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30 Years Ago, The Cubs Clinch A Division Title

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Three decades have gone by since the Cubs' division clinching in Pittsburgh. I saw it in person. Here's my story, along with photos I took that night, as I recall it clearly all these years later.

All of you know that 30 years ago today, September 24, 1984, the Cubs clinched the N.L. East title in Pittsburgh, their first postseason berth in 39 years. I don't think I've ever told my personal story of going to that game here before, and now seems an appropriate time, on the anniversary of the date, as we look forward to possible celebrations like that one in the future. It's hard to believe it's that long ago.

The clinching wasn't supposed to be in Pittsburgh. The Cubs had extended their division lead to 9½ games over the Mets by defeating them 5-4 at Wrigley Field September 15. The magic number for division-clinching (remember, no wild cards back then) was five, with four games remaining in a homestand. Perhaps they'd even clinch at home!

No such luck. The Mets beat the Cubs September 16 and then the Cubs got swept at Wrigley by the lowly Pirates (who lost 85 games that year). The Mets lost a couple of games in the interim, but the Cubs got the magic number no lower than three by the end of the homestand. There would be no clinching at Wrigley.

Off I drove, then, to St. Louis, where the Cubs were to face the Cardinals in a three-game weekend series. They could clinch by Saturday, possibly, with the Mets hosting the Expos.

Ugh. The Cubs got shut out 8-0 Friday, September 21, and looked bad doing it. Saturday's game was rained out, and the Mets took the first two games of their set with Montreal. The magic number remained at three. The Saturday rainout was scheduled as part of a makeup doubleheader Sunday, and the Mets still had one game remaining with the Expos. The Cubs could clinch in St. Louis if they swept and Montreal beat the Mets.

The Cubs did their part, sweeping that doubleheader in St. Louis behind fine pitching performances from Steve Trout and Dennis Eckersley. But the Mets completed a series sweep of the Expos and so the Cubs clinched only a tie for the division title, meaning they'd have to wait until Monday night in Pittsburgh for their chance to win the division outright.

I raced up I-55 back to Chicago from St. Louis at a speed far faster than the then-55 mile per hour speed limit and quickly worked on making arrangements to fly to Pittsburgh. I'd taken two weeks' vacation from work so I could go to these games if necessary, plus make all the playoff games in the championship-series round. I thought briefly about driving directly from St. Louis to Pittsburgh, but, having not packed for more than the three-day trip to St. Louis, I figured I'd better get home first.

Some of you might remember, in those early days of airline deregulation, an airline called People Express. They'd fly you just about anywhere as long as you didn't mind changing planes in Newark. Off I went, again, flying from O'Hare to Newark to Pittsburgh, which made no logical sense but was available and cheap. They made it cheap, in part, by not having any employees to accept payment for the flight at the airport -- you paid on the plane. I still remember the cart coming down the aisle with the credit-card machine (not an electronic reader as you'd have today, but one of those plastic things where they put your card in and ran a piece of paper over it).

With my vacation time, I had no idea how long I'd be in Pittsburgh, but planned on staying until the Cubs clinched, hoping it would be that first night. I had never been to Pittsburgh before, and if you've been there or live there, you know the drive from the airport involves going a long way on a highway surrounded by big stands of trees with no indication you're near a big city, and then going through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, where the city suddenly appears in front of you. It was an impressive sight for a first-time visitor.

Not so impressive was Three Rivers Stadium. It was not even 15 years old yet was beginning to show the age and the un-utility of a multipurpose stadium that would have it replaced by the wonderful PNC Park 15 years later. I'd met up with a Cubs fan friend from California who said he'd get us tickets -- which turned out to be in one of the far corners of the upper deck. With only about 5,000 people in the house, it wasn't too hard to, um, "convince" (read: "pay a small tip to") an usher to let us sit about 10 rows behind the Cubs dugout. Cubs GM Dallas Green, the architect of this winning club, was sitting in our section, in the first row near the dugout. When he left mid-game to get ready for the anticipated celebration, he got a standing ovation from the Cubs fans nearby.

The crowd was virtually all Cubs fans -- the officially announced 5,472 (and remember, in 1984 it wasn't tickets sold, but actual turnstile counts that were announced) sounded like 50,000 as the Cubs went out to an early 3-0 lead, scoring one run in each of the first three innings. News came to us in Pittsburgh, via the scoreboard, that the Mets had won their game over the Phillies -- that was good news, actually, as the Cubs would then have to clinch by winning instead of backing in.

What you might not know, or remember, about the Cubs' 4-1 division-clinching win, is how close Rick Sutcliffe came to throwing a perfect game that night. Sutcliffe, having the year of his life on his way to a unanimous Cy Young Award, was completely dominant. He struck out nine and didn't walk anyone and the two hits he allowed came very, very close to being fielded. Joe Orsulak tripled in the fourth inning, the Pirates' first hit. It was a ground ball down the first-base line that Leon Durham just missed -- and I mean just missed by an inch or two -- getting a glove on. Orsulak then scored the Pirates' only run on a sacrifice fly, and with two out in the sixth he barely beat out an infield hit.

No other Pirate came close to reaching base. When Sutcliffe struck out Orsulak to end the game, some of the Cubs fans ran onto the field (as you can see in a couple of the photos above); most of us just stayed in the stands, cheering at a sight some of us thought we might never see. The last Cubs postseason appearance before that was before I was born. A 39-year drought seemed inconceivable back then.

Those of us in Pittsburgh that night had no idea of the enormous throng of Cubs fans who were outside Wrigley Field celebrating at the bars on Clark Street and filling the intersection of Clark & Addison. My friend and I had left Three Rivers Stadium before WGN arranged for those pictures to be shown on the video board there to astonished Cubs players who were summoned back onto the field after their clubhouse celebration to watch the party near Wrigley.

Off we went to join other friends who had made the trip to celebrate at a local bar. It must have been 2 a.m. when we left; I remember yelling, to no one in particular, "Wake up, Pittsburgh! The Cubs won!"

Hey, what can I say. I was 27 years old and had been waiting for this moment all my Cubs-fan life, more than 20 years' worth of waiting at the time, and we already knew the Cubs would be facing the San Diego Padres in the National League Championship Series, starting October 2 at Wrigley Field, since the Padres had clinched the Western Division title the previous Friday. (Once again, let me bust the myth: the Cubs did not lose any home dates in the NLCS that year. In those years, home field was rotated between divisions and leagues. The East had home field in 1983, so the West was scheduled to have it in 1984.)

The Padres were a solid team led by future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who had the first of his six .350-plus seasons that year. But the Cubs had played them to a draw during the regular season, six wins each, three wins in each park, and every single Cubs fan had absolute confidence that the Cubs would win the NLCS and face the Tigers, who were expected to easily dispatch the Royals in the ALCS, in the World Series, the Cubs' first in 39 years and a rematch of the 1945 Fall Classic.

What could possibly go wrong?