In part one of the current series remembering the 1984 season, You Could Look It Up revisited the champion Detroit Tigers–a phrase difficult to write with any comprehension giving the current decrepit state of the franchise–a team whose dominance came as the result of surrounding a strong core with a large cadre of role players.
It’s a solution set that is largely impossible now, due to the prevalence of bullpens bulging with mediocre lefties. At various times in the 1984 season, Bobby Cox, manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, platooned at catcher, third base, right field, and designated hitter. The Toronto bullpen was widely perceived to have been a disaster, yet Cox used 12 pitchers all year long. Truly, we live in a time like unto the dark ages, where the wisdom of the past has been lost and superstition thrives.
With no further ado, let’s continue by dropping in on George Steinbrenner and pals during the summer of Wham.
IV: SHOOTING DOWN THE WALLS OF HEARTACHE. BANG! BANG! I AM THE WARRIOR
“Uncorrected personality traits that seem whimsical in a child may prove to be ugly in a fully grown adult.” – Robyn Hitchcock, “Uncorrected Personality Traits,” from “I Often Dream of Trains,” 1984.
“Yogi says spring training doesn’t mean anything, so if that’s the approach they want to adopt, let them. I pay ’em, I don’t play ’em. I just hope you’re able to turn it on and off like a faucet. I don’t think you can. But I’ll go along with Yogi and the coaches. It wouldn’t be my approach. I’d be out there practicing. But Yogi’s running the ball club.”
– George Steinbrenner, after an exhibition loss to the Mets, March, 21, 1984.
V: I JUST CALLED TO SAY I LOVE YOU
“There are things that I’d like to say, but I’m never talking to you again.” – Husker Du, “Zen Arcade,” 1984.
Steinbrenner traded his 11-year third baseman, Graig Nettles, over a book. Though it had not yet been released, Nettles’ Balls, written with Peter Golenbock, was rumored to be critical of the team owner (it was). Suddenly, the team captain was rumored to be disgruntled over a planned platoon with Toby Harrah, and was a clubhouse nuisance who was lobbying lefty Dave Righetti to resist a planned shift to the bullpen, something Righetti vehemently denied.
On March 30, Nettles accepted a trade to his hometown team, the San Diego Padres. “My advice to this organization,” he said to the Yankees, “is to stop accentuating the negative all the time. If they started accentuating the positive, the team would loosen up. But the man upstairs keeps harping on the negatives and I don’t think that will ever change… That’s the way the man does things. He deals in character assassination. He’s done that before and he’ll do it again.”
It would be another 11 years before the Yankees reached the post-season. Nettles would get there in less than six months.
VI: WAX ON, WAX OFF
“Hope isn’t a word in our vocabulary.” Reds manager Vern Rapp, April, 1984.
Like the Tigers, the three remaining post-season teams were forged by opportunistic acquisitions. The Chicago Cubs opened the season with a mediocre starting rotation of Dick Ruthven, Chuck Rainey, Scott Sanderson, Steve Trout–in that order–and the ever-wounded Rick Reuschel. In May, Ruthven underwent surgery “to relieve pressure on an artery caused by a muscle pressing on a blood vessel.” GM Dallas Green had a card to play in veteran first baseman Bill Buckner, who had been rendered redundant by the relocation of Leon Durham to first base from the outfield. (“When a baseball goes up in the air,” Green said, “it should be caught. When it isn’t, it bothers the pitching staff.”) On May 25, Boston bit, sending righty starter Dennis Eckersley to Chicago.
Boston’s regular first baseman, the punchless Dave Stapleton, had gone down with a knee injury. Manager Ralph Houk briefly shifted designated hitter Mike Easler to first base and ostensible center fielder Tony Armas to DH, but this had the effect of making Reid Nichols a regular. Nichols wasn’t a terrible hitter for a center fielder of the time–and he was certainly a better hitter than Stapleton, and a better outfielder than Armas. This alignment was a net positive for the Red Sox, but Boston felt it needed a steadier defensive first baseman. Buckner had that reputation.
Eckersley was available because at age 29 he had simply stopped pitching well. In his last season and a half with the Red Sox, Eck displayed his usual great control, walking just 52 batters in 241 innings, but little else; his record over that span was 13-17, his ERA 5.45 against a league average of 4.06, and he had become terribly unpopular with the hometown fans.
After a rough 1-5, 5.57 ERA start with the Cubs, Eckersley rediscovered his good stuff and mostly kept it through 1992. From July through the end of the season, Eckersley turned in a 2.13 ERA, a key factor on Chicago’s picking up five games on the second-place Mets during the second half of the season
He would not be alone. On June 13, the Cubs were just 1.5 games ahead of the Mets. Under Davey Johnson, the Mets seemed to be finding strong rookie pitchers under the seat cushions, including the sensational 19-year-old Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, and Ron Darling. Contrastingly, Sanderson had hit the DL on June 1, and the Cubs were again short of a starting rotation. It was time to mortgage the future. Green sent Mel Hall and prospects Joe Carter, Don Schulze (pre-San Diego chicken model), and Darryl Banks to the Indians in exchange for catcher Ron Hassey, reliever George Frazier, and starting righty Rick Sutcliffe.
Pitching for the Cleveland Indians, a team that went 148-179 from 1982-1983, Sutcliffe went 31-19 with a 3.66 ERA (league ERA 4.08). However, by early 1984, the Major League brand of Indians baseball seemed to have caught up with him, and he was 4-5, 5.15 at the time of the trade. The old Sutcliffe magically reappeared in Chicago, giving birth to rumors that he had tanked his way out of Cleveland. He reduced his walk rate from 1.2 above the league average to 1.2 below, while his strikeouts increased from 5.53 per nine innings to 9.28. Sutcliffe went 2-1 in his first three National League starts, then won 14 consecutive decisions to close out the season. He would be the unanimous choice for the National League Cy Young award.
Two days later, the Mets responded, sending prospects Eddie Williams and Jay Tibbs to the Reds in exchange for 29-year-old righty Bruce Berenyi. At the time of the deal, Berenyi was 3-7 with an ERA of 6.00. Since 1982 he had gone 21-39, albeit with an ERA within hailing distance of the league average; with decent run support, his record would have been a lot closer to .500. Berenyi found the runs he was missing upon his arrival in Queens, and posted a 9-6 record in 19 starts with the Mets. The trade, at least initially, had its embarrassing aspects in the instant success of Tibbs, who had gone right into the Reds’ rotation. Through five starts, Tibbs had posted a 1.59 ERA. Though he finished the season with a fine 2.86 ERA and a won-lost record that far outpaced that of the miserable Reds, Tibbs’ subpar K/BB ratio and weak 3.58 strikeouts per nine innings were a broad hint that the Mets had not misjudged his dispensability.
What the Mets had really needed was a shortstop to displace Ron Gardenhire, Jose Oquendo, and Rafael Santana and a catcher to take Mike Fitzgerald out of the picture. They never did get the shortstop–ever–but Gary Carter would come over from Montreal at season’s end. The Aug. 28 deal that sent prospects Gerald Young, Manny Lee, and Mitch Cook to Houston for third baseman Ray Knight was too little too late; Hubie Brooks got pushed to short, which was, at least offensively, a positive, but Knight couldn’t hit.
Earlier, the Phillies, whose Detroit deal did so much for the AL East pennant-winners, had stepped in to help the Cubs. On March 27, three days after the Willie Hernandezdeal, the Cubs acquired center fielder Bob Dernier and left fielder Gary Matthews from Philadelphia in exchange for reliever Bill Campbell and catcher Mike Diaz. Dernier was not thought to be much of a hitter–he wasn’t–but he gave the Cubs their first defensive asset in center field since Richie Ashburn.
Matthews wasn’t the same kind of defensive player, but was a pretty good hitter who was also a clubhouse leader. More importantly, both he and Dernier were willing to get on base via the base on balls, an aspect of the game that the Cubs had (and have) long neglected. Matthews’ 103 walks in 1984 was the team’s sixth-highest single-season total, its seventh 100-walk season, and its first 100-walk season since 1960. Given the home run-inflating tendency of Wrigley Field, it has long been obvious that in order to win, the Cubs needed to lead the NL not only in home runs, but in on-base percentage (or since the advent of the Rockies, reasonably near the top of the league). In 1984 they led in neither–the Phillies took both categories–but they finished a close second in each.
“Homer lived ages ago and he wrote about heroes and gods, and he would have had it in mind to write about baseball had he seen you out there today.” – Barbara Hershey in “The Natural,” 1984.
By 1984, the trade that sent Larry Bowa and Ryne Sandberg from Philadelphia to Chicago in exchange for shortstop Ivan DeJesus was old news, but it wasn’t necessarily notorious. Sandberg had won a 1983 Gold Glove for his play at second base, but his offensive numbers, .261/.316/.351 in 633 at-bats, were more Manny Trillo than Bobby Doerr. By June, 1984, opinions of Sandberg would have to be revised, as the 24-year-old slugged an uncharacteristic .444. in April. The league slugged just .369 that year, so this was real power. For the next eight weeks, he simply went nuts, hitting .374 with 15 doubles, nine triples, and nine home runs. For the season, he hit .314. He had 200 hits, 36 doubles, 19 triples, 19 home runs, and 32 stolen bases. On defense he made more assists, 550, than all but one second baseman since 1938. The other second baseman was himself–Sandberg had made 571 assists in 1983. He went 61 consecutive games without making an error, with six errors all season long. He finished 19 fielding runs–about two wins–above a league-average second baseman according to Clay Davenport’s defensive measures. Sandberg won the NL MVP in a walk that fall. Whitey Herzog, who had something to say about everything that year, called Ryne Sandberg the best player he’d ever seen.
During the 1983-1984 off-season, Green had signed Sandberg to a six-year contract. It turned out to be a brilliant move, limiting the MVP to $100,000 a year raises through 1990. In the last year of the contract, Sandberg was the 118th highest-paid player in the majors, making as much money as Terry Puhl and Shane Rawley.