One of those failures was the great 1984 team, and I don’t use the term “great” lightly. The club had a new manager and made a significant trade just before Opening Day that brought two key players, Gary Matthews and Bob Dernier, to the North Side. Between that, the maturing of Leon Durham and Jody Davis, and the breakout year of N.L. MVP Ryne Sandberg, the Cubs had a team that moved into first place in early June. Even with all the positive changes, that was unexpected after an 89-loss season in 1983, not to mention nearly 40 years of various failures since the previous Cubs N.L. pennant in 1945.
But GM Dallas Green wasn’t satisfied. In late May he sent the popular Bill Buckner (who had had his playing time reduced by the acquisition of Matthews, which sent Durham to first base and Buckner to the bench) to the Red Sox for Dennis Eckersley. Still not satisfied with his rotation, Green traded Joe Carter, Mel Hall and Don Schulze to the Indians for Rick Sutcliffe, George Frazier and Ron Hassey.
While Sutcliffe had been N.L. Rookie of the Year in 1979, he and Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda didn’t get along. Sutcliffe once choked Lasorda, among other things, and was shipped to what was then considered baseball Siberia, Cleveland, before the 1982 season. Sutcliffe had a good year in ‘82, a worse year in ‘83 and was mired in a horrid start to ‘84 with the Tribe (4-5, 5.15 ERA, 1.664 WHIP in 15 starts) when the Cubs acquired him June 13.
Funny thing, the Cubs went into a skid right then. Many of us thought another “June swoon” was happening, as it had so many times in the early 1970s. The team lost eight of 12 in the two weeks immediately following Sutcliffe’s acquisition and got dumped into third place. Sutcliffe personally led the Cubs to two of those four wins, throwing eight solid innings (three runs, one earned) in a win over the Pirates June 19. Then he threw a five-hit shutout with 14 strikeouts against the Cardinals June 24, the day after the Sandberg Game.
All of a sudden the Cubs were hot again, winning 16 of their next 22. And Sutcliffe kept winning, and winning, and winning. In his 20 starts for the Cubs in the 1984 regular season, the team won 18 of them. The only one in which he registered a loss was against his old team, the Dodgers, in a game at Dodger Stadium June 29 after which Sutcliffe admitted he was “trying too hard.” He also got cuffed around by the Pirates September 19 at Wrigley, but the bullpen blew a lead the Cubs had fashioned early in that game.
After throwing a two-hitter in the division clincher September 24 at Pittsburgh, Sutcliffe was shut down for the remaining few games of the regular season and scheduled for the NLCS opener at Wrigley Field October 2.
It was one of the most beautiful weather days of the entire year. Unlimited sunshine and temperatures in the low 70s, perfect for the first Cubs postseason game in 39 years. Droughts are droughts, but can you imagine 39 years without a single postseason appearance? It was a festive atmosphere and the Cubs roared out to an early lead on solo homers by Dernier and Matthews in the bottom of the first.
With that 2-0 lead intact, Sutcliffe led off the bottom of the third:
Somewhere in that right-field crowd is me — that ball flew directly over my head from my old right-field seat and onto Sheffield. You can hear the reaction of the crowd. Sutcliffe was a decent hitter — he’d hit .250 with a .286 OBP that season — but that was his first home run of any kind since 1979.
It set the tone for a 13-0 blowout in which there were two more homers, by Matthews and Ron Cey:
The Cubs won Game 2, then lost Game 3 in San Diego. There was no travel day allowed, and I’ll still never understand how or why that schedule was created, with Game 3 played with no travel day and then an off day after it. Made no sense then and still doesn’t. Sutcliffe was being saved by Jim Frey for Game 1 of the World Series, and that wasn’t the right thing to do either, as the Cubs blew a lead and lost Game 4. That forced Sutcliffe into Game 5, and you know the rest.
The 13-0 win was at the time the biggest shutout in postseason history, it’s since been eclipsed. And that home run, one of five hit that sunny October afternoon at Wrigley — the Cubs broke that postseason record in Game 3 of the 2015 NLDS against the Cardinals — was an unforgettable part of franchise history.