Though it featured, most notably, the birth of me, the 1980s were something of a mixed decade for baseball. Low points included the 1981 labor stoppage and the Pittsburgh drug trials, revealing that the cocaine problem in baseball was so widespread that even the “Pirate Parrot” was purchasing the drug.
On the brighter side, the decade saw maybe the greatest postseason of all time in 1986 and the parity achieved throughout the decade that saw a different team win the World Series in each of the decade’s first eight years.
But does parity in teams make for greatness in players? You’ll just have to read on to find out.
I have gone over the rules for qualification on these teams multiple times, so I will spare you this week. The one exception is for the reliever spot, whose qualifications were introduced regularly only as the idea of a reliever became a more common thing. Thus, to be eligible for a reliever spot, a player must have appeared in at least 400 games in relief in the decade while starting no more than 30 games.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s find out who made the squad:
Catcher: Gary Carter
There are some great positional battles upcoming, but catcher does not have one. In fact, “Kid” towers over the competiton, more than a win and a half better per season than his nearest competition. An All-Star every season save 1989, Carter put up a .782 OPS in the decade while slugging more than 200 home runs.
At the time of his death, far too young, from brain cancer, Carter was remembered as the man who provided “championship fiber” for the dominating 1986 Mets.
First base: Eddie Murray
From 1981 through 1984, Eddie Murray put up an OPS+ of 156, 156, 156 and, finally, 157. Perhaps it is becoming clear why he was known as “Steady Eddie.” Though I remember Murray as something of a bat-for-hire, bouncing around during the later part of his career, this decade saw his glory days as an Oriole. For the decade, no one drove in more runs and Murray ranked first or second among first baseman in hits, runs, doubles, home runs, walks. He also won three Gold Gloves for his defense and slugged three home runs during the Orioles’ World Series winning 1983 postseason run.
|All-80s shortstop Cal Ripken being honored in Baltimore (US Presswire)|
Second base: Lou Whitaker
In the 1980s alone, Lou Whitaker won three Gold Glove awards, made five All-Star teams and led all second baseman in hits, runs, homers and RBI. Naturally, when it came time to vote for the Hall of Fame, Whitaker earned a grand total of 15 votes.
Anyway, as all that shows, Whitaker was a terrific all-around player. The decade saw some pretty good second baseman—including Ryne Sandberg, who cruised into the Hall of Fame despite not being a noticeably better player than Whitaker—but the career-long Tiger was the best.
Third base: Wade Boggs
Maybe this is just me, but it seems that for a truly great player, a doubles machine, five-time batting champion, and so on, Wade Boggs is remembered for an inordinate amount of what might be loosely termed “other stuff.”
There’s the superstitions—Boggs ate chicken before every game and performed certain pre-game rituals at the same time every game—and the Margo Adams thing. There’s Boggs’ apparent fondness for pro wrestling: He appeared in a promotional video with “Mr. Perfect” Curt Henning and later inducted him into the WWE Hall of Fame. There’s Boggs’ own Hall of Fame controversy, with rumors that he was paid by the then-Devil Rays to enter the Hall wearing their cap. There is the possible apocryphal story that Boggs could drink 50 or 60 Miller Lites during the travel from New York to Seattle for a road trip. And of course, for Yankee fans, there’s Boggs riding the police horse around Yankee Stadium after winning the World Series.
None of this changes anything about the Boggs the player—well, maybe the beer thing—but it seems unusual to me that a player capable of being remembered for his talents would have so much to go along with it.
Shortstop: Cal Ripken
This was, by a fair measure, the toughest spot to pick for any all-decade team. Four players are within five WAR of each other for this spot. One of them I managed to remove by sticking him elsewhere (you’ll see in a moment) but the others are even more tightly bunched. Among Alan Trammell, Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken, the difference is less than a quarter of a win per season.
So how did Ripken get the spot? The short answer is that he was slightly better at his best than either of the other two. His 1983 and 1984 seasonsAlan Trammellwhen he averaged more than 9 WAR per season to go along with a .311 average and 145 OPS+Alan Trammellare enough to put him on top.
That having been said, it would certainly not be “wrong” to put either Trammel or Smith in this spot, and it is possible that by the time all is said and done in the comment section I will have changed my mind.
Left field: Rickey Henderson
Bill James—once moronically accused of minimizing the contributions of Rickey Henderson on the grounds of racism—has written that if you split Rickey Henderson in two you would have two Hall of Famers. This statement has, predictably, been analyzed a lot of ways. But you could make a good case that the numbers Henderson put up in this decade would be a Hall of Fame career all on their own. Of course, it starts with the stolen bases: He nabbed 838 in the 10 years, leading the league every season save 1987. (He played just 95 games that season and was fifth in steals anyway.)
But there was more than just speed to his success. He led the league, variously, in runs scored, hits and walks. He made the All-Star team eight times and had five top-10 MVP performances. (He probably deserved more, particularly for his 1980 season when he finished a criminally low 10th in the voting.)
One might argue that in the ’80s alone Rickey Henderson did not quite do enough to reach the Hall of Fame. No player in the decade came closer.
|The one, the only: Rickey (US Presswire)|
Center field: Robin Yount
I mentioned earlier that one way I solved the shortstop logjam was by moving a player to another position. Well, here’s that man. After putting up the best shortstop season of the decade—and earning MVP honors—in 1982, Yount moved to center field for the 1985 season.
Given that he would win the 1989 MVP award playing the position, I think we can safely say that the move worked. Of course, a big part of this was that Yount hit wherever you stuck him. He would lead the league, at various times throughout the decade, in hits, doubles, triples and OPS. In fact, he is the decade’s leader in hits and doubles, and behind only the speedy Willie Wilson in triples. That much offense coming out of a man capable of playing two of the toughest defensive positions on the diamond meant there was no question the all-decade team would find a place for the longtime Brewer.
Right field: Andre Dawson
Like some others—Jim Rice leaps to mind, as does that other ’80s mainstay, Jack Morris—the controversy around Andre Dawson’s Hall of Fame induction has for some overshadowed his legitimate greatness. It is true that Dawson was never a big taker of walks. Only nine players had more plate appearances in the decade, but 81 drew more walks. On the other hand, when Dawson swung the bat, he did some major damage.
Overall he slugged 250 home runs in the ’80s and just three players had more extra-base hits. And Dawson did all that while playing the kind of defense that earned him eight Gold Gloves and justified his childhood “Hawk” nickname.
Two thoughts on that rotation: first, most obviously, it is not quite as eye-catching as that of say, the 1910s or 1960s. Second, I suppose Jack Morris is conspicuous in his absence. While he did lead all pitchers in wins during the decade, there are more important things than simply wins for a pitcher, so he’s not on the squad.
Stieb is one of the great underrated pitchers in baseball history, twice leading the league in ERA+ during the decade and earning himself just a pair of seventh place finishes in the Cy Young voting for his trouble. His undoing, perhaps predictably, was his win totals. Despite posting a major league-best 126 ERA+ among qualifying starters, Stieb won just 140 games. During the 1985 season, while leading the league in ERA, he went just 14-13.
I’ll spare you yet more (digital) ink spilled on Blyleven—who made the all-decade last decade as well, of course—and move to Bob Welch. There were seasons, like 1981 and ’84, when Welch was a relatively mediocre starter. On the other hand, when things were good, they were very good. In 1985 Welch went 14-4 with a 150 ERA+, and in 1987 he led the National League in shutouts.
In the popular memory, it seems many believe Fernando Valenzuela made his Fernandomania! debut in 1981, winning the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards and then more-or-less immediately ate himself out of baseball. Of course, this is somewhat belied by Valenzuela’s numbers the rest of the decade. Even excluding 1981, he won more than 110 games and posted strong seasons as a workhorse for the Dodgers in 1985 and ’86.
As 1982 rolled around, it would have seemed hard to believe that John Tudor would someday be making this team. A three-year, 27-year old veteran, Tudor had pitched less than 200 innings in his career with an ERA just a shade better than league average. But for the rest of the way, Tudor was outstanding. He posted a 3.06 ERA and threw 15 shutouts, including a league-leading 10 in 1985.
Relief pitcher: Dan Quisenberry
I’ve written about Quisenberry before, in large part for his wit: “Natural grass is a wonderful thing for little bugs and sinkerball pitchers,” “I found a delivery in my flaw,” and so on. Of course, as his place on this team demonstrates, “Quiz” was as adroit on the mound as he was with his words.
The league leader in saves five times during the decade, Quisenberry threw the kind of innings totals unseen by modern closers, averaging just shy of 100 per season for the decade. (Of course this might go some ways in explaining why he was basically finished as a pitcher at age 34.) During his 1980-85 peak, Quiz led the league in saves every season save ’81—he was third—and posted a 165 ERA+. Though he pitched many fewer innings than most men on the list, Quisenberry’s career 146 ERA+ remains the eighth best all-time.
Manager: Whitey Herzog
In the 1970’s Whitey Herzog managed the Royals to three straight division titles, and three straight losses in the ALCS to the Yankees. In 1980 the Royals finally defeated the Yankees except Herzog had by then left the Royals to take over the St. Louis Cardinals. So at first blush it might seem that the man born Dorrel Norman Elvert Herzog had made the wrong choice.
Of course, it turned out quite the other way. Over the next decade, Herzog would win three more division titles. Unlike his time in Kansas City, these division titles came with playoff success as the Cards won the 1982 World Series and appeared in the 1985 and ’87 Fall Classic as well. For good measure Herzog won nearly 800 games in St. Louis and was the most successful manager of the decade.