JUNE 10, 1981, was the night Major League Baseball went eyeball-to-eyeball on two levels.
On the field, Pete Rose blinked. The Phillies' leadoff hitter slapped a historic single, then Nolan Ryan blew him away three times.
In a Manhattan room filled with grim-faced suits, Ray Grebey refused to blink. A little more than a day later, the baseball owners he represented refused to yield on the issue of free-agent compensation and took a devastating strike.
That was 28 years ago tomorrow. In Veterans Stadium, overflowing with 57,386 fans, the defending world champion Phillies were playing the Houston Astros, the team that took them to extra innings four times in one of the greatest postseason series ever played. By itself, the final game of the Astros' three-game visit needed no subplots.
The Vet dripped with drama just the same. Ryan was facing the Phillies for the first time since blowing what appeared to be the safest lead since the 1964 Phillies had a 6 1/2-game pad with 12 to play. Just six outs separated the 1980 Phils from yet another crushing disappointment. But Ryan blew that 5-2 lead. The Phillies dropped a five-spot on him, then needed yet another rally to finally win it, 8-7, in the 10th.
When Rose scrunched down his helmet and dug in against Ryan in the bottom of the first, one of the subplots kicked in. He needed two hits to break Stan Musial's National League record of 3,630. The Phillies were prepared for the moment. Somewhere in the bowels of the giant octorad were 3,631 balloons to be released into the South Philly night the moment the historic hit touched down.
Meanwhile, negotiations between the players union, headed by executive director Marvin Miller, and the owners, fronted by their hired gun, Grebey, held at arm's length by federal mediator Ken Moffett, were in the shadow of the strike. Negotiations had been stalemated since February. A May 29 strike deadline set by the players had already been extended by the National Labor Relations Board. Catcher Bob Boone, the National League player representative in the negotiations, had told his teammates to expect a long walkout. The impasse was centered around compensation the Lords of Baseball were demanding for the loss of free agents. As the deadline neared, it appeared the owners were more intent on their first victory over Miller and the union than on compromises the players seemed willing to accept.
Rose slapped a single, trundled into that defiant wide turn and hand-clapped back to first through a tsunami of sound. But Pete would not take Musial's record on that night, not against Nolan Ryan. They faced each other three more times in an intense mano-a-mano worthy of Madrid's Plaza de Toros Monumental de Las Ventas.
Ryan struck out the future all-time hits leader on three pitches in the third. In the fifth, he buckled Pete's knees with his 12-6 curve. By the time Rose batted again with one out in the eighth, Ryan was working on a one-hit shutout. The Phillies trailed 4-0, and when Ryan hat-tricked Rose for the second out, it was over. The vast mob began filing toward the exits, even Willie Mays.
Who knew that when Rose had his next at-bat, on the night he would collect hit No. 3,631 - the night he would greet President Reagan by saying, "How ya doin'?" - it would be Aug. 10?
But in a textbook example of deja vu all over again, Nolan Ryan melted down once more. When the disbelief wore off, I wrote this:
"If there's a Hall of Fame for fastballs, Ryan should be in it," Dallas Green said after a game that shadowed its Main Event, a game in which the Phillies rallied magnificently, incredibly, to win, 5-4, over the Astros. Ryan was four outs away from a one-hit shutout, four outs that would never come. The Phillies were buried, 4-0, despite a nine-strikeout performance by a distracted, hyper, Steve Carlton . . . ''
Earlier in the day, a federal judge had refused to grant an NLRB request for a restraining order that would table the compensation issue until 1982. The victorious Phillies loaded bats, balls and personal equipment into their autos. Miller and Grebey sparred all through June 11, an open date for the Phils. At 12:30 a.m. June 12, Miller announced the strike was on. After 55 games in 1981, the Phillies were in first place by two games in the NL East with a 34-21 record.
After 55 games, these defending world champion Phillies are in first place by three games with a 33-22 record.
The sides negotiated sporadically and insincerely through the dog days. When the strike finally ended just before dawn on Aug. 1, when the owners caved in, all the spirit had been drained from a season of extraordinary promise. Tim Raines had stolen 50 bases in 54 games. Dodgers rookie Fernando Valenzuela had five shutouts by June 11. Gaylord Perry was nearing 300 victories and petroleum-jelly immortality. Four close division races were interrupted. Having been assured places in a contrived split-season tier of playoffs, the four first-half leaders were a combined three games over .500 in the second half.
Experts predicted the next strike of any magnitude would spell the end of Major League Baseball.
The next strike was an 8.0 on the Fehr Scale. It lasted from Aug. 12, 1994, to April 2, 1995, and caused cancellation of the 1994 postseason. Bottom line, the owners failed to implement the salary cap they sought. With replacement players days away from opening the 1995 season, federal judge Sonia Sotomayor, now President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, issued a preliminary injunction. Once more, the owners folded like an amateur hour accordion.
MLB celebrated its demise by raking in $6 billion last year. *