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Cubs historical sleuthing: Yet another Shawon Dunston photo

“Unidentified,” they said. Ha!

Jonathan Daniel/Allsport

Getty Images provided the following info, yes in all caps just like this:


Unidentified? Well... not for this sleuth!

First, Getty also did helpfully say this photo was taken in 1990. That’s obviously Shawon Dunston, easily recognizable. We’re sort of making this Dunston Sleuthing Week, this is three days in a row.

It’s clearly early April — no ivy on the wall — and so this has to be from a three-game series the Pirates played at Wrigley April 20, 21 and 22, 1990.

That makes the Pirates player Wally Backman — I hadn’t remembered him as a Pirate. 1990 was his only year in Pittsburgh. You can’t see his face in the photo, but his number — 19 — is clearly visible.

Now let’s narrow down the games.

April 20: Weather conditions say “59° F, Wind 9mph in unknown direction, Overcast, Showers.” That’s definitely NOT what we see here. Cross that one off. (Also, Backman didn’t play that day.)

April 21: Night game. Nope, this is definitely a day game we’re looking at.

So this photo is from Sunday, April 22, 1990. Let’s look at some of the plays when Backman was on base. He led off that day and went 2-for-4.

First inning: Led off the game and grounded out 3-1.

Fourth inning: Led off with a single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Jay Bell. The PBP says “Fielder’s Choice P/Sacrifice Bunt; Backman to 2B,” and then says Bell and Backman both advanced on a wild pitch.

Fifth inning: Singled with one out and was forced at second. This could be it, but the PBP says the force play was third base to second, and Dunston was the shortstop.

Seventh inning: Grounded out, short to first.

At first glance, none of these really match at all. So I went to the Tribune archive to see what I could find. You know, back in the day newspapers used to put fairly complete game play by play in recaps, but that was in the pre-television era. By 1990, writers figured most fans had seen the game on TV (or heard it on the radio) and didn’t need that, so there was much less PBP in the newspaper.

This time, though, I hit paydirt in Paul Sullivan’s recap:

After Wally Backman singled for the first Pirate hit leading off the fourth, Jay Bell laid down a sacrifice bunt in front of the plate. [Cubs catcher Rick] Wrona yelled for [pitcher Jose] Nunez to force the runner at second — but the throw was late, and costly.

While no one was pointing the finger at anyone, Wrona and Nunez had different perspectives on the play.

“I saw the ball was rolling too slow [to get the force],” said Nunez. “But he called, ‘Second, second.’ I had no choice.”

Wrona said the call was good, but the execution wasn’t.

“I thought Jose didn’t have a very good grip,” he said. “He couldn’t get much on the throw. The ball got away from him.”

Can a pitcher call off a catcher in that situation?

“You can,” Nunez said. “I just didn’t do it. It was a mistake that maybe cost us the game.”

So that’s what we are looking at: Nunez’ bad throw that was too late to get Backman, and Dunston reaching across to grab the ball. Both runners were safe, and Bobby Bonilla followed the wild pitch with a two-run double. Later in the inning the Pirates scored again with two out — which wouldn’t have happened if the Cubs had recorded an out on the bunt. The Pirates wound up winning the game 4-3.

If you don’t remember Jose Nunez very well, neither did I. The Cubs had acquired him after the 1989 season from the Blue Jays for Paul Kilgus. Nunez made 21 appearances (10 starts) for the Cubs in 1990 with a 6.53 ERA and was demoted to Triple-A Iowa in July. He spent 1991 at Iowa as well, 1992 in the Mariners farm system and then went on an international odyssey that saw him play in Taiwan, Korea, Japan and an indy league in Quebec. He was still pitching in the Mexican League as late as 2005.