New York’s three-game sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals in the 1980 ALCS left Yankees owner George Steinbrenner looking for someone to blame.  Choosing to make Dick Howser the scapegoat for his team’s poor showing in the postseason, Steinbrenner relieved the manager of his duties, even though he led the Yankees to their best regular season record in 17 years.  New York’s impulsive owner replaced Howser at the helm with coach Gene Michael.

Having addressed his managerial situation, Steinbrenner turned his attention to the team’s roster.  With San Diego outfielder Dave Winfield the off-season’s biggest free-agent prize, Steinbrenner spared no expense in acquiring the slugger’s services for his team.  After wining and dining Winfield for several days, Steinbrenner signed the 29-year-old outfielder to a 10-year, $23 million contract, making him the game’s highest-paid player.  Shortly after acquiring Winfield, the Yankee front office enlisted the services of another San Diego outfielder when it traded Ruppert Jones and three minor leaguers to the Padres for centerfielder Jerry Mumphrey.    

The changes the Yankees made helped them get off to a fast start.  The team stood in first place in the A.L. East, with a record of 34-22, when a players’ strike halted play for two months.  However, New York struggled somewhat after play resumed in August, leading Steinbrenner to replace Gene Michael in the dugout with Bob Lemon.  The Yankees fared no better under Lemon, posting a record of only 11-14 in their final 25 games.  Yet, they benefited from the fact that their first-place standing at the time of the strike guaranteed them a postseason berth, even though they finished the regular season with an overall record of just 59-48.    

With the American League’s 11th best offense, the Yankees showed clear signs of vulnerability during the regular season.  Rick Cerone demonstrated that his outstanding 1980 campaign would likely turn out to be his career-year.  Meanwhile, Bob Watson, Willie Randolph, and Reggie Jackson all experienced subpar seasons.  Only Jerry Mumphrey and Dave Winfield played up to their full capabilities.  Mumphrey led the team with a .307 batting average and 14 stolen bases, while Winfield hit 13 home runs, batted .294, and finished first on the club with 68 runs batted in, 25 doubles, and 114 hits, en route to earning a seventh-place finish in the A.L. MVP voting.

Fortunately for the Yankees, they featured the junior circuit’s best pitching staff, compiling a league-leading 2.90 team ERA.  Ron Guidry, Tommy John, and A.L. Rookie of the Year Dave Righetti gave New York a formidable “Big Three” at the top of the starting rotation, posting a combined record of 28-17 between them.  Righetti led the league with a 2.05 ERA, while John and Guidry compiled marks of 2.63 and 2.76, respectively.  Meanwhile, Goose Gossage and Ron Davis formed an intimidating duo in the bullpen.  Davis posted six saves and a 2.71 ERA, allowed opposing batters only 47 hits in 73 innings of work, and struck out 83 men.  Gossage was even better, compiling an ERA of 0.77, finishing second in the league with 20 saves, and allowing only 22 hits in 47 innings of work, while striking out 48 batters.  Gossage’s exceptional performance earned him a ninth-place finish in the MVP balloting and a spot on the A.L. All-Star Team.  Teammates Davis, Dent, Jackson, Randolph, and Winfield joined him on the A.L. roster.  Ron Guidry was the only New York player named to The Sporting News All-Star Team.

Facing the Milwaukee Brewers in the A.L. East Division Series, the Yankees jumped out to a two-games-to-none advantage.  Milwaukee, though, took the next two games at Yankee Stadium, before the Yankees won the decisive fifth contest by a score of 7-3.  New York then quickly disposed of the Billy Martin-led Oakland A’s in the ALCS, sweeping the Series in three games by a combined score of 20-4.

However, the Yankees didn’t fare nearly as well against the Dodgers in the World Series.  After winning the first two games at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees lost four straight games to Los Angeles, with injuries to Graig Nettles and Reggie Jackson contributing significantly to the defeat.  Dave Winfield’s 1-for-22 performance subsequently drew criticism from George Steinbrenner, who referred to his $23 million superstar as “Mr. May.”  Little did anyone realize at the time that the Yankees would not make it back to the World Series for another 15 years.

By Bob_Cohen

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1981 ALCS, 1981 ALDS1, 1981 ALDS2, 1981 World Series, Billy Martin, Bob Lemon, Bob Watson, Dave Righetti, Dave Winfield, Dick Howser, Gene Michael, George Steinbrenner, Graig Nettles, Jerry Mumphrey, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, Reggie Jackson, Rich Gossage, Rick Cerone, Ron Davis, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Willie Randolph


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