Spring training was canceled, baseball’s regular season was in doubt, and the players were scrambling to learn what was coming next.
The news broke when the Phillies were more than 100 miles from Clearwater, where a new manager conducted his first Phillies camp, the previous winter’s free-agent splash was settling in for Year No. 2, another star player was looking for a new contract, and questions hovered around the back of the starting rotation.
But this was not earlier this month when the Phillies left Clearwater after the coronavirus pandemic ended the spring schedule. It was instead 1980, the last time before this season that baseball terminated spring training.
A mostly forgotten baseball strike in April 1980 canceled the final eight spring games. The Phillies were on the opposite coast of Florida to play a game that was no longer scheduled. They checked out of the Holiday Inn in Cocoa Beach and bused back to Clearwater.
Six months later, they would win the World Series, after going through a preseason quite reminiscent of the one the club faced 40 years later.
“Maybe there’s karma in the air here,” said Larry Bowa, the shortstop on the 1980 team.
By the spring of 1980, the players were already familiar with Dallas Green’s fiery personality. He became the Phillies’ manager the previous summer after overseeing the team’s minor-league system when many of the key 1980 pieces were filtering to the majors.
But that spring in Clearwater was Green’s first time running camp, just like this spring was Joe Girardi’s first as Phillies boss. And the Phillies learned that even exhibition losses could get Green hot. They had lost four straight games, the fourth being a loss to the Yankees after the team drove across Florida.
“Dallas ripped the crap out of us,” Bowa said. “ ‘I keep hearing about that switch that you guys are looking for. It doesn’t go on and off. You better get your head out of your ...’ He really got into us. It was just spring training.”
That night, as the Phillies drove from Fort Lauderdale to Cocoa Beach, they learned that spring training was canceled. The players, under the guide of union president Marvin Miller, and the league’s 26 owners could not agree on free-agent compensation. So the players said they would boycott the final exhibition games but be ready for the start of the season.
“I try to tell these guys now because they ask me what the strikes were like. I tell them the biggest thing you need to do —and it’s not easy — is to stay unified. That’s what Marvin Miller did,” Bowa said. “If these players know any of the history of the game, the money that they are making now has to do with Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr. The owners back then were tough, too. It’s not like they were patsies. It wasn’t pretty. We were lucky to have the owner we did. He understood labor. Ruly Carpenter was pretty cool.”
The strike paused the team’s contract negotiations with Gary Maddox, just like the suspension of this season has distracted the Phillies from hammering out a long-term deal with J.T. Realmuto. Maddox was the team’s second-most productive player in 1979 and his agent said he’d become a free agent if a deal wasn’t reached by opening day.
Their starting rotation caused concern, too, just like the pitchers behind Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler did this spring. “Carlton, then who for Phils?” said an Inquirer headline in March of 1980. The players worked out on their own after the games were canceled, just as the current team had to do after busing back to Clearwater from Port Charlotte when spring training was canceled. Bowa went to a Clearwater batting cage and fed quarters into a machine.
“The guy running the place said, ‘Pick whatever machine you want and I’ll crank it up,’” Bowa said.
The starting rotation proved to be enough in 1980 as three of the starters who followed Carlton finished with league-average ERAs. Maddox scored his new contract that April, becoming the team’s highest-paid player with a $4.2 million deal. Pete Rose set the tone at the top of the lineup, settling in after joining the team before the 1979 season in a move that rivaled the excitement that Bryce Harper brought last March to Philadelphia.
Green’s spring-training tirade foreshadowed the way he would light up the sagging Phillies that August before they sprinted to October. And then they became world champions. First, they canceled spring training. In 1980, the wait was worth the prize.
“The surroundings are really critical now and ours really wasn’t critical at all, compared to this,” Bowa said. “This is important. Hopefully we can smooth out that curve a little bit before they can even think about getting back on the field.”