Once again, I present to you an entry in this series that honors two different home runs. This time, I’m not going to make you pick between them, because both were extremely important in the context of the game. (If you really want to force me to pick, the second one was obviously bigger, because it came with two out and a two-run deficit.)
Before 1984, Sandberg was known as a good defensive second baseman. As a hitter, he was just fair; his best talent in his first two big-league seasons was stealing bases. He’d stolen 69 bases in 92 attempts (75 percent, a good percentage) in 1982 and 1983.
When Jim Frey took over as Cubs manager, he saw some potential in Sandberg and urged him to start driving the ball rather than just poke singles to right, a Ryno specialty. Sandberg took this to heart and entering the game June 23, he was hitting .321/.371/.531, a good slugging percentage that had mostly shown up in doubles (19) and triples (seven). He had seven home runs up to that point in 66 games, a good total but nothing that would have made you think he was a big-time power hitter.
More context: The Cubs got off to a pretty good start under Frey. They held first place much of May and after sweeping a doubleheader against the Braves May 24 they were 26-15.
Then they went into a bit of a slide. Entering the June 23 game they had lost 16 of 25 and, at 35-31, had dropped to third place, 2½ games out of first. They’d lost six of seven entering the three-game weekend series against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field.
Rick Reuschel, who had suffered through a couple of bad starts earlier in June, threw 7⅓ solid innings Friday, June 22 and the Cubs defeated the Cardinals 9-3.
That set the stage for the Saturday game. I recall the afternoon as being perfect weatherwise, a gorgeous June day with sunny skies, temps in the low 80s with low humidity. A full house of 38,079 (remember, Wrigley had a slightly lower capacity then than it does now) packed the ballpark for this rivalry game.
Before this game even began, a bit of history was made. Since 1948, every home game at Wrigley Field had been televised on WGN-TV — even on days when NBC carried a Saturday Game of the Week. On those days, if the Cubs were involved, two channels in Chicago would show the game. But in 1984, NBC had negotiated exclusive rights to its Saturday games and thus, this was the first Cubs game at Wrigley since September 1947 not televised on WGN. Instead, NBC’s Bob Costas and Tony Kubek had the only TV call.
The Cardinals hit Steve Trout hard, pounding him for seven runs in the first two innings; Trout left having recorded only four outs. It was 7-1 St. Louis after two and after the Cubs pushed across a pair in the bottom of the fifth, the Cardinals matched that in the top of the sixth, so the Cubs trailed 9-3 going into the bottom of the sixth.
It quickly became 9-8. The Cubs loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batsman. Richie Hebner singled in a pair, Bob Dernier doubled in Hebner and Sandberg completed the five-run inning with a two-run single. Ryno was thrown out trying to take second, though, after the second run scored.
That’s how the game stayed until the ninth inning. Sandberg was scheduled to lead off against the Cardinals closer, former Cub Bruce Sutter.
The Cubs actually got the winning run to scoring position later in that inning. Gary Matthews singled, and one out later he stole second. Keith Moreland grounded out, with Matthews taking third. Jody Davis was intentionally walked and Sutter got out of the inning when Gary Woods hit into a force play.
Cubs closer Lee Smith came on to throw the 10th, and the Cardinals quickly took the lead. Ozzie Smith singled and stole second and Willie McGee doubled him in to put St. Louis ahead. Not only that, McGee’s double gave him a cycle for the afternoon. 36 years later, he remains the last visiting player to cycle at Wrigley. Two groundouts scored McGee to give the Cardinals an 11-9 lead.
Sutter remained in the game for the last of the 10th. He retired Larry Bowa and Hebner on groundouts, and then ran a 3-2 count on Bob Dernier. The Cardinals had a win probability of 99 percent at this moment.
To this day Sutter will tell you that his next pitch was strike three to Dernier and the game should have been over. Watching that game in person, I thought Dernier had been fooled and would be called out on strikes. But plate umpire Doug Harvey ruled it was ball four, and Dernier took first base.
Sandberg was up next. Bob Costas was in the process of reading the game credits while Sutter ran a 1-1 count on Ryno.
Watching that, it feels like yesterday. I can still remember the goosebumps. The video is outstanding not just for showing the home run, but the angry reaction of Sutter when he grabs the baseball thrown to him for the next hitter. I’d love to know who got Sandberg’s 10th-inning homer and where that ball is now.
Matthews grounded out to end the inning and Smith threw a scoreless 11th.
In the bottom of the inning, Leon Durham walked and stole second, and took third when Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter’s throw went wild. St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog ordered the next two hitters walked to load the bases, a sensible move with nobody out, trying to set up a force play at any base. The moves brought up the pitcher’s spot in the batting order.
Frey sent up Dave Owen to bat for Smith. Owen had played in just 28 MLB games prior to that afternoon, a spare-part infielder who’d hit .200 (9-for-45) in those 28 games with two extra-base hits and 11 strikeouts, the proverbial “last guy on the bench.”
Cardinals reliever Jeff Lahti ran a 1-1 count on Owen.
Then the “last guy on the bench” won the game. Harry Caray’s radio call included [VIDEO].
It’ll always be remembered as the Sandberg Game, but Owen is the guy who won it. The game put Sandberg on the baseball map in a year where he’d win the N.L. MVP award. For the Cubs, it was the second win of a 12-4 run that put them back in first place, though they wouldn’t be on top to stay until August.
One last little note from the Sandberg Game: Ryno’s box score line of 6-2-5-7 is unique in MLB history, as I noted in this article here last month.
Ryne Sandberg is one of the most beloved players in Cubs history. This game is one of the principal reasons why.