As spring training began in 1981, the fate of the Tigers was overshadowed in Detroit by nthe fate of baseball itself.
The issue of free agency compensation was the stickler. Owners wanted teams who signed free agents to forfeit a player from their roster, after being able to protect 12 players. The players felt that this would undermine and devalue free agency.
A strike deadline was set for May 29, but it was extended so the case could be heard by the National Labor Relations Board.
The strike began in mid-June and lasted through the end of July. A compromise was reached: teams who lost "premium" free agents would be able to choose from a talent pool comprised of unprotected players from all the MLB teams, not just from the signing team. And players wouldn't be able to be free agents until after completing their sixth year in the big leagues.
The work stoppage impacted the post-season heavily. It was decided that the season would be split into two halves---one that occurred before the strike and one after. The division leaders of the two halves would meet in a best-of-five divisional series. If the same team won both halves, a Wild Card team would be allowed into the tournament.
As for the Tigers, righty Jack Morris started the All-Star Game in Cleveland, which was played on August 9, the day before the second half began. Outfielder Kirk Gibson, from Michigan State, in his second full season, caught fire in the second half, batting .375 after a miserable first half.
The Tigers found themselves in a truncated pennant race, battling the Milwaukee Brewers for the second half AL East title. The race, though mocked by some because it barely included 50 games, nonetheless spurred excitement in Detroit and Milwaukee. The season's final series called for the Tigers to visit Milwaukee. Whichever team won two of three games would capture the half-pennant.
The Tigers dropped the opener Friday night, and on Saturday afternoon, they led 1-0 going into the bottom of the eighth inning. But without hitting the ball out of the infield, the Brewers tied the game, and then went ahead on a sacrifice fly.
In the top of the ninth, with the Tigers needing at least one run to save their season, reliever Rollie Fingers induced a fly out from Rick Leach, then struck out Champ Summers and Lou Whitaker to end the game and clinch the half pennant for Milwaukee.
It was certainly a disappointment, but at least the Tigers' young players got a dose of pennant race pressure, which could only serve to help them in the future.
Gibson finished the season batting .328 overall, and Lance Parrish led the team with 10 home runs. Jack Morris won 14 games in what essentially was two-thirds of a season (the Tigers played a total of 109 games), and Milt Wilcox and Dan Petry won 12 and 10 games, respectively.By GregEno
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- 1981 strike, Champ Summers, Dan Petry, Detroit Tigers, Free Agent, Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, Lou Whitaker, Milt Wilcox, Rick Leach, Rollie Fingers