When my friends and I talk about the 1980s, it’s usually to remind ourselves what a lame decade it was. Bad music (except for maybe Pink Floyd’s “The Final Cut”). Bad television (yes folks, “Miami Vice” and “The A Team” were unwatchable). Bad movies (remember Paulie’s robot in “Rocky IV”).

The one bright spot from a truly forgettable decade was the 1984 Chicago Cubs. At age 14, I was at my baseball-watching peak. Cable television had finally come to town, which meant plenty of afternoon action on the 13-inch black and white in my bedroom. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t expecting much from Jim Frey’s Cubs. They were coming off a 71-91 campaign that featured a terrible pitching staff. But, it was a new year, and at least Harry and Steve were calling the games.

A few offseason acquisitions would be instant difference makers in 1984: Bob Dernier, Gary Matthews, and Scott Sanderson. That threesome helped the Cubs get off to a fast start, going 12-8 in April. The next two months energized Cubs fans even more as Ryne Sandberg emerged as an elite talent. By June, Ryno was mashing at a .345/.392/.582 clip and playing Gold Glove 2B. His two-homer performance against the St. Louis Cardinals gained national attention (after the game, Whitey Herzog called him “the best player I have ever seen”). Batting second behind Dernier, Sandberg formed half of what Harry Caray called “the Daily Double.”

May and June also meant the arrival of pitching reinforcements. GM Dallas Green worked some magic to bring in AL starters Dennis Eckersley (traded for Bill Buckner, who had been reduced to a reserve role) and Rick Sutcliffe (acquired with Ron Hassey and George Frazier for Joe Carter, Mel Hall, Don Schulze, and Darryl Banks). What happened next would amaze even the most optimistic Cubs supporter.

Chicago rolled through the month of July, bringing their record to 60-44. Right-hander Rick Sutcliffe was dominating the National League like no Cubs pitcher I had ever seen. Cy Young talk began to circulate. Sandberg continued to lead the senior circuit’s best offense, which included breakout seasons by 1B Leon Durham and RF Keith Moreland, and a rebirth for veteran LF Gary Matthews. The Northsiders were leading the league in runs scored and racking up quality starts in the process. My friends and I began tempting fate with playoff talk. After all, Harry told us “the Good Lord wants the Cubs to win!”

Win they did, and on September 24th it was official. After shutting down the Pirates and running his record to 16-1, Sutcliff and the Cubs were NL East champions (there were only two divisions back then). They finished “my favorite year” at 96-65, 6.5 games ahead of Dwight Gooden and the New York Mets. For the first time in my life the Chicago Cubs were in the playoffs. Next would be the San Diego Padres in a best-of-five NLCS.

The 1984 Padres were an odd team in an odd division. Their 92 wins were enough for an easy title, as second-place Atlanta and Houston (80-82) finished 12 games back. On paper, the Cubs were easy favorites. San Diego’s top home run hitters were former Cub Carmelo Martinez (traded in the Sanderson deal) and rookie Kevin McReynolds, each with 20. No other Padre hit more than 14. Steve Garvey only mustered eight long balls in 617 at bats.

San Diego’s pitching was certainly respectable, but a rotation with Eric Show, Tim Lollar, Ed Whitson, and Mark Thurmond didn’t match up very well with Sutcliffe, Eckersley, Trout, and Sanderson. Experts were predicting a Cubs-Tigers World Series (the Tigers were far and away the best team in the American League with 104 wins). My friends and I couldn’t have been more confident. But a funny thing happened on the way to Detroit…

Opening the NLCS at Wrigley Field, the Cubs came out swinging. Rick Sutcliffe pitched and slugged the Cubs to a 13-0 blowout win. Lefty Steve Trout threw 8.1 solid innings in a 4-2 victory in game two. Frey’s squad only needed to win one of three road games to advance to the Fall Classic. For the first time in my life, I was talking smack about the Cubs. Bad move.

The Padres knocked around a stunned Dennis Eckersley in game three. The Eck gave up nine hits and five runs without striking out one batter. Ed Whitson shut down Sandberg and company in a 7-1 lopsided loss. Game four saw Jim Frey roll the dice. Instead of bringing Sutcliffe back on short rest, he elected to start Scott Sanderson against Tim Lollar. Sanderson was shelled, but the offense responded with two runs off Padre closer Goose Gossage. It was 5-5 in the 9th when Lee Smith faced Steve Garvey with one man on. “Mr. Clean” had already driven in three runs. Smith delivered a 1-0 fastball that Garvey crushed the other way for a game-winning homer. To this day I can’t accurately describe how I felt after Garvey’s blast. It never even crossed my mind that he might take Smith out of the park. Even though the series was tied 2-2, I felt completely defeated. Maybe the Cubs did too.

Game five was an afternoon affair, and ace Rick Sutcliffe was on the hill. Sutcliffe hadn’t lost a game since June 29th. The Padres were throwing Eric Show, who was drilled for three homers in game one. I was feeling much better that day, and apparently so were the Cubs hitters. Two early home runs sent Show to the showers. Through five innings, the Cubs were cruising at 3-0.  As I look back at the last four innings of that unforgettable game, a few things stand out. First, the Padres bullpen slammed the door on the Cubs offense. Andy Hawkins, Dave Dravecky, Craig Lefferts, and Goose Gossage combined for 7.2 shut-out innings, allowing only two hits and one walk. Next, Ron Cey went 0-4 in game five, which was consistent with his entire playoff performance (.158 for the series). Third, the Cubs defense really let them down that afternoon (I still have nightmares about the Leon Durham grounder).

There’s really no point in reliving the classic meltdown that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. We remember all too well the Padres postgame celebration (fortunately the Tigers beat them like a drum in the 1984 World Series). Even now the thought of Steve Garvey rounding the bases with his fist in the air after game four makes me want to break something. Yes, it’s 26 years later, and the memories are still fresh. Despite the painful ending, it was the best year of baseball I have ever experienced. Cubs playoff appearances in 1989, 1998, 2003, and so on haven’t even come close. I just hope that every young fan gets to experience at least one similar season. So what if Harry was wrong? Like my Dad said that summer, “the man upstairs has more important things to worry about than your favorite baseball team.”

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