If you're younger than your late 30s, you likely know of the Cubs' 12-11 win over the Cardinals June 23, 1984, more commonly known as "The Sandberg Game" only from reading of it and perhaps seeing video of Ryne Sandberg's two home runs that helped win that game.
That turning-point game happened 30 years ago today, and I can't believe that many years have gone by. I'm writing this retrospective to remind everyone -- as well as myself -- just how important that game was for the team, and the player.
Rewind back to that morning. The Cubs began the day in third place, 1½ games behind the first-place Mets. Even this position was a bit surprising. The Cubs had losing records in 1982 and 1983, their first two years under Tribune Co. ownership, and had a poor spring-training record in 1984 that included a 13-game losing streak. That streak prompted GM Dallas Green to make the famous swap in which he acquired Gary Matthews and Bob Dernier from the Phillies just before Opening Day. The Cubs got off to a good start and held first place for much of May and early June, but had lost six of seven on the road before returning to Wrigley for a seven-game homestand against the Cardinals and Pirates.
Sandberg, meanwhile, had been a good player in his first two years, 1982 and 1983, but certainly showed no superstar talent those years. His reputation was as a good-fielding infielder who could steal a few bases (32 in 1982, 37 in 1983).
But the Cubs' new manager, Jim Frey, had worked with Sandberg in spring training, trying to help get him to drive the ball better, rather than just hit singles. Going into the game of June 23, it had worked -- Sandberg was hitting .321/.371/.531 with 19 doubles, nine triples and seven home runs. In fact, he was on something of a hot streak -- .439/.477/.829 over his previous 10 games (18-for-41 with four doubles, three triples and two home runs).
1984 was the first year that NBC, MLB's rightsholder at the time, had exclusive rights to Saturday afternoon games in a specificed timeslot. Before that, if NBC had nationally televised a game, the teams' local channels could also carry the game. This game was the first game at Wrigley Field not televised by WGN-TV since it had begun broadcasting in 1948.
So Bob Costas, then 32 and in just his third year of calling baseball for NBC, was teamed with Tony Kubek on the call.
The Cardinals raced out to a 7-1 lead, chasing starter Steve Trout before the end of the second inning. Rich Bordi was called on to do true long relief. He threw 3⅔ scoreless innings, but when Willie McGee hit a two-run homer off Dickie Noles in the sixth, the Cubs trailed 9-3. That's when the comeback started. The Cubs loaded the bases in the last of the sixth and scored five times, capped by a two-run double by Dernier and an RBI single from Sandberg, who was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double.
The 9-8 score held until the bottom of the ninth. Former Cub Bruce Sutter, then one of the game's premier closers for the Cardinals, had been summoned in the eighth to protect the lead, as closers often did in those days. He retired the Cubs 1-2-3 in the eighth, and then Sandberg led off the ninth with a homer off Sutter. The Cubs actually got the winning run to scoring position; Matthews singled with one out and stole second. He went to third on a groundout but was stranded.
On to extra innings the game went. The Cardinals pushed across two runs in the top of the 10th against Lee Smith to take an 11-9 lead.
Sutter remained in the game. Again, this was common in those days -- your best reliever continued for two, maybe three, innings. The first two Cubs, Larry Bowa and Richie Hebner, went down easily on groundouts. The game appeared just about over.
Sutter ran a 3-2 count on Dernier. On a pitch that was very close, plate umpire Doug Harvey called ball four, and Dernier took first base.
Up came Sandberg again. Well, you know what happened. I'm sure you've seen the video -- and it's around, you can find it, I won't post links because I don't want the MLB video police to take them down. But you can probably hear Costas calling, "Do you believe it? It's gone!"
Which leads to an interesting trivia question. Some who don't know the details of this game think Sandberg won it with his second homer, but both of his blasts tied the game. The Cubs loaded the bases on a walk, a stolen base and two intentional passes with nobody out in the bottom of the 11th. Up stepped Dave Owen, a seldom-used utility infielder who had just 23 at-bats in 1984 before that game.
Owen lined a sharp single to right field for the walkoff winner, and I can still hear the eruption of the crowd of 38,079 -- almost none of whom had left Wrigley -- on that hit, to this day, an afternoon at Wrigley Field I will never forget. Thirty years later, just two games provided anything near the thrills of June 23, 1984 -- Kerry Wood's 20-K game and the wild-card tiebreaker against the Giants, both in 1998.
One more historic thing happened in the Sandberg game, rarely mentioned because of Sandberg's huge, 5-for-6, seven-RBI performance, for which Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog called Ryno "Baby Ruth." On that sunny Saturday, McGee drove in six runs and hit for the cycle. He's the last visiting player to cycle at Wrigley Field.
The game helped energize the Cubs -- it was the second game of a 15-5 run. The Cubs eventually went into first place to stay in early August and won the N.L. East by 6½ games. We'll leave the 1984 story there, though. For Sandberg himself, it was his first real national attention, helped propel him to the MVP award that year, and it's not exaggerating to say that game was a key moment in eventually getting him into the Hall of Fame.
It's also no exaggeration to say that the Sandberg Game changed almost everyone's view of the Cubs as a franchise. Though Green's moves had helped improve them, remember they had not then made the postseason in 39 years and were known mostly as losers. This game vaulted the Cubs into national prominence, and nothing at Wrigley Field has really been the same since.
It's hard to believe 30 years have gone by since the Sandberg Game. Let's hope we have some excitement like the Sandberg Game to come at Wrigley, sooner rather than later.