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Crazy '86: Deadline drama, 1986-style

7/29/2011

We're sporadically writing about the 1986 season, the year famous for Buckner's bow-legged bumble and for what might still be the most desperately contested NLCS game of all time -- the win-or-die Game Six. It's also famous for Roger Clemens' breakout as a superstar -- and perhaps subsequently infamous as Jose Canseco's rookie season. One of the bigger controversies was over whether the Blue Jays' Mark Eichhorn might win the AL ERA title.

1986 logoBut one thing the 1986 season wasn't famous for was its deadline drama, because quite simply, there really wasn't any. That's despite the fact that 1986 was baseball's first to have the July 31 non-waivers deadline as we know it. As SABR's Cliff Blau reminds us, the thicket of rules and schedules regulating trades between leagues versus within leagues made matters needlessly complicated.

Maybe it was the newness of the thing or the fact that teams were used to the old, earlier mid-June deadline, but this first July 31 deadline fizzled in the drama department. The biggest trade pulled off at the end of the month was between the Yankees and White Sox, and was consummated on July 30. Four games behind the Red Sox in the old seven-team AL East, the Bombers dealt catcher Ron Hassey, corner infielder Carlos Martinez, and a PTBNL (who would be catcher Bill Lindsey) to the White Sox to get DH Ron Kittle, catcher Joel Skinner, and infielder Wayne Tolleson.

It was the sort of trade that did very little good for either team. Beyond the silliness of this deal being the fourth time in 19 months that the Yankees had either traded Hassey or traded for him, Tolleson was supposed to be the quick fix to the Yanks' gaping hole at shortstop, but there was just one small problem: Tolleson couldn't really play short. Skinner was a fine receiver, but he couldn't hit (and didn't), while Kittle was employed as a platoon DH.

The Sox were already done, and Hassey left as a free agent after the season, while Lindsey was nothing more than ballast. Martinez was one of the strangest sights on the diamond in his day -- listed at 6-foot-5, it seemed as if five and a half of those feet were all leg. With perhaps the biggest wickets at the hot corner in big-league history, it wasn't really surprising that he couldn't handle third, and he lacked the power for first base, leaving him nothing more than a bit player on several bad Sox ballclubs to come -- but he was the “prospect” in this deal. In one of the other strange, coincidental misfortunes of Hawk Harrelson's terrible year as the White Sox GM, just a week earlier the Sox had traded a well-regarded Rule 5 pick by the name of Bobby Bonilla to the Pirates for Jose DeLeon -- a decent-looking deal at the time, but one that history ultimately wouldn't smile on.

And that was it for major deals at the end of July in 1986. It wasn't like there weren't races to be run. The first-place teams subsequently helped themselves a wee bit. On Aug. 19, the first-place Red Sox addressed their problems up the middle by dumping a package of young-ish junk on the Mariners to get center fielder Dave Henderson and shortstop Spike Owen. The first-place Astros had added Davey Lopes from the Cubs on July 21, but Lopes was just a utilityman at this point; two weeks into August, the 'Stros snagged swingman Danny Darwin from the Brewers for the interchangeably forgettable Don August and Mark Knudson.

But as for those teams chasing the leaders, what did they do at the end of July? Nothing. Indeed, the Yankees were the only second-place team that did anything of note as far as mixing things up. In the AL East, the third-place Orioles stood pat, although they were just a half-game behind the Yankees and 4.5 behind the Red Sox. Bobby Valentine's Rangers, just 3.5 games behind the Angels in the AL West, did nothing to better their lot, and they never did catch the Halos. The Giants had been in first place in the NL West just a week earlier, but had fallen just four games behind the Astros; GM Al Rosen let it ride. Everybody in first place on Aug. 1 wound up winning their divisions.

Twenty-five years later, the end of July is one of the baseball season's most important stretches. It isn't just potentially significant in terms of what teams can add or should shop for, it's a spectacle unto itself, something that sucks attention toward the game and generates excitement among fans, and not just among those rooting for the winners. That's because in some small way hope and faith can be renewed among the fans of teams already too far gone to do much more than play out the string -- new prospects, new possibilities and wait 'til next year all get their due among those doomed or dumping at the deadline.

Why is it so? To some extent you can credit the creation of the wild card -- especially in the National League. Perhaps there's also a broader industry-wide understanding of how much money's to be gained if you win your way into October action, although this year's attendance drop in Tampa Bay challenges some of our expectations of year-after attendance spikes for playoff teams. Perhaps general managers, team presidents, and assorted front office muckety-mucks might be a lot less frightened of dealing away free agents-to-be now that there's a broader recognition that the best prospects are usually out of reach and getting draft picks via arbitration offers is far from automatic. You can consider that a sensible market correction, as organizations place a premium on their initial six years of contractual control of home-grown talent.

Now, obviously the deadline doesn't close the door on subsequent deals. But it focuses everybody's attention, inside the game and out. Beyond the economic issues or giving everyone from Bud Selig on down another reason to feel good about the changes achieved in the last 18 years, on a more basic level it's worth remembering that, from such a lackluster start 25 years ago, the game has added something wonderful. The deadline has become it's own fun season-within-a-season. In a game supposedly fearful of change, it has become a premium event that has changed the dynamics of the six-month marathon of the regular season. Whatever the next 48 hours or so bring, it's a brand of entertainment we all indulge in.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.