After losing the 1945 World Series the Chicago Cubs went into a prolonged slump, a wander in the wilderness. It lasted 39 years (one less than Moses). For all that time, the Cubs were a team that produced really good players like Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and Billy Williams, but continuously failed to advance to any kind of postseason. They were in contention a couple of times, most notably 1969, but failed, as usual, to pull off a victory. That finally changed in 1984.
The Cubs of 1984 were sometimes called the “Phillies West” because of a major trade with Philadelphia that gave them just over half their starting lineup. They picked up all three outfielders from Philadelphia: Bob Dernier, Gary Mathews, and Keith Moreland (both Mathews and Moreland were part of the 1980 World Championship team) as well as the middle infield combination of shortstop Larry Bowa and second baseman and MVP Ryne Sandberg. Third baseman Ron Cey had also arrived from another team, this time the Dodgers, as did former Cardinal Leon Durham who held down first base. Only catcher Jody Davis had spent his entire big league career in Chicago. The pitching staff was put together the same way. Rick Sutcliffe came over early in the year from Cleveland (much the same way Hank Borowy had done in 1945, except Borowy came from New York) and won the National League Cy Young Award that season. Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, still a starter, was out of Boston, and Steve Trout had been across town with the White Sox. Warren Brusstar was part of the Phillies contingent and Scott Sanderson had been at Montreal. Even reliever Lee Smith was from St. Louis. But manager Jim Frey (also someone who’d come from another team, Kansas City) wielded all the trades and free agents and pick ups together so that they worked. The Cubs won 96 games, the NL East title and a had a date with the San Diego Padres for the NL crown. Even the first two games were in Wrigley Field. Things were so giddy that there was talk of activating Ernie Banks at the end of the season so he could sit in the dugout during the playoffs (they didn’t activate him, but he was allowed to sit in the dugout).
After two games it looked like the drought might be over. Chicago took game one 13-0 with Sutcliffe both pitching and contributing with one of five Cubs home runs. Game two ended 4-2 for Chicago, but the Cubs were in control from the beginning. All they had to do now was win one game in San Diego and the thirty-nine year World Series-less run would be over.
They lost game three 7-1, a game they’d led 1-0. Well, they still had two more chances. Then they made a major mistake; they decided to pitch to Steve Garvey. In a pivotal game four Garvey went 4 for 5 with five RBIs and a walk off home run as the Padres won 7-5. Which meant it all came down to game five.
Chicago got off to a three run lead when Durham popped a two-run home run in the first and Davis hit a solo shot in the second. San Diego got two of them back in the sixth on two singles, a walk to Garvey, and consecutive sacrifice flies. Then came the bottom of the seventh (the same inning as the later infamous “Bartman” game). With one out, Durham committed an error that tied up the game and from that point the pitching staff simply melted down (same as with the “Bartman” game). A single, a double, and an RBI hit by Garvey plated a total of four runs. The Cubs got two men on in the eighth and one in the ninth, but failed to score any of them. San Diego won 6-3 to secure a date with Detroit in the World Series, where the Tigers proceeded to dismantle them four games to one.
For Chicago it was a disappointment, but it was a critical turn around. After 39 years in the wilderness the Cubs had gotten to postseason. It’s now become a sporadic habit. After 39 non-playoff seasons, the Cubs have made the postseason with some frequency in the last 25 years. With the advent of a two-tier playoff system, they’ve even won a playoff series. It’s true they’ve never been back to the World Series and the Bad Century continues, but they’ve managed to move out of perpetual doldrums into occasional postseason play. For Chicago that’s a celebratory step up. And it’s the closest there is to a happy note on which to end this series.