and New York will be even in the “games behind” column, but they won’t actually be even. The Yankees will have a 33-23 record, while the Orioles will be 32-22. By winning percentage, Baltimore will be ahead .593 to .589. If a halt is called here, New York loses its first-half title to the O’s.

You can well imagine George Steinbrenner’s reaction to this. He won’t be alone, either. A lot of ordinary fans will bridle against a division hemi-title being awarded on the basis of teams having played an uneven number of games. Hard memories will still linger from the 1972 strike, which cut varying numbers of contests from teams’ schedules. This allowed Detroit to win the AL East over Boston by a half-game, the Red Sox playing one game fewer that they had no chance to make up. That was already happening in 1981 with the Dodgers and Reds, but now this is piled atop it.

So what do the owners do? Give Baltimore the first-half title by those four percentage points, and weather the ridicule? Propose a playoff between Baltimore and New York? To be played when? The season restarted with the All-Star Game on the 9th, three days after the split season was agreed on, and teams resumed play the following day. Their days off don’t line up. They’d have to have their playoff for the first half once the second half was over, with bizarre complications. If one of them won the second half also, they could possibly manipulate who they’d face in the divisional round by throwing the subsequent first-half playoff.

(Don’t scoff. The scenario crops up elsewhere in this benighted year.)

Those two ugly scenarios, along with the bluster of a righteously (and arguably rightly) indignant Steinbrenner, could have smashed the consensus for the split-season. From the ensuing wreckage, it’s unlikely that any complex plan could have emerged to gain majority support from the American League, and the necessary three-fourths vote in the National League. All that would be left is the simplest scenario, adopted by default: resume the season as though nothing happened, and whoever wins the most games takes each division.

This has its costs. The split-season, despite its contrivance, did restore playoff hopes to plenty of teams whose prospects had looked hopeless at the start of June. It also produced races that went down to the wire: three of the four were still not settled with two days left on the schedule. Fan interest that would have cooled for teams that won the first half would have been more than balanced by the second-half races. Taking that away means lower overall attendance, probably lower TV ratings, and likely a slower recovery from the damage the strike wrought.

It also appears to jumble the playoff teams. The first-half winners in our reality were the Phillies, Dodgers, Yankees and A’s. Take the overall records for the season, and only Oakland of those four stays on top. St. Louis overtakes Philadelphia, Cincinnati passes L.A., and Milwaukee drops the Yanks. Big change, right?

Except … those first-half champions were playing with the full knowledge that they’d be in the mix in October, whatever they did in the second half. All of them had worse records in the second half, mostly by triple-digit percentage points. Two of the four had losing records; the two that would wind up in the World Series, New York and Los Angeles, combined to go 52-52. New York manager Gene Michael let up so much, he got fired partway through the second half! With something to play for, wouldn’t they all have done better?

Now, some of this can be explained by regular regression to the mean, the tendency of a team that bolts out to a lead to fall off its pace, back toward .500. I did a very quick-and-dirty study of division leaders at the All-Star break over the last few seasons (the best two per league, to match the 1981 alignment) to see how much better or worse they did in the second half. It averaged out almost exactly to 50 points worse. I wasn’t looking for precision, just a general figure, so this round number works great for me.

For the second half of a unitary 1981, I will adjust the first-half winners’ percentages so that they do 50 points worse than the first half. This ends up with a disproportionate effect: three of the teams make substantial gains, but the Oakland A’s, who went from .617 to .551 between halves, gain almost nothing. It’s as if they weren’t easing up at all—which I think is appropriate. If there was ever a manager incapable of letting up during a stretch of games that didn’t really matter, it was Billy Martin.

1st half winner + Record   Pct.  Adj'd. pct.  2nd half record  Adj'd. record
   Phillies       34-21   .618     .568           25-27          29.5-22.5          
   Dodgers        36-21   .632     .582           27-26            31-22
   Yankees        34-22   .607     .557           25-26            28-23
   A's            37-23   .617     .561           27-22            28-21

A sticking point we face is that, if these teams are winning more than in real life, they’re taking those wins from other teams. Who? We can’t spread the added losses evenly across the rest of the leagues: there aren’t quite enough to go around. The best method I see is to look at the schedules as played, find the games most susceptible to a swing, and change those.

But let’s not give ourselves more work than we need to. The American League shakes out clearly, wherever we assign those new losses. The Oakland A’s win the West (they had the best overall record there even before adjustments), and the three added wins the Yankees get would push them ahead of the Brewers and Orioles, no matter where the extra wins came from. Over in the NL East, the minimum four wins the Phillies gain would eat up the 2.5 game deficit they had versus the Cardinals.

That leaves us just the Dodgers. Four added wins brings them to an overall record of 67-43. The Cincinnati Reds in real life had an overall record, best in baseball, of 66-42. In the games behind column, they’re dead even. Unless an added L.A. win (or more) comes at the expense of Cincinnati, we will end up bitten by the irony monster. In avoiding a percentage-point decision between the Orioles and Yankees, we will have dropped ourselves into another percentage-point decision, this one favoring the Reds over the Dodgers.

So which Dodgers losses could most easily have come out wins instead? Intuitively, they’d be extra-inning losses, games they were one run away from winning in regulation. L.A. had five extra-inning defeats in the second half of 1981, a rather high number. One apiece came against Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Houston—and two came against Cincinnati. Slice it however you like, the Dodgers snatch at least one win away from the Reds, and win the NL West outright.

The irony monster is slain—only for another to arise and take its place. All the teams that led when the strike began end up holding their leads during a unitary season. Though most of the races would have been close at the end, the result is as though the second half was meaningless. The owners and commissioner had feared indifference to the revived season by fans of teams already well off the pace. This could only have amplified it, along with bringing a storm of scornful commentary by the press.

What they won’t know is that the results almost perfectly replicate the four teams we ended up with in our League Championship Series in 1981. Only the Expos will fail to stay in it, replaced by a Phillies squad with a second chance to retain its World Series title from 1980. So we’ve done a lot of shuffling just to knock one team out of the LCS, one that didn’t even get to the Series.

There’s still a chance for new history, though. Would the Phillies have toppled the Dodgers to advance to the Fall Classic? It’s impossible to predict such a contingency with confidence, especially since the regular-season record is no help: a 3-3 tie. But it isn’t much of an alternate history if nothing much alters, so let’s stipulate a slam-bang NLCS with the Phils winning in five, then going on to make it two straight by beating the Yankees in six. (That much of history, the Yankees losing in six, we can leave alone.)

Philadelphia manager Dallas Green has now won the last two World Series, so you’d think he could get whatever he wanted from the Phillies. In real life, though, what he wanted was to get away. The Phillies had been up for sale since March, the owning Carpenter family not willing and able to keep up with spiraling salaries in the new free-agency era that had helped precipitate the strike. Four days after his team lost its first-round series to the Expos, the Chicago Cubs named Green their new general manager.

Would a second ring have kept Green in Philly? Almost certainly not. For him to be announced as the Cubs’ GM four days after his team was eliminated from the playoffs, his talks with them had to have been well advanced while Philadelphia was still in the hunt. His added success might have let him wring more money from the deal, but he was going unless he dramatically overplayed his position and Chicago broke off talks, stranding him with Philadelphia. That’s one implausible turn too many to put on the stack. He’ll go to Chicago, a couple weeks later than we saw him do.

Something a little likelier might be the subtle undermining of Tommy Lasorda’s position in Los Angeles. Winning the Series in 1981 after two misses in the ’70s had to have given him some added job security. He’d reach the playoffs twice more in the next four years, losing in the NLCS both times. Then he’d have consecutive 73-89 seasons in 1986 and ’87. Without the 1981 World Series appearance, and win, bolstering his record, this could have been the cue for management to look elsewhere.

And it was the force of Lasorda’s personality that pulled the team to a miracle title in 1988, or at least that’s as good an explanation as any for their improbable run. Without him, the Dodgers may still win the division, but the powerhouse Mets should bounce them in the NLCS, setting up a Mets-A’s World Series. That could go either way, but what it certainly won’t have will be Kirk Gibson and maybe the most jaw-dropping home run ever hit. It’d be hard to replace something that memorable, though the Mets showed themselves capable in ’86.

But we have bypassed Dallas Green while looking at this other branch of new history. Green takes an even better reputation to the Cubs than he did in our reality, the cachet of a winner. What would that added cachet have been worth? Enough to tempt over one more free agent, or keep one more free agent? Enough to improve his team a tiny bit a few years down the road? Enough to win one more game in October of 1984?

The Curse had been so close to ending. Chicago was up two games to none against the Padres in the 1984 NLCS. Win one game out of three in San Diego (it was best-of-five then), and the Cubs would finally be back in the World Series. How much, how little, could it take?

Beware the obvious answer. Leon Durham‘s sixth-inning error in Game Five keyed a four-run frame that gave San Diego the 6-3 lead it would hold till the end. Remove him from the equation, though, and you also remove the two-run homer he hit in the first. The 6-3 score becomes not 2-3, but 2-1 without him, and not counting whoever would have played first in his stead.

(Oh no. Could it still have been Bill Buckner, not traded away earlier that season? Could fate be so cruel as to deny the Cubs the pennant on a Buckner boot? Let us never speak of this again.)

As I have noted before, I am not Steve Treder, so I cannot encompass all of the Cubs’ possible moves within a world-spanning imagination. Let us just say it’s someone, someone who triggers a Cubs rally or snuffs a Padres one, someone who banishes that billy goat like a bad dream. The Cubs are going to the World Series! See you at Wrigley!

Sorry, did I say Wrigley? I meant Comiskey Park. For such was the tyranny of television.

The Cubs, still light-less at Wrigley Field, did get to play its NLCS games in the afternoon, at a steep price. To appease the networks, they surrendered their home-field advantage, thus playing only two day games at Wrigley. As they lost their last three to the Padres in San Diego, this takes on a terrible aspect.

Had they made the World Series, there would have been no relief. MLB had decreed that the Cubs would have to play their “home” games at Comiskey Park, or at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. One imagines Cubs management wouldn’t have made its long-suffering fans drive five hours each way to see their team play in the Series, so it would have been Comiskey.

The horrible irony in this is that there were two World Series day games in 1984, weekend games in Detroit, the last outdoor day games in World Series history. Could the Cubs have yielded home field again to get those weekend games played at Wrigley? Doubtful. Sunday’s game was a late afternoon start, scheduled to skirt around pro football, and ended under the lights. The Cubs would have thrown the schedule into chaos to get one game at Wrigley Field. I don’t think the league office would have allowed this.

So the Cubs winning the pennant would have ended up bittersweet, accent on bitter. The powerhouse Detroit Tigers would presumably have trounced them the way they trounced the Padres, and Cubs fans would have watched the sorrow unfold in the house of their scorned crosstown rivals. It almost makes you wish they hadn’t gotten to the Series at all.

This debacle probably would not have brought the lights to Wrigley much faster: the lost home field in the NLCS and the threat of what would happen in playoff rounds to come was enough of a prod. It likely would not have extended Green’s tenure as GM, either. He had only that one winning season in six years with the Cubs, and the owning Tribune Company was eating into his authority. The break would likely have happened when it did, after the 1987 season.

With his improved resume, though, Green would have had stronger prospects of landing on his feet. Not as a GM—he didn’t really do that well—but as a manager. With two rings on his fingers, he could have done better than real life: a short stint on Steinbrenner’s merry-go-round followed by four seasons with the hard-luck Mets. He could have replaced the retiring Gene Mauch with the California Angels.

It’s likelier he’d stay in his accustomed National League, though. Odds are, he would replace Tommy Lasorda, who just got squeezed out by the Dodgers after a second straight losing season.

It’ll be Green winning the division with L.A. in ’88, and getting bounced by the Mets. Would Green be able to outperform Lasorda in the years to come? Almost impossible to say, but he’d have a fighting chance. If he could steal a pennant or even a World Series somewhere, he would be in line for serious Hall of Fame consideration. It could be Dallas Green’s plaque on the wall in Cooperstown, in the space where Tommy Lasorda’s would have been.

And by the way, with Lasorda gone, the Dodgers never spend that 62nd-round draft pick in 1988 on the elder brother of Lasorda’s godson, Thomas Piazza. Mike may well latch on somewhere in a later draft: he was selected out of a junior college. Or possibly Mike Piazza falls through the cracks.

Intermission: breaking a broken season, and the lost game

I mentioned already that, had a team won both halves of the 1981 season, the division’s other playoff berth would have gone to the club that finished second in the second half. This wasn’t originally the case. In the meeting that established the split season, it was decided that in this scenario, the team with the next best overall record in the division, both halves together, would take the other playoff berth. It would also get just one home game in the five-game divisional series, to give first-half winners some slight inducement to play hard.

It took the brainier players and managers a few days at most to figure out how this could be exploited. If your overall record was good enough, but you were trailing a division leader that had also taken the first half, it could behoove you to lose games against that leader to insure that they held off a third team’s challenge. With the third team shut out, you’d get the playoff berth due to your superior overall performance.

If something brainy and convoluted is being thought up, one has learned to expect Tony LaRussa to be involved. And he was. The Chicago Tribune quoted him and some of his White Sox players on Aug. 14 as saying that, in the right circumstances, they might want to lose games against the Oakland A’s on the second-to-last weekend of the season. LaRussa, ever the lawyer, realized how this sounded, and quickly hedged his statement. His team would never play to lose, he said, but they might well forfeit games at Oakland to improve their playoff chances.

Whitey Herzog, manager of the Cardinals, was quoted in the same piece as thinking along the same lines. A plan conceived to give the maximum number of teams reasons to keep playing hard was instead being treated as justification not to play hard, or not to play at all. And the center of the controversy was the White Sox, who had nearly destroyed the game six decades before by deliberately losing some games.

Commissioner Kuhn didn’t waste time. The added playoff berth quickly was reassigned to the second-half runner-up in case of a double win. As none of the first-half winners repeated, it ended up not mattering, but Oakland did fall just one game short. Had they passed the Royals, the Texas Rangers had the next-best divisional record, 3.5 games ahead of third-place Chicago. Different playoff rules might have produced different efforts by the teams, but three and a half games is tough to make up in a 50-plus game dash.

The Rangers’ appearance probably would have had no further ripples. Oakland swept Kansas City out of the divisional round; Texas wasn’t likely to do much better. It would have erased one anomaly from the record books, though. The Royals, having had a lousy first half but a good second half, made the playoffs despite an overall record of 50-53. They are the only team in major league history to reach postseason play with a losing record.

In the season as it was played in 1981, it seems like every game had potential playoff consequences. There wasn’t a single race decided by more than two games, so all eight races could have been swung by a single game turning out differently. I will be riffling through the various possibilities a little later, but I want to spend a bit of time on one specific game that could have turned the National League East, even though it never came to a decision.

On April 29, the Cardinals played a doubleheader at Wrigley Field. The Cubs took the opener 6-1, and tied the late game 2-2 in the seventh on Durham’s home run to take it into extra innings. With no lights at Wrigley (I’ve made that point clear enough by now, right?), the teams were racing sunset—and lost. The game was called on account of darkness after the 11th inning, still 2-2.

The game was scheduled to be resumed at Wrigley on July 3. The strike wiped this out. The next Cardinals visit to Chicago was in late September, so after the strike ended, the resumption was set for Sept. 21. But an unanticipated complication arose: would the game count in the first half or the second?

St. Louis wanted it in the second half. An added win in the first half would do the Cardinals no good, but it might be crucial in the current trophy dash. Other teams wanted just the reverse. St. Louis was a good bet to beat the doormat Cubs and steal a march on the division. The National League resolved the dispute by declaring the game a tie, not to be replayed.

This decision seemed to split the difference, but in truth it was a defeat for St. Louis, and a huge one. The Cardinals would finish just half a game behind Montreal in the second half. Had they won the resumed game and it had been counted when it was concluded, not when it was begun, they would have tied for the lead. This time there would have been no percentage points involved: it would have been 30-23 apiece. There would have been a playoff to get into the playoffs, and everything could have been jumbled.

As was true everywhere.

Blame Canada

As noted above, every division in each half was theoretically within one changed game result of turning out differently. As a practical matter, however, it didn’t always shake out this way. I’ve already spent plenty of time on the first-half AL East, and just noted the potential for chaos in the second-half NL East. I will now give a dash through the other combinations, because if I give extended attention to each, you will still be reading this on New Year’s Day. And that remains true even if you began reading in 2014.

Texas was a game and a half behind Oakland in the first half, so a swing in one head-to-head game could have given the Rangers a playoff berth. If, that is, they had played each other at all before the strike. They didn’t. The second-half AL West race was a total waste of time. Kansas City edged out Oakland by one game, but even if the Royals had finished second, they would have advanced to play the A’s in the divisional round.

St. Louis was one and a half behind the Phillies in the first half, and played them six times. Not one of the Cardinal losses was closer than three runs, so it would take some hard pushing to get the Cards across the finish line that way. Cincinnati was in the same striking range against Houston for the second half, and so could have made October with one more late win against the Astros. But the Reds already took three of four from Houston after the strike, and the one they lost was an 8-1 thrashing, not amenable to being nudged into a victory.

Possibilities blossom again in the AL East. The Milwaukee Brewers finished the second half on top, but with three other teams within two games, close enough for a new champ or at least a playoff with a one-game swing. The closest win Milwaukee had against Baltimore (two back) was three runs, so we can leave out the O’s. (They already had their alternate-history crack against the Yankees anyway.) Against the Tigers and Red Sox, each one and a half behind, Milwaukee did have one-run wins, very late in the season, that could have turned everything.

If you want Detroit getting into the playoffs, imagine ace Jack Morris pitching to the score and not giving up the two-run rally in the bottom of the eighth that gave Milwaukee a 2-1 win on Oct. 3. On Boston’s behalf, erase the seventh-inning homer by career utility outfielder Mark Brouhard that was the only tally in the Brewers’ 1-0 win on Sept. 28. The latter scenario is much the tangier one, setting up a Yankees-Red Sox playoff series, a new chapter in that epic rivalry.

I’ve already shown that Montreal’s second-half title was vulnerable to St. Louis, but I am going to disappoint Cardinals fans and not pursue that line. I have an interest not only in preserving Montreal’s playoff berth, but in extending the Expos’ run through October. To do that, I have to meddle with the team that dashed the hopes of Canada in the NLCS, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Am I picking on L.A.? Well, this is alternate history. Something has to change. It’s not like I can get the Dodgers, who won the World Series in 1981, to do better.

Scenario No. 7.2
Change: Dallas Green thinks one batter ahead.
Result: The Florida Marlins become Sabermetrics Central, one Curse ends, and another lives.

It was a pretty important game for May 20. Philadelphia was half a game behind St. Louis in the NL East, while the West-leading Dodgers were looking to salvage the end of a series and get back on their red-hot track. The scoring came early, and the teams were deadlocked 2-2 from the third all the way into extra innings.

Lonnie Smith led off the top of the 10th for Philadelphia with a walk off Steve Howe. Manager Green, playing for one run, had Pete Rose bunt Smith over. This ended up opening up a base for Mike Schmidt, who had already homered that day, and Lasorda had Howe intentionally walk the slugger. Gary Matthews and Manny Trillo flied out to end the threat, and Rick Monday led off the home half with a game-winning home run.

Perhaps it’s gauche to pile onto someone I put into the Hall of Fame one “what if” ago, but Green should have known his bunt call would take the bat out of Schmidt’s hands. Besides, it’s Pete Rose. Yes, he’s 40, but he’s also batting .320 coming into the game, with a .387 on-base percentage. And those numbers weren’t flukes: he bettered them both by season’s end, while getting the most hits in the majors. You don’t have to be a bunt-hating saber-junkie to let Rose hit away here.

The result is good news/bad news, so let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Rose hits a soft liner to shortstop, failing to move the runner over. That’s fine: with all the changes I’m setting in motion, messing up the timing of Rose breaking Ty Cobb‘s hit record is a bother I don’t need. Now comes the good luck to balance the bad: Schmidt’s second home run of the game puts Philly up by two. The Dodgers get one back on Monday’s bomb, but Tug McGraw shrugs it off and gets the final three outs.

Los Angeles loses a game it could have won, and it costs the Dodgers. They wind up half a length behind the Cincinnati Reds when the strike shuts things down. Even with everything to play for, they can’t quite recapture their hot start for the second half, falling one game short of the Astros. They’re out of the playoffs altogether, and the different career path I had postulated for Lasorda once becomes a little more certain this time.

In their stead, the Reds battle past Houston in the divisional series. Or maybe Houston wins it instead. Either one’s okay, because neither of them is getting past the NLCS anyway. This time, there will be no Blue Monday, when Rick Monday hit a ninth-inning home run—yes, on a Monday—to push the Dodgers past the Expos in the all-or-nothing final game of the League Championship Series. This time, Montreal wins.

The first international World Series will begin at what is still the capital of baseball, Yankee Stadium in New York City. Three days later, on Friday, Oct. 23, 1981, baseball history will be made.

No, not the first World Series game played outside the United States. The first World Series game called on account of snow.

The forecast in Montreal that day called for wet snow showers with a high of 39 (four degrees Celsius), so technically it may have been rain by the time the postponement was made. No matter: snow makes for much the better narrative, perfectly fitting expectations, especially in the United States, of what would befall a World Series held in Canada. One can only imagine Johnny Carson reveling in this gift of monologue gold. (Hope he wasn’t on vacation that week.)

The next day stays cold, and starts off with flurries, but the snow does clear away by afternoon. After another round of news footage of groundskeepers wielding shovels, Olympic Stadium’s field is finally cleared off, and the World Series can resume.

And in this version of history, it breaks in favor of Les Expos. Maybe the Yankees get out-psyched by the cold and snow. Maybe whatever hoodoo latched onto them after going up 2-0 on L.A. in our reality chases them across timelines. Or maybe Montreal just matches up well, and it’s less the Yankees losing than the Expos winning. We’ll keep the real-life numbers, same as we did with Philadelphia grabbing the brass ring: ‘Spos in six.

The luckiest man in North America is arguably Jim Fanning. He replaced Dick Williams, fired midway through the second half, as manager. His 43rd game as a big-league skipper is the one that wins the Series, which I am pretty sure is a record. In real life he’d get one more season, a stub in 1984, and not manage again. In our scenario, Bill Virdon is probably looking elsewhere for work in 1983, and Fanning has significantly more job security.

It’s the Montreal Expos, 11 years ahead of the Blue Jays, who become Canada’s first World Series winner. They are the toast of Canada, and especially the toast of Quebec. The franchise will be strengthened by this victory, embraced more closely by its fans through the ups and downs of the years to come.

(There is another, perhaps darker, possibility lurking within this. Joy over the Expos could be a peculiarly provincial feeling, intensifying Quebecois pride in a way distinct from Canadian pride. The Quebec separatist movement, which peaked in the 1990s, might be buttressed by this pride. A 1995 referendum on Quebec seceding from Canada failed by a little over one percentage point. Could deeper Quebec identification following a sports championship have closed this gap? As complex as this issue is, I won’t pursue it here, but I had to note that the possibility exists.)

The Expos seem finally headed back to the World Series in 1994, as they hold the best record in baseball on Aug. 11. That is when another strike comes, this time wiping out the season entirely. It’s a bitter disappointment, but one can see the irony. A strike helped give the Expos a World Series win; now a strike takes a potential one away. Such recollections help to buffer the pain of Expos fans. Support of their team will be hurt, but it will not melt away.

Now we round into the end of the 1990s, a pivotal time for the Expos. In our timeline, the franchise was struggling popularly and financially, though it had hopes of revival coming via a new downtown ballpark to succeed Olympic Stadium. Montreal also had hopes from a new owner buying into the team, hopes that would be comprehensively smashed. The owner’s name was Jeffrey Loria.

Our version of Loria rapidly holed his ship below the waterline. His attempt to revive stuttering ballpark plans hit the same funding issues and went nowhere. He pushed dubious trades on his front office. Maybe worst of all, he canned manager Felipe Alou, the face of the team, installing replacement-level manager Jeff Torborg in his place. The faltering Expos cratered, and were in Washington by 2005, without Loria. He sold the team off to MLB, in exchange for being allowed to buy up the Florida Marlins.

And we all know what he’s been doing with to the Marlins since then.

How did Loria enter this unholy cycle? He was an art dealer who owned a minor-league team for a few years, and had ambitions to move up. And he had a friend in the business, a baseball owner who backed his plans to buy into the majors. That owner was George Steinbrenner.

Steinbrenner never took losing well, an attitude that admittedly fits in fairly well in baseball. But what happened in 1981 would have been intolerable. For him, born on the Fourth of July, to lose the championship of the all-American game to the Canadians? It would have rankled for a lifetime.

Helping Loria in his failed 1994 attempt to buy the Baltimore Orioles would be one thing. But the Montreal Expos? George wouldn’t touch that wearing a hazmat suit. Loria would be on his own, and if he didn’t understand why, tough.

Without the support of Steinbrenner—indeed, with the two suddenly and inexplicably at odds—Loria’s bid for the Expos falls through. It’s some other owner that takes stewardship of the franchise which, do recall, is in better shape than the version that didn’t win it all in 1981. That owner may be only moderately competent, but it beats Loria.

The stadium proposal, a little stronger to begin with in the new timeline, ends up getting worked out. A somewhat trimmed-down Labatt Park opens in 2003, just in time to host, and boost, a resurgence in the team’s fortunes. The Expos win a nip-and-tuck wild card race, nosing ahead of the Marlins in their own division, then upset the 100-win Giants in the NLDS.

The magic ends there. The Chicago Cubs are too much for them, winning the pennant in five games (though not at home, a transient disappointment). The Cubs go to the World Series for the first time in 58 years—and win it for the first time in 95, beating the Yankees in a Game Seven that has rightly gone down in history as one of the most exciting baseball games ever.

I mentioned the Marlins in passing, and they require a closer look. Their owner at the turn of the millennium was John Henry. In real history, he sold them in 2002 to make room for Loria, and immediately snapped up the Boston Red Sox. In alternate history, Henry didn’t have to make room for the rat deserting the sinking ship, so his move to Boston would have been fatally retarded. Cable TV tycoon James Dolan, brother of Cleveland owner Charles, would probably have become the new Red Sox owner.

This could have constricted Henry’s options with a mid-market team, but not his philosophy. Indeed, with less revenue to lavish on players, his analytic mindset would be if anything more valuable. His cornerstone would remain the same: to bring the first name in sabermetrics into the fold. Bill James once admitted that it hurt to write “1997 World Champion Florida Marlins,” but he’d cry all the way to the bank, and into the inner circle of baseball minds. Oh, and picking up a promising Padres front-office guy named Theo Epstein to be the GM would help, too.

The arrival of Epstein and James, and the overall emphasis on analytics, would not pay immediate dividends. In the real 2002, Loria had installed Jeff Torborg (yes, him again) as Marlins manager, then fired him partway through 2003 and hired Jack McKeon. McKeon led the team on a miraculous run to the Marlins’ second world championship. John Henry would never have hired Torborg, or subsequently McKeon, and that alchemical equation would be lost. They’d be a middling team in 2003, pushed to the wayside in their Wild Card quest by the Expos.

The analytics department would succeed in keeping the Marlins competitive, avoiding the boom-and-bust cycle inaugurated by old owner Wayne Huizenga when he won the Series in 1997 and promptly sold off every player he could. They’d almost break Atlanta’s stranglehold on the division championship in 2005, recede the next year as the Mets surged, then outlast the Mets and Phillies for their first division title ever. They’d shock the streaking Rockies, outlast the D-backs, and reach their second World Series.

Only to fall in five to the New York Yankees.

Steinbrenner would never know how big a favor he had done himself by stiffing Loria on his second attempt to buy into the baseball owners’ club. Dolan as Red Sox owner might know TV deals and revenue streams, but he’d be much less innovative with the running of the team itself. The Red Sox would have a little more money, a little less wisely spent on the field.

George would still have more money. It’d show in 2003, when the Yankees beat Boston in a titanic ALCS, and it would show again the next year, when they repeated the feat against an imperceptibly weakened team. Steinbrenner’s fresh ego wound of being the team against which the snake-bitten Cubs finally broke their Curse would be salved by beating the Cardinals in the 2004 Fall Classic. It would also be sustained by having kept the Red Sox where all Yankees believed they belonged: off the podium at the end of the season, their Curse intact.

So it has remained ever since. Boston keeps getting in the mix nearly every year, and keeps falling short. Even when the Red Sox made the Series in 2008, they fell to the Phillies. This season just ended made it 95 years since they last won the World Series, the mark at which the Cubs finally won it all. It was some solace that the Yankees also had a down year in 2013, so it was another team from the American League East that would win the Fall Classic.

That, of course, being the Washington Grays.

With the Montreal Expos a healthier franchise, they never became wards of the league, and were never moved to Washington D.C. This left the ground open for anyone who considered the nation’s capital a greener pasture. Fitting this category were the owners of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Stuart Sternberg and Matthew Silverman were from a new generation of Wall Street wizards, but they still had a touch of Gordon Gekko—or maybe plain old common sense—in them. When the unsuitability of Tropicana Field became clear to them, they tried to leverage a new stadium deal using a threat to pack up and move north. This was rather complicated, as a use agreement signed by the former owner committed the Devil Rays to playing at the Trop until 2027.

Their counter-maneuvers were brilliant. While they wrung stadium concessions out of local governments in the D.C. area, they got an unlikely partner in helping them escape Tropicana: John Henry. They got the Marlins’ owner to chip in part of the long-term payments they would make to St. Petersburg to be allowed to break the agreement. What Henry gained was getting the state of Florida back as undivided Marlins territory.

They also got Bud Selig to run interference with the Orioles, whose turf they would be crowding. In real life, Selig did the incoming Expos that favor for the goal of getting an MLB franchise into the nation’s capital, for the political back-scratching value as much as anything else. That value would still be there for an incoming team from Tampa Bay, so Sternberg and Silverman make a little glad-handing and kowtowing go a long way.

The Wall Street wolves settled into antiquated RFK Stadium, the new team nickname drawn from the Negro League Homestead Grays to chime with the team name they shed with their move. A few years later, the G-Rays (some wags still call them that today, though the joke is fading) moved into their new digs in Arlington County, Va. By this time, the owners were well into their own sabermetric revolution, figuring out how to compete with economic titans in Boston and New York on a shoestring.

After a 2008 false start, the breakthrough year came in 2009, for the franchise’s first winning season and playoff berth. The Grays have been strongly competitive every season since, making the AL East the three-headed monster it is today. They did more than compete in 2013, winning the division, plowing through Detroit, surviving fellow sabermetric maven Billy Beane and his A’s, then taking the Fall Classic in six.

How John Henry feels about still paying the freight for the team that beat his Florida Marlins in the World Series, one can well imagine. But I’ll let you handle that: my imagination isn’t all that strong.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference (notably its Bullpen encyclopedia section)
Retrosheet
The New York Times
The Montreal Gazette
The Extra 2%, Jonah Keri
Dollar Sign on the Muscle, Kevin Kerrane

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Comments

  1. Terry Netos said...

    I’m afraid you’re mistaken about the home field advantage in the 1984 NLCS.  The Cubs did not lost home-field advantage in the LCS (which alternated between division in a 2-3 format in those days).  Had they won the NL pennant, however, they would’ve lost home field advantage in the World Series (which alternated between the leagues on an annual basis back then).

  2. Don Sherman said...

    Terry is correct.  The NL East had home field advantage for the NL Playoffs that year.  What would have happened if the Cubs won would be that Detroit would have had home field advantage and that games 3-5 would have been played during the day at Wrigley.

    I think it is referenced in Sparky’s diary of the season, or Roger Craig’s.  In one of those books it says the players had to watch game 5 not knowing if they would have to travel to SD or stay home.

  3. Terry Netos said...

    Yes, the NL did have home field advantage during the 1984 World Series per the rotation then in place.  Had the Cubs won the NLCS, however, they would’ve lost home field advantage to the AL pennant winner because of the absence of lights at Wrigley Field.

  4. Philip said...

    Padres (NL West) had home field advantage in the NLCS in 1984 (was a best of five at the time).

    It was the NL’s turn to have home field advantage in the World Series, but MLB intended to give it to the Tigers in order to have games 3, 4 and 5 during the daytime at Wrigley.

    According to the The Milwaukee Journal (5/31/85), the Cubs would play any World Series home games at Comiskey Park because ABC exercised an option in the contract stipulating all night games for the WS.

    And how about this one!
    The Bulletin (Bend Co, Oregon)
    from UPI: “Wrigley Won’t See Playoffs: Owners Will Honor Network Contract”

    In 1986, the Cubs made arrangements to use, get this, Busch Stadium in St. Louis as their home park if they made it to the World Series.

    Imagine the Cubs and Red Sox playing in the World Series that year and one of the celebrating on the field in St. Louis!

    (The article also says that MLB had approved the switch of home field advantage to the AL in the 1984 WS had the Cubs been the NL representative.)

  5. Herb Smith said...

    It’s kind of stunning to re-live just HOW absurdly bad the Cub situation has been since WW II. And there is zero doubt that the day games/no lights thing had a lot to do with their annual late-season swoon.

    Good times!

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