Chicago Cubs: Gary Matthews impact in 1984 is underrated

Gary Matthews, Chicago Cubs (Photo by: 1987 SPX/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
Gary Matthews, Chicago Cubs (Photo by: 1987 SPX/Diamond Images/Getty Images) /

The 1984 Chicago Cubs are among the best teams the franchise has ever fielded, but one player’s impact extended well beyond excellent play.

One of the big talks about the modern Chicago Cubs is the importance of having veteran leadership on the team. In recent years, the likes of Jon Lester, Ben Zobrist, David Ross, and Jason Heyward have provided some form of veteran guidance for the younger players on the roster. One of the most crucial veteran leaders in Cubs history, however, came to Chicago in 1984 during one of the best years in franchise history.

Gary Matthews, nicknamed “the Sarge,” was a solid offensive contributor for the Giants, Braves, and Phillies before coming to the North Side. He managed an OPS+ of 118 in that time, relying heavily on excellent on-base skills over the long ball. His defense left a bit more to be desired, however, with only a -41 Total Zone rating before joining the Cubs.

Matthews was acquired alongside another fan-favorite in Bob Dernier in a trade with the Phillies for Mike Diaz and Bill Campbell. The addition of Matthews and Dernier would put the Cubs over the top, giving them a veteran bat and a Gold Glove-caliber centerfielder. 1984 would be Matthews’ best season.

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Matthews would post a league-best OBP at .410 and league-most walks at 103, good enough to earn a top-five finish in MVP voting. His most significant impact, however, would be on the impression he made on his teammates, which earned him his nickname. Matthews inspired the team throughout his time in Chicago, acting as the sergeant and leading his men into battle.

Come playoff time, Matthews led by example again, hitting two home runs in a game one 13 to none slaughter of the Padres. His influence supercharged a talented team into being a genuine championship contender. Though the team ultimately fell short of a World Series title, the Sarge had established himself as a polished hitter capable of jumpstarting the offense and creating opportunities to score.

In the next few seasons, Matthews continued to put up respectable numbers before an injury-riddled season in 1987 saw him traded to the Seattle Mariners. He would end his career that same year, but not before collecting just over 2,000 career hits. His time in Chicago was not entirely over, though, as he would return as the hitting coach under Dusty Baker.

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Despite not being the most popular player on the 1984 Chicago Cubs, Matthews acted as the heart and soul of the team, motivating them to play their best baseball and setting up opportunities for them to succeed. He’s the kind of player that all teams hope to have: a driving force that, while unspectacular inability, brings out the best in those around them. He was one of the final pieces needed to capitalize on the talent of a team hungry to win.