The 1989 Chicago Cubs entered the season coming off four years in the wilderness. After winning the NL East title and coming within one game of the National League pennant in 1984, the Cubs immediately regressed and posted four straight losing seasons. In 1989, the combination of a veteran manager and a cadre of talented young players, the Cubs returned to the top of the NL East.
Don Zimmer was in his second year as manager in Chicago, though the longtime baseball man had also managed the Boston Red Sox in the late 1970s. Zimmer oversaw a lineup that finished first in the National League in runs scored.
The biggest reason was that they simply pounded out hits—the Cubs were last in the league in walks, and middle of the pack in home runs, doubles and stolen bases. But with the NL’s best team batting average, they just kept pounding on opposing pitching staffs.
Chicago had a 25-year-old first baseman in Mark Grace who had a .405 on-base percentage/.457 slugging percentage. Another 25-year-old, Dwight Smith had a stat line of .382/.493. Jerome Walton, age 23, joined Smith in the outfield and finished with a respectable .335 OPB.
More young talent was on the pitching staff. Mitch Williams, the 24-year-old closer, saved 36 games with a 2.76 ERA. And no young star shone brighter than a 23-year-old starter named Greg Maddux, who won 19 games with a 2.95 ERA and logged 238 innings. He and Williams anchored a staff that finished sixth in the NL in ERA, a solid finish given the hitter-friendly environ of Wrigley Field.
Other young players included shortstop Shawon Dunston, catcher Damon Berryhill, and middle reliever Les Lancaster, who finished with a 1.36 ERA.
It wasn’t all about youth though. Ryne Sandberg was in the prime of his career at second base, and he finished with a stat line of .356/.497, hit 30 home runs and was arguably the best all-around player in baseball. Andre Dawson, now 34-years-old, was no longer an MVP player in right field, but he still hit 21 home runs.
The rotation had veteran presence as well. Rick Sutcliffe won 16 games with a 3.66 ERA. Scott Sanderson made 23 starts and went 11-9 with a 3.94 ERA. Mike Bielecki had a great year, winning 18 games with a 3.14 ERA.
Chicago still went into the season without high expectations, save for the diehard loyalists of Wrigley, who, prior to 2016, thought every year would be “The Year” that the franchise returned to the World Series for the first time since 1945 and won it for the first time since 1908.
A big offseason trade prior to the 1989 season had shipped out their best position player, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, to make room for Grace. The deal with the Texas Rangers included trading pitcher Jamie Moyer as part of a package that brought back starting pitcher Paul Kilgus, and reliever Steve Wilson, along with Williams.
History has not looked kindly upon this trade, as Palmeiro would be in the Hall of Fame if not for his admitted PED use. None of the players the Cubs acquired had a long-term impact. But for the short-term, in 1989, it worked. Williams anchored the bullpen, Kilgore was a respectable fifth starter, with a 4.39 ERA, and Wilson was a reasonably effective reliever who provided some bullpen depth.
The Cubs got on an early seven-game win streak and started the season 8-2, but promptly lost eight of nine, including series with the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, who had met in the 1988 NLCS. Chicago bounced back with an 8-3 stretch, then lost six of seven and were a game under .500 on May 14. The up-and-down ride continued with a good run against teams from the NL West, and by Memorial Day, the Cubs were in first place with a 27-20 record.
Chicago was being chased by three teams. The Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals had combined to win the old NL East each of the previous four years, and the Montreal Expos were also in pursuit. All three teams were within three games of the Cubs, and all were more highly regarded.
In the early part of June, Chicago played fourteen straight games against the Mets and Cardinals and managed to break even. Toward the end of the month, they lost seven straight, including a three-game series at home to the Expos, and the Cubs slipped 2 ½ games back. Once again, the NL West proved to be a panacea, and Chicago won seven of nine to stabilize by the All-Star break. They trailed Montreal by a game and a half, and were narrowly ahead of New York and St. Louis.
The Cubs played well coming out of the All-Star break and by August 17 they were 4 ½ games up. The highlights of the late July/early August timeframe were taking a road series from the Cardinals and sweeping both the Mets and Expos at home. Then Chicago lost six in a row and the lead was cut to a game and a half, setting the stage for a September dogfight.
On September 8, the Cubs prepared to host the Cardinals for a weekend series and the Expos were coming into town on Monday. It would prove to be the most important six days of the 1989 NL East race.
It looked like more heartbreak might be in store for the Cubs in Friday’s opener. They jumped out to a 5-1 lead on the Cardinals behind two early home runs from Sandberg. But Kilgus did not pitch well, and then Williams melted down in relief, resulting in an 11-8 loss.
Sutcliffe pitched well on Saturday, but trailing 2-1 in the eighth, it looked like things might get worse. Then Luis Salazar stepped out with a two-out RBI base hit that tied the game. Then Salazar won it with an RBI double in the tenth. In the Sunday finale, trailing 1-0 in the sixth, Sandberg singled, Smith homered and Chicago pulled away to a 4-1 win.
Monday with Montreal was a big-time pitching matchup. The Expos had acquired hard-throwing lefty Mark Langston as the ace they needed for the stretch drive. The Cubs answered with Maddux. In a good game, the difference-maker was Dunston, with three hits and two RBIs as Chicago won 4-3.
On Tuesday, Bielecki was brilliant, with a complete-game two-hit shutout and a 2-0 win. In Wednesday’s finale, Sanderson took the ball. He had won the Sunday game with St. Louis in relief and on two days’ rest, he gave Zimmer 5.1 innings of shutout ball and the Cubs won 3-1. By the end of Wednesday, Chicago was five games up and in command of the NL East.
The lead was briefly cut to the three games with a week and a half left, and with the final week set to be in Montreal and St. Louis, it looked like Chicago might yet make it interesting for the fans. But the quickly pushed the lead back to four games over the penultimate weekend and then clinched on Tuesday in Montreal.
Chicago went on to face the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series, and split the first two games at home. Alas, the hopes of a return to the World Series were not to be. The Cubbies lost three straight out west and another pennant dream was dashed.
The Cubs tortured history of the time made it easy to judge any season like this, that falls short of the World Series, as a disappointment. In reality, it’s not fair to hold the entire scope of a century of failure against a single team, and the 1989 Chicago Cubs achieved far more than was ever expected in winning the division.
The disappointment lies with the fact they never made it back—in fact never seriously contended with this core group. Three straight losing seasons followed. By the time Chicago made it back to the playoffs in 1998, MLB had realigned its divisions and created an extra round for the postseason. The Cubs never made the NLCS until 2003 and of course they waited until 2016 for the final fulfillment of a pennant and World Series title.