A few weeks ago, I took the occasion of a melancholy anniversary to raid my digital archives for a post that resided under the heading “Flashback Friday” at my former online home. Besides the Hotel Washington entry, I’d forgotten about the other subjects I wrote about during the several weeks that recurring feature helped me end the workweek. The following was written over five years ago. History still hasn’t been made. But since we’re in the eternally springing hope portion of the season, now seems a good to revisit this little essay.
1984: The Chicago Cubs play post-season baseball for the first time in nearly forty years
I’m still a little mad that my relatives didn’t warn me. I was just a kid, after all. I had no idea that becoming a Cubs fan meant signing up for a lifetime of misery and disappointment. I didn’t know I was actively signing up to embrace futility. They should have looked out for me, gently steering me to another team. It wasn’t like we were living in Chicago, and I had some level of civil obligation to embrace the north side baseball club. They were just airing on the TV channel that otherwise played cartoons mid-afternoon during the summer I was nine-years-old. I’d plop down in front of the giant console set and click the heavy dial over to channel 9 expecting to find Huckleberry Hound or Quick Draw McGraw. Instead, there was Jack Brickhouse welcoming me to beautiful Wrigley Field. So I watched those games, quickly becoming enamored of the sport and the team. I even had a favorite player: Dave Kingman, who spent that summer belting home runs at a prodigious pace.
By the time the 1984 season arrived, I knew full well the history of the team. I knew it had been since 1945 that they’d been in a World Series or played any post-season baseball whatsoever. I knew it had been since 1908 that they’d won a World Series. I was especially familiar with the 1969 season, a wound that still smarted for most of the Cubs faithful. It wasn’t just that the team was so close and so good; it was the way that season demonstrated the peculiar Cubs ability to actually repel good fortune, to always find a way to lose.
Throughout the 1984 season, however, they seemed especially adept at always finding a way to win, as exemplified by the game the Cubs played against their arch-rivals the St. Louis Cardinals on June 23rd. It was NBC’s Game of the Week, aired nationally on Saturday afternoon, and wound up a Cubs victory largely due to some famed late inning heroics by Ryne Sandberg. He was, incidentally, my new favorite player. Sandberg won the MVP award that season, and Rick Sutcliffe was the Cy Young Award winner after coming to the Cubs at mid-season at going 16-1 the rest of the way. I can rattle off the players on that year’s team like no other ballclub. Besides Sandberg at second base, the team usually played Leon “Bull” Durham at first, Ron Cey at third, and Larry Bowa at shortstop. Gary “Sarge” Matthews, Bob Dernier and Keith Moreland manned the outfield positions, and Jody Davis was behind the plate. Besides Rick Sutcliffe, the pitching rotation included Steve Trout and Dennis Eckersley, and Lee Smith was the closer out of the bullpen. There’s no a lot of Hall-of-Famers there, but it was a good team. It felt like a team that could finally undo the hex on the Cubs.
And so it still seemed when the Cubs finally played a post-season game, hosting the National League West champs the San Diego Padres in Wrigley Field (still without lights) on a lovely afternoon. They crushed them in that first game, 13-0. Sutcliffe got the win and even hit one of the team’s many home runs that day. They won Game Two as well, as seemed poised to head to the Series. The went to San Diego needing to win just once more to prevail in the best-of-five series. They didn’t. San Diego took the next three games, and my clearest memory of the whole post-season is not some great moment for my favored team, but the image of Padres first baseman Steve Garvey with his stupid Popeye arm jabbed high in the air during a home run trot. I watched the decisive fifth game on a little black-and-white set in my bedroom, turning it off repeatedly during the later innings because I couldn’t take seeing it all slip away.
By the next year, the Cubs were back to old habits, finishing under .500 and well back in the standings. There were more post-season appearances to come, always ending in disappointment, sometimes helped by improbable circumstances, but always due, first and foremost, the embedded ability of this team to let things unravel. It’s now been sixty-five years since the Cubs played in a World Series and 102 years since they won one. Still Cubs fans wait, and still Cubs fans hope. Truth is, I don’t think I’ll believe it, even when I see it.