NEW YORK (AP) Way before wild cards and ”Moneyball,” before instant replay and interleague games, before the Chicago Cubs had endured seven painful decades without a single stinkin’ pennant, the dubious drought was more akin to a mid-life crisis: 39 years old.
It was 1984 and apparently anything was possible, according to George Orwell.
Even at Wrigley Field.
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Especially at Wrigley Field.
As summer heated up and the sun finally shined on Chicago, the old town was all abuzz about its baseball team on the North Side. Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe had the Cubs steaming toward their first winning season in 12 years, seemingly primed to stop those two infamous streaks at long, long last.
The most recent championship: 1908. The last World Series appearance: 1945.
”Once we were on a roll, I thought we were gonna win the whole thing!” said Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley, acquired that May in the trade that sent Bill Buckner to Boston.
But first, the Cubs had to hold off another long-floundering franchise that was finally on the rise.
The young and talented New York Mets had a 19-year-old phenom named Dwight Gooden who was taking over the Big Apple one breathtaking fastball at a time.
”He was sick,” Eckersley said.
Powered by Darryl Strawberry and piloted by new manager Davey Johnson, the Mets eclipsed 70 wins for the first time in eight seasons and reached 90 for just the second time in team history.
”One of the most fun years I ever had in my life,” first baseman Keith Hernandez recalled.
It was hardly the most dramatic race on record – Chicago pulled away and won the NL East by 6 1/2 games. But the cities and ballparks and central characters involved certainly made it memorable.
”Under today’s rules, we would have made the postseason,” Mets pitcher Ron Darling said. ”But that was when the division mattered so much, and when stuff got real tough and the pressure was on, they knew how to handle it and we didn’t.”
Both rosters were bursting with fan favorites who had delightful, dip-n-dot names like Hubie Brooks and Mookie Wilson, Jody Davis and Larry Bowa, Wally Backman and Rusty Staub.
Yet these were salty men with mustaches in the Burt Reynolds mold. They were ballplayers, in the most romantic essence of the word, who wore blue stirrups stretched thin and high nearly to the knee.
And they had colorful, catchy nicknames – some of them stolen straight from the zoo.
There was Ryno and Penguin and Leon (Bull) Durham. … Sarge and El Sid and Steve (Rainbow) Trout. … Zonk and Fitzy … Eck and Mex … Big Daddy and Doctor K.
”We kind of really awakened those fans in `84,” Cubs outfielder Gary Matthews said. ”Before `84 you could just go and buy a ticket. After `84, it was pretty difficult.”
History was an inescapable backdrop because 15 years earlier, the Cubs squandered a large August lead and let the Miracle Mets rally past them on the way to a World Series title.
Individual awards were on the line, too: Sandberg and Hernandez ran 1-2 in MVP voting; Sutcliffe and Gooden the same for the Cy Young; Jim Frey and Johnson for Manager of the Year.
”We were a cocky bunch,” Matthews said. ”Just like a thoroughbred horse, you know that you’re getting ready to win this race.”
Matthews was one of several former Philadelphia players brought in by Chicago general manager Dallas Green.
Green managed the Phillies to a World Series crown in 1980, ending their long drought, and was hired by the Cubs in October 1981 to do the same from their front office.
”I’d never been in a place where the general manager seemed so … hovering,” Eckersley said.
Green assembled a veteran mix of newcomers from other winning organizations, including ex-Dodgers third baseman Ron Cey. And much to the surprise of some, they meshed seamlessly.
”Everything was sort of patchwork,” Eckersley said. ”It’s hard to do that. Especially now. In today’s day and age, you can’t do that.”
”I thought it was just magical,” he added. ”Everything came together.”
The biggest score was Sutcliffe, who went 16-1 with a 2.69 ERA in 20 starts for the Cubs after coming over in a June 13 trade that sent future World Series hero Joe Carter to Cleveland.
”Every time he took the mound, you knew you were going to win,” Eckersley said.
New York more resembled the Mets and Cubs teams currently playing in the NL Championship Series. Rebuilt on homegrown talent with a couple of playoff veterans sprinkled in – Hernandez, George Foster – the Mets were only beginning to ascend.
”We just couldn’t beat them,” Hernandez said. ”And to this day if Dallas Green doesn’t make that trade for Sutcliffe, we win the division. We’d have won it. That was a trade of the ages right there.”
Chicago arrived at Shea Stadium for the opener of a four-game series on Friday night, July 27. Gooden won 2-1 before a packed house of 51,102, giving the Mets a 4 1/2-game lead.
But the Cubs took the next three, then swept a four-game rematch that included a brawl in early August at Wrigley Field.
”They beat us up really bad,” Darling said. ”It almost felt like they were laughing at us – and they had every right to. But I just remember that that was the most intimidating crowd I had ever played in front of to that time.
”It was an experience playing at Wrigley. We weren’t up for it, but it was an experience.”
The teams split six games in September, with Gooden firing a one-hit shutout at Shea. Sutcliffe, however, beat New York three times down the stretch as the Cubs cruised home.
”They were just a better team. They were an older team, they were positioned and ready to play in the postseason. We were just a little short and they let us know,” Darling said. ”We needed a little more reps and we got `em. And you know, that four-game loss at Wrigley Field in August in `84 made us the team that won the World Series in `86.”
Chicago, of course, fell short in Shakespearean fashion.
After taking a 2-0 lead in the NLCS, the Cubs lost three straight at San Diego in the final season of the best-of-five format.
”That billy goat I guess caught up with them,” Hernandez said.
And still, no trips to the World Series since the Truman administration.
”At the time, you know, you just move on,” Eckersley said. ”But looking back, I mean, that was a moment that could and should have happened – and didn’t.”
Which is why it stings so much, even today.
”I asked Ryne Sandberg, `How often do you think about us not getting in?”’ Matthews said. ”And it was the same answer I had given to people, and really that is, you think about it every day.”