I was born in the New York City borough where Yankee Stadium is located. And that seemed to be a good reason to become a New York Yankees fan.
The Bronx Bombers first grabbed my attention in bits and pieces of stories told by my older relatives (some of whom had seen Babe Ruth play decades earlier), starting in the late 1970s, and also through osmosis from the sights and sounds of mass media and from random people in New York’s tri-state area.
A first-grader during the 1981 Major League Baseball season, I now look back at those formative days as playing a foundational role in my development as a baseball fan.
In fact, the 1981 MLB season ー specifically the incomprehensible reality of a players’ strike, which somehow delayed my first-ever trip to a big-league ballpark by two years (see below), and the World Series in October ー marked the start of my habitual routine of paying attention to the pro game.
The Fall Classic, which was held 40 years ago this month, also was the first sports event I distinctly remember watching for several days.
I can’t patch together a narrative thread or a detailed play-by-play rundown of the six games between the Yankees and the Dodgers, but I remember both of my grandfathers mentioning the games, but not what they said about them.
Were they commenting on the final scores? Or specific plays? Or just giving me and others updates every couple days?
I didn’t retain those memories.
What I do remember is that they were interested in what was happening. They were talking about it, watching games and news highlights and reading about them (newspapers were always scattered about).
That left a lasting impression on me.
It also seemed to keep me somewhat attuned to what was happening throughout the series.
The Yankees took a two-games-to-none advantage with 5-3 and 3-0 victories at home to open the Series. Both times, future Hall of Famer Rich “Goose” Gossage picked up the save.
In those days, I thought Gossage was super cool. He threw a seemingly unhittable fastball. In a way, he reminded me of Superman.
A quick aside: A year or two later, I wrote a brief letter to Gossage and asked for his autograph. In the one-page letter, I also jotted down a question whose answer wasn’t obvious to me … yet. “Why do they call you “Goose?” I wrote.
My Dad didn’t spoil my curiosity when he glanced at the letter at his office before affixing a stamp to the envelope. A couple weeks later, an autographed picture arrived in the mail.
The Yankees’ good fortunes began to slip away when the Series shifted to Los Angeles. That wasn’t obvious to me, though.
It did seem, however, that reliever George Frazier, the losing pitcher in Game 3 (a 5-4 L.A. win), was jinxed by bad luck, bad hops and bad pitches.
And I wanted to see Gossage on the mound whenever possible if manager Bob Lemon made a call to the bullpen.
Frazier was the pitcher of record in Game 4, an 8-7 L.A. decision.
And the same was true in the decisive Game 6, after the World Series returned to New York following three straight contests on the West Coast. (I’m guessing I was able to watch more of Games 3-5 because of the earlier starting times for those of us on the East Coast and because they were held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.)
Frazier was also the losing pitcher in Game 6. The Dodgers clinched the title with a 9-2 rout of the Yankees.
Looking up Frazier’s accumulative stats from the 1981 World Series seem to confirm that I had little (or no) faith in Frazier doing what Gossage did best.
In addition to his 0-3 record, Frazier allowed nine hits and seven runs in 3 2/3 innings in his three Fall Classic appearances. He finished with a 17.18 ERA against the Dodgers.
Mother Nature may deserve some credit for the Dodgers’ title-winning performance.
Let me explain: L.A. pulled within a win of the title by handing New York a 2-1 setback in Game 5. I don’t remember that Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager bashed back-to-back home runs off Yankees left-hander Ron Guidry in the seventh inning.
But within the crowded confines of my mind, I discovered a nugget of info remained stored as I unraveled a few tidbits and transferred them to a piece of paper to outline this column: A guy was hit in the head by a pitch from the fearsome fireballer Gossage.
Was it in Game 5? Or Game 6?
I forgot, so I looked it up.
It was in Game 5, an eighth-inning beaning. Dodgers third baseman and cleanup hitter Ron Cey required assistance to leave the field.
Game 6, scheduled for a Tuesday in the Big Apple, was pushed back a day due to rain.
Instead, it took place on Wednesday, October 28.
It proved to be plenty of time for Cey to rest and recuperate.
On the day of the rain postponement, Cey commented on his condition.
“I felt good this morning and I was optimistic about playing, but this afternoon changed my mind,” Cey was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. “There was some dizziness and lightheadedness. I was not in good shape.”
He was in good enough shape to make an impact in Game 6. He had two hits in three at-bats, including a go-ahead RBI in the fifth ー against Frazier, of course ー to spark the Dodgers en route to a 9-2 win. Teammates Cey, Guerrero and Steve Yeager were the co-MVP winners.
I remember Dave Winfield went 1-for-22 in the World Series in his lone trip to the Fall Classic with the Yankees. Knowing how good a player Winfield was for New York, I recalled looking back at his slump many times throughout the ’80s and thinking, How the heck did that happen?
I remember hearing people say Yankees star Reggie Jackson was like Superman in the postseason, but “Mr. October” had a solid but forgettable performance (4-for-12, one home run, one RBI and a .333 batting average) compared to his exploits in previous appearances in the World Series.
On April 5, 1983, my ninth birthday, I went to my first-ever MLB game. The New York Mets made Tom Seaver their Opening Day starter. Seaver’s counterpart: fellow legend Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies. How rare a game it was! Two eventual 300-game winners in the twilight of their careers, sharing the spotlight in the same ballpark.
For me, the collective excitement shared by the 46,000-plus fans that afternoon at Shea Stadium was an eye-opening experience and a window into how I eventually wanted to spend my leisure and work hours.
Skipping school that day to watch baseball was fine by me, and made better by the fact that it was a joyful family experience — shared by my father, paternal grandfather and younger brother.
I wish I had more vivid memories of the 1981 World Series, but I don’t and that’s OK, too.