The North Side of Chicago has never been renowned for baseball excellence, and the early part of the 1980s was no exception. The beloved Chicago Cubs, after finishing second in the old NL East in 1969, 1970 and 1972 had finished under .500 in each of the ensuing eleven years, including a 91-loss season in 1983. A managerial change and a series of big trades made the 1984 Chicago Cubs season one to remember.
Chicago hired Dallas Green, who had led the Philadelphia Phillies to the 1980 World Series title, as manager. Then the overhaul began. A three-way deal saw the Cubs part with middle reliever Craig Lefferts and outfielder Carmelo Martinez to the San Diego Padres, and in return Chicago got a reliable starting pitcher, Scott Sanders, from the Montreal Expos.
Green then dialed up his old team in Philadelphia, and acquired centerfielder Bob Dernier and veteran left fielder Gary Matthews. After the season began in May, the Cubs traded first baseman Bill Buckner, an excellent contact hitter and defensive first baseman to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Dennis Eckersley, then a starting pitcher.
The biggest trade was still to come, but the overhaul made the Cubs a competitive team, and after two months of play, they were 27-20 and in the mix of a stacked NL East race. The Phillies, the defending National League champs, were seen as the prime threat. The St. Louis Cardinals, two years removed from a World Series victory, were in the mix, as was another rising team under a new manager, the New York Mets with Davey Johnson.
Chicago was winning with offense, and the 1984 team would finish second in the National League in runs scored, adept at both getting runners on base consistently and driving the ball for power. Ryne Sandberg had an MVP year at second base, with a stat line of .367 on-base percentage/.520 slugging percentage and excellent defense.
Leon Durham, the first baseman who had inspired the trading of Buckner, had a big year at the plate, at .369/.505 and he hit 23 home runs. Dernier had a .356 OBP as he set the table out of the leadoff spot. Matthews was a steady veteran, posting a big .410 OBP.
The left side of the infield was not productive offensively, but shortstop Larry Bowa and third baseman Ron Cey each brought championship cache with them. Bowa was a part of the Phillie team that won in 1980, and Cey had been instrumental in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ title a year later. Both had competed in multiple League Championship Series.
Pitching was the problem. To be fair, a big part of the offense/pitching disparity was the park effects of Wrigley Field, but the Cubs were 10th in the 12-team National League in ERA. Steve Trout was steady, with 13 wins and a 3.41 ERA, while Eckersley was 10-8 with a 3.03 ERA. Sanderson performed as expected, with a 3.14 ERA. The bullpen was anchored by closer Lee Smith, a flame-throwing righthander who saved 33 games with a 3.65 ERA.
Depth was the bigger issue, in the bullpen and in the rotation and the Cubs would address the latter with a June trade that altered the landscape of the 1984 baseball season. Chicago dealt two good young outfielders, Joe Carter and Mel Hall, to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for starting pitcher Rick Sutcliffe.
Over the long haul, Carter would become an excellent player, go on to the Toronto Blue Jays and author one of the great moments in MLB history when he hit a walkoff home run to clinch the 1993 World Series. In the short haul, Sutcliffe would save the Cubs’ season, going 16-1 the last 3 ½ months of the season and winning the Cy Young Award. He would also leverage his new fame into a subsequent career with ESPN and become the worst announcer in the history of professional sports, so this season came at a price. But if any fans deserved it, it was those on Chicago’s North Side.
Sutcliffe’s arrival was none too soon. In the days immediately after the trade, the Phils came into Wrigley and swept four straight, with Cubbie pitching giving up 33 runs. It dropped them to third place, trailing both the Mets and Phils, as the Cardinals began to fade. Sutcliffe made his first start the ensuing game against the Pittsburgh Pirates and stopped the bleeding.
The ship stabilized and in early July, Chicago won 8 of 11 to get back into first place. They stayed steady, going 8-6 over the next couple weeks, but New York got hot and held a 3 ½ game lead in late July. Then, from July 27 to August 8, the Cubs and Mets played eight games that would permanently shift the NL East race in Chicago’s favor.
It didn’t start well in New York’s old Shea Stadium on a Friday night. The Cub offense was stifled by the Mets’ outstanding rookie pitcher Dwight Gooden, who beat them 2-1. Saturday’s game was tied 3-3 in the eighth when Chicago unloaded. Five hits, two walks, an error and a balk produced eight runs. Sanderson then delivered a 5-1 victory on Sunday. And in the Monday wraparound game, catcher Jody Davis hit a three-run shot to key a victory.
The Cubs won five of their next seven, and then it was time for four more games with the Mets, this time in Wrigley Field. Davis continued his offensive assault in Monday afternoon’s opener, with an early home run and four RBIs to key a 9-3 win.
Sutcliffe pitched on Tuesday and didn’t have one of his better games, trailing 4-2 in the fifth, but the offense bailed him out with a six-run outburst, keyed by home runs from Keith Moreland and Cey. Moreland continued his hot hitting, and the rightfielder had three hits and four RBIs to turn a 5-3 deficit into a 7-6 win. The Mets were able to salvage just one win in Wrigley.
Chicago concluded this stretch of games with a 4 ½ game lead. It was briefly cut to a game and a half on August 17, but the Cubbies responded with a 10-2 stretch that lifted them to a 5 ½ game lead, and the Mets never got closer than five games the rest of the way. Chicago finished 96-65 and had their first NL East title since the expansion of 1969 and the subsequent split of each league into an East and West division.
The Cubs met the Padres in the National League Championship Series, and it looked like they might finally return to the World Series for the first time since 1945 when they won the first two games at home, of what was then a best-of-five series. But this wouldn’t be the Cubs if we didn’t tell a tale of heartbreak somewhere along the line. Chicago lost three straight in San Diego and missed the pennant.
When the 1984 Chicago Cubs come to mind, it’s unfair that the first images are the heartbreak of that lost weekend in San Diego. The Cubs were a team that engineered a remarkable turnaround with some bold trades and by dominating their most important division rival and the point in the season it mattered most.