This probably won’t make Cubs fans feel any better, but their quick exit from the playoffs doesn’t compare to the devastating loss they suffered at the hands of the San Diego Padres 23 years ago. As a result, however, the Cubs will observe the 100th anniversary of their last World Series title next year. (A team reunion seems out of the question).
It goes without saying that a team with as many assets as the Cubs doesn’t go a century between titles without some seriously deficient upper management. That is not to single out the current group; when you have ten decades of disappointment from which to choose, there’s always going to be a truly great villain. For a while in the 1930s, the Cubs employed a fishmonger as their general manager; we can safely assume that Jim Hendry and colleagues know their ballplayers better than their Chilean sea bass.
Still, over those 100 years, certain themes predominate. As an organization, the Cubs have rarely placed any emphasis on getting on base. For a team that has spent the entirety of the lively ball era in smallish Wrigley Field, this has been a devastating blind spot to maintain. The logic of the necessity for having a superior offense in a hitters’ park is fairly simple. If, in a given game, your ballpark is going to allow one home run to you and one to your opposition, your team had better be the one that has a runner on when the ball goes out. Nevertheless, you don’t need more than two people to count all the times that the Cubs have been above-average in team on-base percentage in the last 100 years. They weren’t this year, missing by a fraction (.333 for the Cubs vs. .334 for the league). The most recent time they finished above the average was 1984; the last most recent time they were more than .005 above the league average was 1945. The latter year also happens to be the last time the Cubs were in a World Series.
In their post-1900 history, the Cubs have had only nine individual seasons of 100 walks drawn-two by Jimmy Sheckard, two by Sammy Sosa, and one each by Johnny Evers, Hack Wilson, Woody English, Richie Ashburn, and Gary Matthews (the original, not Little Sarge). Matthews was the last Cub to lead the NL in walks; Ron Santo led four times, Ashburn once. Then you have to go back to Hack Wilson in 1930 to find the previous league leader.
The last time the Cubs reached base at an above-average clip, 1984, was a watershed. The team hadn’t made the postseason in the era of divisional play, 39 years had passed since their last World Series appearance, and 76 years had passed since their last championship. They had not posted a winning record in 12 years. In 1983, they had lost 91 games.
In his long career in baseball, Dallas Green has had a decidedly mixed record, but his rebuilding of the Cubs during this period was an unqualified high point. Taking over in October, 1981, Green almost completely bypassed his farm system, trading his way to a new roster. His three key deals are justly famous: in 1982, he sent shortstop Ivan DeJesus to the Phillies for shortstop Larry Bowa and a then-third baseman named Ryne Sandberg. In spring, 1984, reliever Bill Campbell and first baseman Mike Diaz were also dealt to the Phillies, this time to add left fielder Gary Matthews, center fielder Bob Dernier, and reliever Porfi Altimarano. Finally, at midseason in 1984, outfielders Mel Hall and Joe Carter and pitchers Don Schulze and Darryl Banks were sent to the Indians for starting pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, reliever George Frazier, and catcher Ron Hassey.
The two deals with the Phillies gave the Cubs parts that they desperately needed, and yielded at least one outsized return. Sandberg blossomed into a Hall of Fame second baseman and would be the MVP of the league in 1984, when he hit .314/.367/.520. Matthews would give the club rare patience at the plate and a motivating voice in the clubhouse. Dernier was (briefly) also unusually patient for a Cub, and more importantly gave the team the glove it needed in center field to bump Leon Durham from center to first base; Durham could hit for power and had a little speed, but was visibly overmatched in the outfield.
There were other deals as well, and they were by no means minor. Third baseman Ron Cey was brought over from the Dodgers for two minor leaguers in 1983. At 35, he had just enough left in the tank to help. That same year, Green sent Scott Fletcher, Pat Tabler, Randy Martz, and Dick Tidrow to the White Sox for lefty starter Steve Trout and reliever Warren Brusstar. Also in 1983, there was a three-way deal with the Expos and Padres that sent outfielder Carmelo Martinez, lefty reliever Craig Lefferts, and third baseman Fritzie Connally to San Diego, netting the Cubs the oft-injured but effective-when-healthy curveballer Scott Sanderson. In May, 1984, just prior to the Sutcliffe deal, Green shipped off a gimpy Bill Buckner-pushed to the bench when Durham moved to first-in a deal that made him a Red Sock (and brought him closer to his eventual source of ignominy) in exchange for Dennis Eckersley and infielder Mike Brumley. There was one deal in this sequence that Green misjudged, the 1983 swap of lefty reliever and future Cy Young winner Willie Hernandez for the mediocre righty innings-eater Dick Ruthven and reliever Bill Johnson in yet another deal involving the Phillies. Green loved to deal with his old club.
By the time Green was done with his trading frenzy, roughly half of the 1983 roster had disappeared. That was still no guarantee of success; the Cubs played in a very tough NL East, a division with no pushovers. It contained the defending NL champion Phillies (a good deal of whose players were now on Green’s roster), a Mets team that was three-quarters of the way to its 1986 championship roster (including unhittable rookie Dwight Gooden), and a Cardinals club that was in between its 1982 champs and 1985 pennant winners, but still plenty dangerous. The Pirates and Expos rounded out the division. The Pirates had little offense but led the league in ERA, while the Expos still possessed top players like Gary Carter and Tim Raines.
In the early going the Mets, Phillies, and Cubs jockeyed for position. The Mets broke out on top around the All-Star break, extending their lead over the Cubs to 4 ½ games by late July. However, the trade with the Indians for Sutcliffe began to reap telling benefits. The 28-year-old righty went about winning a Cy Young award in just 20 starts; although Gooden was unquestionably the class of the league that year, there was something captivating in the way that Sutcliffe took off in Chicago. Just 4-5 with a 5.15 ERA with Cleveland with an inconsistent track record, Sutcliffe went 16-1 in a Cubs uniform, posting up some amazing starts in the process: a nine-inning, 14-strikeout shutout of the Cardinals on June 24; 8 1/3 innings and just an unearned run against the Padres on July 4; a five-hit shutout of the Braves on August 24; and a four-hit, twelve-strikeout shutout of the Mets on September 8.
The Cubs finally passed the Mets on August 1. A few days later, the two teams met at Wrigley Field for a four-game series, the Cubs up by half a game. Chicago swept and never looked back, ultimately compiling a 96-65 record, best in the league.
Going into the NLCS, the Padres seemed to be by far the weaker club. They faced less competition in a depleted NL West in which all of the traditional powers were rebuilding; the Padres were the only team to finish over .500. Tony Gwynn, 24, stood far above the rest of the club at .351/.410/.444; center fielder Kevin McReynolds (.278/.317/.465) was the next-best hitter on the club. Catcher Terry Kennedy, platoon third baseman Graig Nettles, and left fielder Carmelo Martinez provided flashes of power, but little else. Second baseman Alan Wiggins, a transplanted outfielder, stole 70 bases and would take a walk, but had little pop in his bat and played miserable defense. However, adjusting for the pretty severe differences between the two teams’ home parks, the Pads’ offense was a bit underrated, finishing with a team .261 Equivalent Average to the Cubs’ .262. Although the starting rotation of Eric Show, Tim Lollar, Ed Whitson, Mark Thurmond, and Andy Hawkins was unremarkable (as the Yankees would discover when they later poached two-fifths of it), a bullpen fronted by Goose Gossage was quite strong.
The Championship Series was still just a best-of-five contest in those days; they would shift to seven games the next year. At Wrigley Field in Game One, Sutcliffe pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing only two hits while hitting a home run off of Show before being pulled with an eye towards a possible Game Five start; the immortal Brusstar finished out the 13-0 shutout. Trout started Game Two, and nursed a 4-2 lead into the ninth. When McReynolds walked with one out in the inning, bringing the tying run to the plate, closer Lee Smith came in to strike out Carmelo Martinez and induce Kennedy to fly out. The Cubs were up 2-0 and off to San Diego needing just one game to go on to the World Series.
Eckersley-still several seasons removed from his now-famous conversion to relief work-drew the assignment opposite Whitson in Game Three. The Cubs got out to an early 1-0 lead, but Eckersley didn’t have it that day, and the Padres cuffed him around for three runs in the fifth and another in the sixth. George Frazier, already a postseason legend due to his three losses in the 1981 World Series, came on and gave up a three-run homer to McReynolds. The Cubs were unable to rally and the game went into the books as a 7-1 loss.
Their next chance to move on came in Game Four, with Sanderson facing Tim Lollar. The Padres struck first, plating two runs in the third on a Gwynn sacrifice fly and a Steve Garvey RBI double. The next inning, the Chicagoans struck back-Matthews walked to open the frame, but after Lollar retired Keith Moreland and Ron Cey, catcher Jody Davis and Leon Durham hit back-to-back home runs to build up a 3-2 lead. The Padres manufactured a run in the bottom of the fifth, tying the game on Garvey’s RBI single. The seesaw battle still had miles to go. Sanderson yielded to Brusstar in the fifth, and by the time the game was in the bottom of the seventh, the Cubs were relying on Tim Stoddard, the 6’7″ former Orioles closer (Green had acquired him from the A’s for a couple of minor leaguers that spring). A leadoff walk to pinch-hitter Bobby Brown resulted in yet another RBI single for Garvey, and a passed ball with Gwynn on third plated another run. It was now 5-3 Padres.
Gossage came on for the two-inning save opportunity in the eighth, but proceeded to do his best Trevor Hoffman ’07 imitation, quickly giving up the tying runs, the Cubs rally sparked by a Sandberg single and stolen base. With the go-ahead runs on first and second, Gossage retired pinch-hitter Richie Hebner to end the threat. The Cubs brought on their closer, Smith, for the bottom of the inning, and he pitched a shaky but scoreless frame, challenged along the way by an uncharacteristic Sandberg error. Ex-Cub Craig Lefferts loaded the bases for Ron Cey in the top of the ninth, but Cey could only ground out. In the bottom of the inning, Smith allowed a one-out single to Gwynn that brought Garvey back to the plate. Smith dealt, and the ball sailed deep into the night-Garvey had hit a walk-off home run to deliver a 7-5 win.
All of which set up a Game Five rematch of Sutcliffe and Show. For a while, it was all Cubs. Durham hit a two-run shot in the first, and Davis led off the second with a longball of his own. Meanwhile, Sutcliffe was dealing, holding the Padres scoreless through five. In the bottom of the sixth, Wiggins bunted for a hit and Gwynn followed with a single. Garvey took a rare walk to load the bases with nobody out. Nettles and Kennedy followed with sacrifice flies to narrow the score to 3-2.
The Cubs failed to score in the top of the seventh. In the bottom of the inning the dream ended for the Cubs and their fans. Carmelo Martinez led off with a walk. Shortstop Garry Templeton attempted to move him over with a bunt towards first base. Durham got the out at first but threw the ball away, allowing Martinez to score the tying run. The next batter was pinch-hitter Tim Flannery, who hit a harmless grounder to first. The ball rolled through Durham’s legs.
The back-to-back errors seemed to unnerve Sutcliffe for the first time since the trade. Wiggins singled, Gwynn doubled, and Garvey singled in quick succession, and the man Harry Caray had christened “The Red Baron” was pulled for Trout. Trout ended the inning, but it was too late-the Padres were up 6-3. The Cubs mounted minor rallies against Gossage in the eighth and ninth, but couldn’t score. The Padres were going to the World Series.
The 1984 Cubs had great expectations. Compared to them, the 2007 unit was just an unassuming club that won a weak NL Central, a flawed club that overtook the fading Brewers. Swept out of the playoffs, they had no insurmountable lead to blow. Perhaps they also have more of a future, as well. As a mostly-veteran unit, Green’s ’84 club would almost immediately have to be retooled; when the Cubs returned to the postseason in 1989, Sandberg, Sutcliffe, and Sanderson were the only holdovers. Green was gone by then as well, too, having resigned as the Cubs’ GM in 1987, he was managing the Yankees in 1989. As with their acquisitions of Ed Whitson and Andy Hawkins, the Yankees’ decision to take on this other hero of 1984 didn’t work out.
Before 1984, there was no Cubs nation, but that year, the Cubs drew two million fans for the first time. In 1982, they had finished tenth in the league in attendance, averaging just 15,000 a game, unthinkable now. The heartbreak of today began back then. If Sandberg and his teammates hadn’t blown a 2-0 lead in the NLCS, the pain of this loss wouldn’t be quite so exquisite.