Major League Baseball experienced a renaissance in the 1980s. The high salaries and attendance common today began in the Reagan Era. Cookie cutter ballparks, astroturf, and parity dominated the period. Nine teams won the World Series between 1980 and 1989. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers won more than one title in the decade. The period featured many great performances. The following are the best seasons by position during the 1980s.
First Base: Don Mattingly (1986) Don Mattingly was a perennial MVP candidate during the 1980s. Tony Kubek compared Mattingly’s peak with Lou Gehrig's. He won the batting title (.343) and led the league in hits (207) and doubles (44) in 1984. Mattingly won the MVP in 1985 when he looked like Gehrig. He hit .324 with 35 home runs, 211 hits, .939 OPS, and led the league in total bases (370), RBI (145), and doubles (48). The first baseman managed a second place MVP finish in 1986 to Roger Clemens, but had his best season. Mattingly hit .352 with 31 home runs, 113 RBI, scored 117 runs, posted a .394 OBP, and walked 53 times compared to 35 strikeouts. The Yankee led the league in hits (238), doubles (53), slugging (.573), OPS (.967), and total bases (388).
Second Base: Ryne Sandberg (1984) Ryne Sandberg became a superstar in 1984. He led the Cubs to their first postseason since 1945 and won the MVP for his efforts. Ryno hit .314 with 19 home runs, 84 RBI, 200 hits, slugged .520, and posted a .887 OPS for Chicago. He led the league in runs (114) and triples (19). The Cubs lost to the Padres in the NLCS that season, but the MVP won his second Gold Glove and first Silver Slugger.
Third Base: George Brett (1980) George Brett almost hit .400. He settled for .390, which represents the closest anyone has gotten to the elusive .400 mark in a full season since 1941. The Kansas City Royal won the batting crown and also led the league in OBP (.454), slugging (.664), and OPS (1.118). Additionally, Brett chipped in 87 runs, 175 hits, 24 home runs, 118 RBI, 9 triples, 33 doubles, and walked 58 times compared to 22 strikeouts in 117 games. He averaged more than one RBI a game in 1980. Years later, he said he made the mistake of trying to hit .400 as opposed to just going out and playing his game. Brett fell five hits short of the mark.
Third Base: Mike Schmidt (1981) Mike Schmidt won Player of the Decade honors for the 1980s. During the decade, Schmidty won three MVP awards, six Gold Gloves, and six Silver Sluggers. In 1981, the baseball strike limited Schmidt to 102 games and 354 at bats. Despite the limitations, the third baseman won his second MVP of the decade. He led the league in runs (78), home runs (31), RBI (91), walks (73), OBP (.435), slugging (.644), OPS (1.080), intentional walks (18), and total bases (228). Schmidt also hit a career best .316 leading Philadelphia to another postseason berth.
Shortstop: Robin Yount (1982) Robin Yount could have been a pro golfer, but chose baseball instead. He developed into an elite shortstop at 24 and won his first MVP two years later. In 1982, Yount led the Brewers to their only World Series with a career year. The shortstop led the league in hits (210), doubles (46), slugging (.578), OPS (.967), and total bases (367). His numbers were remarkable for a shortstop. The MVP added 129 runs, 12 triples, 29 home runs, 114 RBI, 14 steals, and an impressive .331 average.
Catcher: Gary Carter (1984) Gary Carter brought a youthful exuberance to the game. He kept his inner 8-year-old alive on the field and off. In 1984, the Expo catcher led the NL in RBI with 106. Carter’s key home run in the All Star game led to his second mid-summer classic MVP award. For the season, he hit .293 with 27 RBI, 175 hits, 32 doubles, and .853 OPS. Carter also walked more than he struckout (64-57).
Rightfield: Reggie Jackson (1980) Reggie Jackson had his best season as a Yankee in 1980. He led the league in home runs with 41 and hit .300 for the first time in his career. Jackson added 111 RBI, .597 slugging, and .995 OPS. George Brett’s magical .390 prevented Mr. October from claiming his second MVP award that season.
Centerfield: Dale Murphy (1983) Dale Murphy was the best centerfielder in the game during the 1980s. He had an amazing stretch between 1980 and 1987 before age slowed his bat. He won his second consecutive MVP in 1983 with a 30-30 campaign. Murphy hit .302 with 36 home runs, 30 steals, 131 runs, and he led the league in RBI (121), slugging (.540), and OPS (.933). Murph had the best opposite field power of his generation and eventually hit 398 home runs for his career and led the league on two occasions.
Centerfield: Rickey Henderson (1985) Rickey moved to center at the spacious Yankee Stadium. In 1985, he left Oakland for New York and became the “Bronx Burner.” Henderson hit .314 with 24 home runs, 72 RBI, and .934 OPS. The leadoff man slugged .516 and led the league in runs (146) and steals (80). Statistics can not measure Henderson’s worth. At times, he was a one-man rally and dominated the game on the bases like no one since Ty Cobb.
Left Field: Jim Rice (1983) Jim Rice was one of the scariest batters of his generation. He punished AL pitchers in 1983 and led the league in total bases (344), home runs (39) and RBI (126). The left fielder slapped 191 hits, 34 doubles, posted a .911 OPS, and slugged .550, batted .305. The Sox did not contend in 1983, otherwise he would have finished higher than fourth in the MVP ballot. The top four in the 1983 MVP vote, Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, Carlton Fisk, and Rice, all reside in Cooperstown.
Designated Hitter: Hal McRae (1982) Hal McRae enjoyed his best season at age 36. In 1982, he batted .308 with 27 home runs, and led the league in doubles (46) and RBI (133). The DH had 189 hits, 91 runs, and posted a .910 OPS. McRae remained an offensive force until his retirement at age 41.
Bench: Jose Oquendo (1988) Jose Oquendo played all nine positions in 1988. He hit .277 with 7 home runs and 46 RBI and .700 OPS. Oquendo played 69 games at second, 47 at third base, 17 at shortstop, 16 at first, 15 at the three outfield spots, caught one game, and pitched once. The utility man’s one mound outing went four innings. He allowed two hits, walked six, struck out one, and took the loss.
RHP: Dwight Gooden (1985) Dwight Gooden had an amazing rookie campaign complete with 17 victories and 276 strikeouts. He earned his nickname “Dr. K” with the amazing amount of punchouts he posted in the boxscore. In his sophomore campaign, it seemed like he had no-hit stuff every night. He went 24-4 with .0965 WHIP en route to the Cy Young Award and triple crown. Gooden led the league in wins, ERA (1.53), complete games (16), innings (276.2), and strikeouts (268).
LHP: John Tudor (1985) John Tudor started 1985 1-7 and then won 20 of his last 21 decisions. Along the way, he posted an amazing ten shutouts to lead the National League. Overall, Tudor finished 21-8, with a 1.93 ERA, 275 innings, 14 complete games, 169 strikeouts, and a league leading 0.938 WHIP. The lefty led the Cardinals to the World Series and finished second to Dwight Gooden in the Cy Young voting.
Setup: Aurelio Lopez (1984) Aurelio Lopez had a successful major league career. He played mostly for the Detroit Tigers and experienced his best season in 1984. Lopez set up Cy Young and MVP winner Willie Hernandez as the Tigers roared to the World Series. Senior Smoke went 10-1 with 14 saves and 2.94 ERA in 71 games. He scored the victory in the World Series clincher against San Diego.
Closer: Rollie Fingers (1981) Rollie Fingers won the 1981 MVP and Cy Young Award. He went 6-3 with a remarkable 1.04 ERA and league leading 28 saves for Milwaukee. In 78 innings, he allowed only 55 hits, struckout 61, and posted a 0.872 WHIP in helping the Brewers to their first postseason. His presence proved the difference between success and failure for those teams.