On Thursday May 17th 1979, the Chicago Cubs hosted the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field. The announced attendance for the game was 14, 952, and the contest lasted 4 hours and 3 minutes. Due to the length of the game, I was able to watch the conclusion after getting home from school. This day was a defining moment in my personal timeline as a Cubs’ fan. This an event that comes in and out of my consciousness…”a flashbulb” memory as psychologists would call it. (I hope to finish my second book on the Cubs this summer…which focuses on this particular game…hence you can call it a childhood obsession)
Why this game? For starters…here is the line score:
Phillies 7 0 8 2 4 0 1 0 0 1 23 24 2
Cubs 6 0 0 3 7 3 0 3 0 0 22 26 2
After school it was my daily routine to jump off the bus, run into my house, and watch the end of the Cubs’ game. Imagine my surprise arriving on this day…with the Cubs trailing 21-16, and in the middle of a 6th inning rally. I was instantaneously mesmerized…this was like nothing I had ever witnessed in baseball. The 6th inning ended, and the Cubs had trimmed the lead to 21-19 after another mammoth home run by Dave Kingman. (Check out the highlights on YouTube!) I called a couple of my little buddies to make sure they were watching…and settled in to watch this rare offensive extravaganza.
Greg Gross (an ex-Cub) tripled to center to start the 7th, and was quickly driven home on a double by Phillies catcher Bob Boone…making the score 22-19. The Phillies’s 7th inning rally was halted as Ray Burris entered the game in a double switch with Bobby Murcer (my childhood hero) and pitched out of the jam.
In the bottom of the frame, Bobby Murcer’s first plate appearance resulted in a one out single that put men on first and second. I couldn’t believe what I was watching…could the Cubs rally again? I was having a hard time wrapping my little head around the fact that the score was 22-19…and the Cubs were primed to close the gap even more. Larry “Hawkeye” Bittner pinch-hit for Steve Dillard and hit into an inning ending double play…a typical outcome on an atypical day.
Pete Rose (3-7, BB, 4RBIs) promptly led off the 8th inning with a single; and I was certain another Phillies’s onslaught was in the offing. Mike Schmidt followed Rose, and Burris was able to coax a fly-out from the slugger. (Schmidt was retired only twice in his eight plate appearances that day). Burris, who entered the game with an ERA of 6.53, was able to induce consecutive ground-outs…and the Phillies put a rare zero on the Wrigley scoreboard for the 8th inning.
Ivan DeJesus singled to start the Cubs 8th…and was racing to third almost immediately as Scot Thompson followed suit with a single of his own. Bill Buckner (ahhh…another childhood hero) smacked a single to center which scored DeJesus and the 20th Cubs run of the day crossed the plate…and Dave Kingman was due up! Kingman…who had already belted three homers on the day…could give the Cubs the lead with just one more of his majestic shots onto Waveland. Regrettably, Kingman flew out to center and Steve Onitveros followed with a fielder’s choice. The Cubs now had men on 1st and 3rd with two outs…and the promise of the inning was dying.
My hopes for a Cubs’ miracle quickly returned as ex-Phillie Jerry Martin (“biting the hand that once fed him”…as Harry might say) knocked in Scot Thompson…and the score was 22-21. Cubs’ catcher Barry Foote (3-6 on the day…despite entering the game with a pitiful .204 batting average) astonishingly followed with a single that scored Steve Onitveros…and the score stood tied at 22. One little boy was jumping up and done going crazy in his family’s living room…like the 14,000+ were about 45 miles away at Clark and Addison.
Let’s pause and return from the land of 1979 to 2015, where metrics and statistics have been advanced and enhanced…to demonstrate just how noteworthy this Cubs’ comeback was. Here are the Phillies’s projected win possibilities during various points of the game:
SITUTAION/INNING CHANCE OF PHILLIE’S WIN
-leading 7-0 after top of 1st 93%
-leading 15-6 after the 3rd 99%
-leading 17-6, top of 4th 100%
-leading 17-9, after the 4th 99%
-leading 21-9, top of 5th 100%
-leading 21-16, after the 5th 95%
-leading 22-19, after the 7th 93%
-tied 22-22, after the 8th 50%
Back to May 17th, 1979…Bruce Sutter came in to pitch the 9th for the Cubs. Sutter… the future Hall of Famer, the CY Young winner, and arguably the greatest Cubs’ reliever of all time. Sutter did not disappoint, pitching around a one out walk and the Cubs now had a chance to actually win this game. After tallying 22 runs…and the most improbable of comebacks…if the Cubs scored just one more run… I would witness a marvelous ending. Alas, Rawly Eastwick the Phillies closer, quickly took any drama out of the bottom of the 9th…and the Cubs were retired in order.
Sutter quickly retired All-Stars Larry Bowa and Rose to start the 10th inning…a pair that had been on base a combined nine times. (note…I realize some of you may wonder why a relief pitcher would pitch more than one inning…believe it or not this was a common occurrence before the bastardization of bullpens by one who shall remain nameless…okay, okay…he wears dark glasses and has a last name one vowel different than the Karate Kid) With Bowa and Rose retired, Sutter was one out away from sending the Cubs to the bottom of the 10th with a chance to untie the game…unfortunately Mike Schmidt was the out Sutter had to get.
Schmidt…who had already homered on the day…and whom the Cubs had walked four times. Schmidt…who had hit four homers in an 18-16 Phillies’s victory over the Cubs in 1976 at Wrigley. Schmidt…who if he had played his career at Wrigley would most likely be the all-time home run leader.
The Cubs and Sutter pitched to Schmidt…and the results were predictable.
Now trailing 23-22 the Cubs still had the bottom of the 10th, but Eastwick bested Sutter and retired the Cubs 1-2-3…including a strikeout of Kingman. The Cubs fell just short of a dream finish…as they frequently do. I was disappointed but proud of the game that my favorite team had just played.
Is it the sheer rarity of a game like this that has stuck with me all of these years…and compelled me to write about it? More likely…it’s the symmetry involved with the history of the Cubs and this particular game. Phillies 23, Cubs 22 is a microcosm for an organization that can come so close…even be amazing at times…and then fall just a little short.
A more positive take (and one I don’t think we Cubs’ fans get enough credit for) is that 23-22 embodies the trait of never giving up. This is my preferred take and one I feel Cubs’ fans should embrace. The Cubs could be losing inning by inning, game to game, year to year, decade to decade, (century to century?); and Cubs’ fans will keep coming back.
…that’s what the 23-22 game means to me.
Epilogue- For those that play fantasy baseball…just imagine the stats from this game:
Larry Bowa 5-8 with 4 runs scored, Pete Rose 3-7 with 4 runs scored and 4 RBIs, Mike Schmidt 2-4, 2 HRs and 4 RBIs, Gary Maddox 4-4 with a HR 4 RBIs, Bob Boone 3-5 with a HR and 5 RBIs, Ivan DeJesus 3-6 with 4 runs scored, Bill Buckner 4-7 with a HR and 7 RBIs, Dave Kingman 3-6 with 3 HRs and 6 RBIs
UGH! Dennis Lamp 0.1 IP, 2 HRs 6hits and 6ERs, Randy Lerch 0.2 IP 5 hits and 5 ERs, Donnie Moore 2 IP 7ERs, Ron Reed 9 hits and runs in 3.1 IP