There's no way any Cubs fan expected the N.L. East title that was waiting for us at the end of the 1984 rainbow. The team had finished 1983 with a 12-18 slide and at one point in spring training 1984 lost 13 straight games. Even for spring training, that's bad.
Actually, that spring losing streak is one of the reason the Cubs won the division title that season. General Manager Dallas Green got so disgusted with the team's performance that he pulled off one of the best deals in recent franchise history, acquiring Gary Matthews and Bob Dernier from his former team, the Phillies, for reliever Bill Campbell and outfielder Mike Diaz.
The Cubs wouldn't have won without Dernier's ability at the leadoff spot and Matthews' leadership (and 103 walks, the first Cub to walk 100 times in a season since 1960).
So you were probably expecting to see "The Sandberg Game" here, or maybe the division clincher in Pittsburgh (see photo above). Nope. Both of those games are too well-known.
Instead, I'm going to tell you the story of the final game of the 1984 regular season. The division had been clinched and there was, of course, much excitement about the Cubs' first postseason game in 39 years, which was scheduled for October 2. For the final regular-season game the Cubs were hosting the Cardinals, always a great matchup, and though there wasn't a completely full house, the 33,100 fans in attendance that Sunday afternoon brought the season attendance to 2,107,655. That shattered the 1969 club record and it was the first time the Cubs had drawn two million fans in a season. Since attendance was announced as turnstile count in those days, that was the actual number of fans that came through Wrigley's gates in 1984. It might not seem like a huge number now, but it ranked sixth in the major leagues -- after the Cubs had ranked 16th the year before.
Anyway, Sunday, September 30 dawned cold, below freezing, and the temperature at game time was in the 40s. I remember having to buy a sweatshirt that day because I hadn't dressed for the weather. There was nothing at stake in the result of the game, except team pride... and, as the game went on, a possible record-breaking save for former Cub and then-Cardinals closer Bruce Sutter. The Cardinals took a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth and Sutter was summoned. Earlier in the year he had given up the two famous homers to Sandberg; on this September Sunday, he was going for his 46th save of the season, attempting to break the then-major league record of 45, held by the Royals' Dan Quisenberry.
By that time, manager Jim Frey had cleared his bench, so it was reserves Henry Cotto, Dan Rohn and Thad Bosley to face Sutter. They all singled, tying the game. Gary Woods walked to load the bases, bringing up the only Cubs position player who played the entire game: Keith Moreland. Fred Mitchell of the Tribune describes what happened next:
Moreland hit a bouncer to rookie third baseman Terry Pendleton.
Pendleton threw home for the force on Rohn, but catcher Glenn Brummer's throw to first base for the attempted double play went into right field, allowing Bosley to score the winning run.
And just that quickly, the Cubs had their 96th win of the year -- still the second-most since 1945 -- a win over the rival Cardinals, and had denied Sutter a record-breaking save.
It's what happened next that cements this game in my memory. The crowd, jazzed up by the dramatic walkoff win, refused to leave, staying in the park, cheering something we thought we might never see. People started chanting for the Cubs to come back on the field.
Keep this in mind: This was 28 years ago. Curtain calls and victory laps are common these days. Back then -- teams just didn't do things like this. I can't recall ever seeing one before 1984. From Mitchell:
Ryne Sandberg, who undressed the rest of the National League East this season, almost was at a loss for trousers himself when 33,100 delirious fans summoned the Cubs for a curtain call Sunday.
"We had come into the locker room after the game," explained Sandberg, in mid-blush. "And I had already started to get undressed."
"Then somebody said the fans wanted us back on the field. I had to rush around and grab a pair of pants real quick before I could go out there for the celebration. It was unbelievable."
It was. The Cubs came back on the field, some wearing shower clogs, most of them in just sweatshirts or whatever they could grab, and walked slowly around the entire field, soaking up the admiration of fans who hadn't seen anything like this in nearly four decades. Cubs teams have done this since then at Wrigley -- it happened after the 1998 wild-card game and after the division-clinchings at home in 2003 and 2008. Most teams will do things like this when they win division titles, or pennants, or World Series titles.
But in 1984, this was something special. I can't even describe adequately the feeling of seeing the Cubs as champions, after my then more than 20 years as a Cubs fan, mostly seeing really bad baseball. Of course, neither I nor any other Cubs fan had any idea that all of that would be crushed just one week later. I had been recording all the games from WGN since the start of September, and saved all the wins. This one, I still take out and watch from time to time, just to remember those feelings of joy.