One of the biggest changes in Phoenix’s baseball landscape came in 1985 when the Phoenix Giants changed its nickname to the Firebirds. Although the club was still affiliated with the San Francisco Giants, new owner Martin Stone hoped that the name change would help to create a unique identity for Phoenix baseball. Stone planned to bring Major League baseball to Phoenix the Firebird brand was a move it that direction.
On the field, first-year skipper Jim Lefebvre was named Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year in 1985. On May 25, 1988, Matt Williams tied a PCL record by hitting four home runs, in four consecutive at-bats, in the same game. Going into the game, Williams had just one home run on the season and the Firebirds hadn’t homered in six games. In 86 games with the Firebirds, Williams hit 12 round trippers. That same year, he hit 8 HR with San Francisco in 76 games. In 1989, Williams hit 26 homers in 76 games for the Firebirds and then it was off to the big leagues to stay.
Led by Alvin Davis, Kendall Carter, Lemmie Miller and Kevin Dukes, the Sun Devils won another National Championship in 1981. It was their fifth national title and although they have reached the championship round, they haven’t worn the crown since.
Under manager Jerry Kindall, the University of Arizona won their second and third national titles in 1980 and 1986
In 1989, for the second time ever, two Cactus League teams met in the World Series. The Athletics swept the Giants in the Bay Bridge Series that was interrupted by an earthquake.
Beginning in the 1980s, free agency has made it much more difficult to keep teams together and much less likely for there to be a sustained dynasty. There were nine different World Series champions in the ‘80s with only the Dodgers (1981, 1988) claiming two titles.
After power had ruled the 1950s, speed returned to the game in the 1960s and continued to be an important weapon through the 1980s. The individual single season stolen base record of 96 that was set by Ty Cobb in 1915 wasn’t broken until Maury Wills swiped 104 bases in 1965. Wills’ record was broken by Lou Brock (118) in 1974 and then Rickey Henderson broke Brock’s standard with 130 steals in 1982. In fact, from 1916-1961, no player had stolen 90 or more bases. From 1962-1988, the feat was accomplished 13 times. Since then, no player has come close to that mark as the home run explosion of the 1990s slowed manager’s willingness to run.
Relief pitching and defined bullpen roles continued to evolve into the ‘80s. The one-inning closer was invented and perfected by Oakland A’s manger Tony LaRussa who turned a veteran starter into a Hall of Fame bullpen ace. Before coming to the A’s in 1987, Dennis Eckersley had started 359 games and relieved just 17 times (16 of those in his first two seasons) in 12 years in the big leagues. He had recorded a grand total of three saves. In his first year with the A’s, the right hander appeared in 54 games and made the final two starts of his career. He saved 16 games that year. In 1988 he pitched in 60 games and recorded a league best 45 saves. Except on rare occasions, Eckersley was used only in the ninth inning and only when his team had the lead. He went on to record 390 career saves. This strategy changed the way managers thought about relief pitching. Soon every team would have their closer, set-up man, middle man and long man in the bullpen. Defined roles are now the norm.
Another innovation in the 1980s that impacted the way fans watch the game was the explosion of fantasy or rotisserie baseball. Fans began to use stats to evaluate players to draft for their own fantasy teams. New statistics that sought to measure and predict performance became popular. The most innovative of these new statistics were pioneered by Bill James who coined the term sabermetrics, derived from SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. This group, now nearly 7,000 members strong, is the largest sports research organization in the world. Their members investigate statistical analysis of the game as well as just about any other aspect of baseball. Most of their work is done through committees that focus on such interests as ballparks, biographical research, minor leagues, spring training, women in baseball, Asian baseball, the Negro Leagues and much more. Recently, many teams have begun to use sabrmetrics in scouting, player evaluation and game management.
Strat-O-Matic employs its own unique brand of statistical analysis and historical research to make a quest for the best team ever possible. Our 1980s league continues this quest.
The 1980s produced arguably the weakest group of teams for any decade. One team shined above the rest. The 1984 Detroit Tigers won our league in a runaway. They won the most games (110) of any team in our 11 leagues and finished 21 games ahead of both 1989 Oakland and 1982 St. Louis who were tied for second place. The 1986 Mets, who were 22 games off the pace, were the only other team to finish above the .500 mark.
The Tigers dominance was complete. As a team they led the league in runs scored (741); home runs (161); earned run average (2.91) and made the fewest errors (102). Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell (.305, 18 HR, 72 RBI) was named the league MVP while teammate Willie Hernandez (71 games; 131 IP; 1.37 ERA; 9-4, 30 saves) was selected as the leagues Cy Young Award winner.
Kirk Gibson led the club in home runs with 28 and was second in the league with 101 RBI. The starting pitching staff of; Jack Morris (18-7, 2.84); Dan Petry (16-6, 2.93), Milt Wilcox (14-6, 2.82) and Juan Berenguer (12-7, 4.12) was brilliant.
Other standout performances were turned in by batting champion Carney Lansford of the 1989 Oakland A’s (.323); home run (49) and RBI (112) champ Mike Schmidt of the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies and Rickey Henderson, also of the A’s who stole a league-best 69 bases.
Five pitchers tossed one hitters; Bob Welch (A’s); Storm Davis (Orioles); Mike Boddicker (Orioles); Steve Carlton (Phillies); and Burt Hooten (1981 Dodgers).
Standings W L PCT GBL
1984 Detroit (A) 110 52 .679 —–
1989 Oakland (A) 89 73 .549 21
1982 St. Louis (N) 89 73 .549 21
1986 New York (N) 88 74 .543 22
1985 Kansas City (A) 75 87 .463 35
1980 Philadelphia (N) 75 87 .463 35
1988 Los Angeles (N) 74 88 .457 36
1981 Los Angeles (N) 72 90 .444 38
1983 Baltimore (A) 71 91 .438 39
1987 Minnesota (A) 67 95 .419 43
Average: Lansford (OA) .323; L. Smith (STL) .315; Puckett (MN) .314; Trammell (DET) .305; Hendrick (STL) .303. .
Home Runs: Schmidt (PHI) 49; Balboni (KC) 34; McGwire (OAK) 32; Hrbek (MN) 30; Murray (BAL) 29.
Runs Batted In: Schmidt (PHI) 112; Gibson (DET) 101; Hrbek (MN) 99; Balboni (KC) 98; McGwire (OAK) 97.
Stolen Bases: R. Henderson (OAK) 69; L. Smith (STL) 62; Wilson (KC) 43.
Wins: Anjujar (STL) 19; Valenzuela (’81 LA) 18; Morris (DET) 18; Petry (DET) 16; Gooden (NYN) 16. .
Earned Run Average: Reuss (’81 LA) 2.33; Gooden (NYN) 2.45; Saberhagan (KC) 2.49; Boddicker (BAL) 2.50; Hershiser (’88 LA) 2.61.
Strikeouts: Carlton (PHI) 283; Valenzuela (’81 LA) 261; Darling (NYN) 199.
Saves: Sutter (STL) 34; W. Hernandez (DET) 30; Reardon (MN) 30. .
MVP: Alan Trammell (1984 Detroit Tigers)
Cy Young Award; Willie Hernandez (1984 Detroit Tigers)