Two of A Kind – Warriors and Dukes
After seeing the Golden State Warriors of the NBA break the all-time single- season win record, it brought me back to one of my most memorable baseball seasons. Just from the way they played and their post-game interviews, I knew I felt something in common with them. I know there is a big difference between Triple-A baseball and the big leagues of sports, but to be part of something great at any level is such a unique feeling. Many of the things that made a team I was a part of win a lot are the same things I saw with the Golden State Warriors. Those special teams come along once in a lifetime, and I feel privileged to be part of one. Congratulations to the Golden State Warriors, I hope they can finish things off with a championship as my team did.
Setting the Scene
You may recall the excellent book by Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer, which detailed the players and seasons of the Brooklyn Dodgers. My Boys of Summer story involves a different group of Dodgers – Baby Dodgers, if you will – the triple-A farm team of the Los Angeles Dodgers – the Albuquerque Dukes. We were not nearly as famous of course, but in our own right, we were just as terrific.
If you look up greatest minor league teams of all time, you will see the 1981 Albuquerque team listed at number 11. If you study the list a little bit more carefully, you will notice that Dukes team was the highest ranked team that played after 1940. To find another team listed after 1945 you have to go all the way to # 23. We ended with an incredible record of 97 and 38, including a three-game sweep in the playoffs. If one figures that over a complete major league schedule of 162 games, we would have won 116 games. Furthermore, we were five and five after our first ten games, so from there on we played at a pace that would have won 120 games over a 162 game schedule.
Sometimes, I wonder how this triple A team would have competed in the big leagues. In retrospect, maybe we were the best team in all of baseball that year; after all, we beat the world champs – read on to learn about that.
The Perfect Storm
As mentioned, the year was 1981 – it was also the year I received a major league World Series ring and trophy from the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers. Today, they are my most valued physical possessions. However, that is not what made the 1981 season so remarkable, although that did cap off a truly momentous season. I was such a small part of that World Series team that I cannot consider it very significant for me. 1981 was magical because I was a notable member of that 1981 Albuquerque Dukes team.
Most often, great things occur when everything lines up just right. That is what happened in 1981 with the Dukes. The convergence of many factors including talented players, an experienced and astute coach, and a fabulous team chemistry. Of course, other things have to fall perfectly for great things to happen, too. You may recall that Major League Baseball had a summer-long strike in 1981, which meant that even if minor league players had monster years, there was nowhere to go. That was a motivating factor because the big league brass and media had little to do without major league baseball, so many of them would travel to minor league parks to check out their minor league teams. Knowing that someone important was watching helped the team’s focus. Minor league players often feel neglected by the organization big shots and media, but 1981 was different. With that in mind, our triple A Dukes team just settled in and played ball.
The Season of Greatness
We had a winning record against every team except Hawaii, breaking even in eight meetings with the Islanders. We had perfect records against Edmonton and Vancouver, winning all seven games against each team. The most incredible performance was against Tucson. We won 25 of 26 games from the Toros, including 23 straight games during one stretch.
I remember the other teams in our league were happy when the first half of the season ended so records would restart at 0-0. Everyone would have a chance for the second half championship. Not, as we proceeded to win our first ten games of the second half and were on our way again.
The 1981 Albuquerque Dukes
When building a team, that Dukes team was a blueprint for success. We had speed at the top of the order with human rockets, “Rudy Law” and “Tack Wilson.” I stole 45 bases that year and wasn’t close to as fast as those two. There were games where I, a batter with no power at all, batted third, giving us three leadoff men in a row. We had an “on base machine” with Ron Roenicke, who had 110 walks to go along with a .316 average and 15 home runs. Then there were the power guys with league MVP Mike Marshall virtually never making an out (.374 batting average), with 137 RBI’s – not a misprint, 137 RBI’s in 135 games; and Candy Maldonado backing him up with 21 home runs and 104 RBI’s. So many others were just as important to our remarkable season, with the smooth Gary Weiss at shortstop and electrifying Wayne Caughey at third base. It did not end there; we had breathtaking Bobby Mitchell running them down in center field and steady Don Crow throwing them out from behind the plate.
Speaking of power, we had the arms led by Ted Power with 18 wins, Brian Holton 16, Ricky Wright 14, Dave Moore 12, Bill Swiacki 11. Those are an unheard of number of wins for one pitching staff in a shorter minor league season. To close it all down was the unhittable Alejandro Pena with 22 saves, amidst other great bullpen contributions. At least 16 Dukes from that team went on to play in the major leagues.
Former and future major league skipper (and former All-Star big league catcher), Del Crandall, was our superb leader and the no doubt minor league manager of the year. He taught us to expect to win and to despise losing, lessons we learned well.
Team chemistry is a hard thing to describe, but whatever it is, we had it. Of course, all teams that win say they have great team chemistry, but it is more than that. Many of us had played together for some years, so that helped and the younger players blended in nicely. Team chemistry usually comes down to people accepting roles on and off the field. Additionally, teams that have chemistry have a mutual respect for each other, whether all personalities mesh or not. There is usually a few team leaders who define the team. When all allow them to be the leaders, whether it is in the clubhouse or out, things go much smoother for teams, win or lose. Our Duke team had well-defined roles that people accepted, and all were willing to put their personal goals aside for the good of the team. Manager Del Crandall was continually reminding players that everyone’s individual statistics would be there at the end of the year, and he was right. That knowledge helped all to stay focused on the team goal, and a special “team” was the result.
Great Teams say, “We Ain’t Gonna lose.”
At the beginning, I wrote that the Golden State Warriors broke the win record. Maybe, I should have said they broke the least amount of losses record. What was so cool about great teams is that they know they are good, and like to win. That is not unusual, with successful teams. The unique part is the mindset that we developed, which said: “We ain’t gonna lose.” Players, who have been on exceptional teams understand that feeling and it takes things to a whole other level from just wanting to win. Teams play to win all the time, but great teams have a fear of losing that propels them to give that little extra. When you play to win, you give your best. When you win, you feel good, enjoy it and sleep at night. However, when you fear losing, you feel lousy and lose sleep because of it – not very fun. That pushes you to do a little more and to never give up.
When a team decides they will not lose, they do all they can to avoid it. They put more intensity into everything, so they do not have to experience that losing feeling. They prepare the right way, pull for each other, play every inning like it is the bottom of the ninth and believe they are truly part of something special. When a team decides that losing is not acceptable, and they do all they can to prevent it, greatness may appear.
Not the End of the Story – Take that World Champs
When the major league strike finally ended, sometime in early August, the Dodgers flew our whole Dukes team to L.A. to play an exhibition game against the big league Dodger team to help them get back in game shape. To say that we were psyched up for the matchup would be an understatement. It was a neat thing to play in Dodger Stadium, of course, but we wanted to prove how good we were, too. This type opportunity just does not come along very often during the regular season, and it was a classy move by the Dodgers. After the way our season was going, we felt like we could play at their level and we expected to blow them away. However, good pitching stops good hitting, and even though we won, it almost felt like a loss because a 1-0 win was not enough of a win for us. The big leaguers had been off for a long while and were rusty. To barely win didn’t feel as good as we had hoped. However, a win is a win and we could not consider our season complete, and our team great, without the victory. For those few players that did not go on to the bigs, they can say they played in the house of Koufax, Drysdale, Davis, LaSorda, Sutton, and Alston, and on and on. We can say we beat the world champions and just maybe, we were the best team in all of baseball that season.
However, a win is a win and we could not consider our season complete, and our team great, without the victory. For those few players that did not go on to the bigs, they can say they played in the house of Koufax, Drysdale, Davis, LaSorda, Sutton, and Alston, and on and on. We can say we beat the world champions and just maybe, we were the best team in all of baseball that season.
Jack Perconte has dedicated his post-major league baseball career to helping youth. He has taught baseball and softball for the past 27 years. His playing, coaching and parenting stories create better experiences for athletes and parents. Jack has written over a thousand articles on coaching baseball and youth sports. Jack is the author of “The Making of a Hitter” and “Raising an Athlete.” His third book “Creating a Season to Remember” is in the works. Jack is a featured writer for Baseball the Magazine. You can also find Jack Perconte at YouTube with over 80 fun and innovative baseball instructional videos.