30 Days to Opening Days and looking at the number 30 you could easily talk about guys like Steve Stone, who pitched well for the Cubs but truly made his mark on WGN with Harry Caray. Or Ken Holtzman whom, if the Cubs had held on to him as he hit his prime, would have been a stud at Wrigley for the entire decade of the 1970s.
Or you could simply look back at 30 years ago right now. March of 1984. Georgetown was winning an NCAA title with Patrick Ewing. The Raiders were the best team in the NFL. Michael Jordan was about to become a legend in Chicago. And it was the White Sox whom we all thought were going to be the best baseball team in Chicago after they won 99 games in 1983. The Cubs were an afterthought – going 71-91 in 1983 with guys like Leon Durham, Keith Moreland and Ron Cey littered throughout the lineup. And, some throw-in from Philadelphia named Ryne Sandberg who was going to move from third base to second base – as if it mattered, right?
The first couple months of the season were good, not great. Great comparatively speaking to the last 39 years – but not spectacular. In late May Bill Buckner was traded to the Red Sox, signaling the end of the Cubs from the 70s. On June 13 the Cubs acquired Rick Sutcliffe from Cleveland. Ten days later we all realized 1984 was going to be special. June 23, 1984.
The Sandberg game. ‘Nuff said.
Cub fans who were alive that day remember exactly where they were. I was in Wichita, Kansas, with some friends of the family – Cubs fans, of course. In their basement we watched as the Cubs came back from down 9-3. We listened as Bob Costas called Sandberg’s first game-tying home run in amazement. Then, he did it again – and off Bruce Sutter nonetheless. They won it in the 11th, swept with Sutcliffe on the mound the next day, and the Cubs were off and running to the playoffs.
That summer 30 years ago is littered with moments that are unforgettable. From Sandberg on June 23, to the doubleheader sweep of the Mets at the end of July that included a brawl between the Mets and the fans behind the visitor’s dugout. By mid-August we all knew we were witnessing history. Doc Gooden threw a one-hitter at the Cubs on national TV in early September, but the Cubs got their revenge a week later. With the hated Mets in town and Bill Veeck in the bleachers, Cubs up 3-0 in the sixth. Veeck said it best, “If Jody hits a grand slam here, the Cubs will win the NL East.” He did. And they did. It was September 14, but the race was over.
30 years ago, each and every day at Wrigley Field was an event. It was like Wrigley Field hosted a rock concert every day, but it was the same band playing over and over. And we couldn’t get enough.
By September 24, 1984 the whole nation had caught on. The Cubs were for real. Sutcliffe shut down the Pirates in front of something like 5,000 fans at Three Rivers Stadium and the Cubs clinched. There were more people in the “Cubby Bear” than there were at the game that night in Pittsburgh.
To this day, I still believe ABC cost the Cubs a pennant in 1984. Even though the Eastern Division winner was to have home-field advantage in the LCS, without lights the Cubs couldn’t be on primetime TV – so ABC strong-armed baseball into giving San Diego Games 3-5 at home over the weekend. The Cubs won Games One and Two with ease before losing three straight in San Diego that weekend. If three of the five were played at Wrigley, the Cubs win the pennant. Then they beat a Tigers team who started 35-5, and was a .500 club the rest of the way.
Who knows what’s going to happen 30 days from now, but this I know: 30 years ago, the Cubs were the best team in baseball. And, for those of us who experienced it, we will never forget the pain that came that October Sunday when the ball went right through Leon Durham’s legs in Game Five.
You know what? Let’s move on to 29, 30 is still too painful.
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