FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Major League Baseball Players Association had a midseason strike that wiped out 38% of the games in 1981. The schedule was shut down on June 12 and did not resume until Aug. 10.
The minor leagues continued through this and played a full season. The Reusse lads and I went to Wisconsin Rapids, in the Class A Midwest League, during the strike.
The primary purpose was to see Jim Eisenreich, drafted in June 1980 out of St. Cloud State. It was worth the trip. He could run, he could roam center field and, mostly, he could hit with that splendid lefthanded swing:
A .311 average, a .409 on-base percentage, 23 home runs (before they were plentiful) and 99 RBI in 134 games. The Twins were so impressed by his Class A dominance that, when the 1982 season started in the Metrodome, Eisenreich was leading off and filling what had been a void in center.
The players went on strike again in 1994, canceling games starting Aug. 12 and wiping out the rest of the season, including the World Series for the first time in 90 years.
What that stoppage did not prevent were full minor league seasons, including playoffs that crowned Richmond (International), Indianapolis (American Association) and Albuquerque (Pacific Coast) as Class AAA champions.
As the Twins head into the final portion of this big-league spring training, the pandemic has offered a challenge not faced previously by organized baseball:
Decisions being made on present and future prospects without the benefit of evidence gained in the minor leagues in the previous year.
The 160 teams affiliated with major league teams did not play in 2020, and they will return starting this May with that number reduced to 120 teams.
The missing year was dramatized a week ago when Matt Canterino and Josh Winder, a pair of righthanders, were pitching live batting practice in Hammond Stadium to numerous big-leaguers.
Canterino and Winder were here as "depth players," mostly to give the big-league staff a look at these young guns with strong potential to be future Twins starters.
And then I noticed this:
Winder, drafted out of VMI in the seventh round in 2018, is 24 and has pitched only 164⅓ official innings as a pro. Canterino, drafted out of Rice in the second round in 2019, is 23 and has pitched a minuscule 25 official innings as a pro.
Based on good health, that missing year cost both Winder and Canterino 20-some starts and 120 innings, and the likelihood of finishing the summer in Class AA.
Quite a detour in development — right, Jeremy Zoll?
Zoll, former Twins' director of minor league operations, now an assistant general manager, remains involved in minor league decisions along with farm director Alex Hassan.
"Specifically with those two guys, they took full advantage of the shutdown period to work on pitches and to get stronger,'' Zoll said. "In Matt's case, we also had him with the alternate site players in St. Paul in September, and they both were here for our instructional league in the fall.
"I would say Matt and Josh will be an example of what we're likely to see when minor league camps open in April: The pitchers being ahead of the hitters is normal for the start of spring training, but that could be by a larger margin this time."
And here's why: The Twins' staff of pitching brains — coordinators and minor league coaches — were all assigned a group of pitchers to monitor during the shutdown and over the winter.
The pitchers had access to Rapsodo machines to measure velocity and spin rate. There were videos to watch, not only for coaches to evaluate pitching, but for strength coaches to view workouts.
Zoll was asked if he could imagine the impact of a shutdown a decade ago, before technology made such assistance available to minor leaguers still hungry for improvement while not competing.
"We're fortunate to be in this time,'' Zoll said. "The shutdown was tougher on hitters, though. A pitcher only needs a catcher to have a good workout, and every pitcher seems to have someone nearby to do that for him.''
As for hitters, everything's more complicated. Hitting a speeding object is inherently more difficult than throwing one. The mechanics of individual swings must get "the big part of the bat to the ball," as Roy Smalley always tells us, in microseconds.
"The technology is not at the same level for hitting as pitching,'' Zoll said. "The opinion in the game is that missing the season will be a challenge for most hitters. They will catch up, but it's a guess as to how long that takes."
Commissioner Rob Manfred and his advisers surely will panic if they see soaring strikeout totals when the minors start in May, but the culprit could be COVID-19's ruination of the minors in 2020 more than evidence of a further commitment to a home run-or-nothing hitting approach that distresses many.