Returning this week to baseball in our ongoing trip down memory lane, we will have a look at one of the weirdest seasons in history, and, for Cleveland fans, the shining center-point of that season: the May 15 perfect game from Lenny Barker against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The World Series in 1980 had been a refreshing change of pace for baseball fans who liked some variety, as the Philadelphia Phillies won the first World Series in their history in six games over the Kansas City Royals. Baseball, in other words, was coming off of a season that it needed, a season where the juggernauts were not in the picture at the end, for once.
Unfortunately labor issues darkened the horizon, and those labor issues would create something unique in 1981.
The Indians were attempting what was an annual ritual, to pull themselves over the .500 bar and into contention, after finishing 1980 at 79-81 and a hefty 23 games behind the Yankees. All through the '60s and '70s a common theme in Tribe baseball was the elusive quest for the winning season. There had been a few in the two decades, but too few, and even when a season ended on the plus-side, the deficit in games-behind was large enough to render any success moot. The '80s looked to be much of the same (and of course, basically turned out that way).
Surprisingly, the Indians poked their noses above .500 early in the season and remained there, and, more importantly, were right in the thick of things in the AL East, although the usual expectations of a swoon to come and a cold spring had attendance low at Cleveland Stadium, and only 7,290 showed up in 49-degree weather on May 15 to see the Tribe take on Toronto, a fifth-year team still experiencing growing pains.
"Large" Lenny Barker was not known for pinpoint control, but on this chilly night he had his repertoire working, and once he heated up, the Blue Jays showed little if any inclination to mount a rally against him. Through the first three innings, every out was put into play, but then Barker started moving Toronto down on strikes, eventually totaling 11 strikeouts, every last one of them swinging strike-threes, over the final six innings. The defense came through with outstanding plays in the sixth by Toby Harrah and in the seventh by Duane Kuiper.
The Indians scored twice in the first against Luis Leal, and it remained that way until the bottom of the eighth, when the Tribe tacked on an insurance run on a Jorge Orta homer. But the less-than-8,000 were more interested in what they were seeing on the mound for the Indians...24 Blue Jays up, 24 Blue Jays down heading to the ninth, and that crowd sounded like 80,000 as Barker came out to try for perfection. Through eight innings Barker had not gone even to a three-ball count on any batter, so commanding had he been, but of course, the pressure of a ninth inning of a no-hitter, let alone a perfect game, is crushing.
But Barker retired Rick Bosetti of the Jays on a foul pop to Harrah, and then Al Woods, pinch hitting, struck out.
One out to go.
Another pinch hitter, Ernie Whitt, represented Toronto's last hope. Keeping full command, Barker jumped ahead of Whitt in the count, and then, on the 103rd pitch of the game, Whitt flared a medium-deep fly ball to center. Rick Manning camped under it, waving his arms to ward off any interfering outfielders, and perhaps anyone in Lake County and Lorain County as well, grabbed the final out of the perfecto and immediately began leaping in the air as Barker was mobbed by the Indians.
It was the 10 perfect game in baseball history, and 29 years later, it is the last no-hitter thrown by an Indians' pitcher.
By June 12, the Indians were 26-24, a successful start for a team which had been down for almost 25 years, and the Tribe were within five games of the Yankees in the East, but then...Marvin Miller of the players' union called for a strike, and baseball stopped in mid-stride, and remained dormant until August.
So, what to do once the strike was over to re-fire interest in the game, especially in those cities wherein the first 50 or so games had left them pretty much too far behind to "catch up" in a shortened season? The solution was, basically, a do-over, a fresh start, with all teams leading their divisions being declared first-half winners, and beginning again at 0-0, and playing a second half. Should the same team win both halves, it was decided that a wild-card team from that division would advance to the playoffs, and thus, for the first time since the leagues had split into divisions, baseball would have an extra round in the postseason. And, in effect, the four division winners of the first-half had nothing to really play for when play resumed, as their playoff spots were already assured.
First order of business was the All-Star Game to welcome baseball back, and fortunately Cleveland was the host city, which gave Lenny Barker the chance to pitch two scoreless frames in front of the home crowd of 72,086 on Aug. 9.
Back in business again, the Indians came very close to duplicating their "first-half" record, winning, in fact, exactly the same amount of games -- 26 -- but losing three more to finish, once again, five games behind, this time behind the Milwaukee Brewers. The Indians' overall 52-51 record left them seven games behind the Brewers' overall mark. In most seasons back then, being seven back with 59 games to go would have been considered a pennant race.
The four teams -- two in each league -- gifted with an instant playoff spot under that year's bizarre postseason format graciously "allowed" four other squads to "win their division" in the second half, and thus no wild -card was necessary. And when all was said and done and the eight-team tournament was reduced to two, some normalcy returned to baseball tradition with a Yankees-Dodgers World Series, won by Los Angeles in six games.
The bizarre season was over and it would be 13 years before a way was found to "top it", when in 1994 another strike wiped out the postseason, but that is a story for another day.
Thanks, Lenny Barker, for making that most unusual season memorable for something that happened between the white lines, and not in some boardroom.