Commentary

Wild night

A first-person account of when the Cubs clinched their division in '84

Originally Published: September 23, 2009
By Bruce Levine | ESPNChicago.com

It was a wild scene in the Chicago Cubs' clubhouse 25 years ago as new general manager Dallas Green and the Cubs did the unthinkable, winning the National League East with a 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on a cool, early fall evening.

[+] EnlargeRyne Sandberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarRyne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe celebrate clinching the NL East on Sept. 24, 1984.

Manager Jim Frey's team clinched its first playoff berth in 39 years.

"I told the players to put their hats in their shirts," Frey told me in the clubhouse on that Sept. 24, 1984, evening.

For some reason, Frey was worried the fans would rush onto the field, even though there were fewer than 3,000 people in the ballpark.

It seemed that just about all of them were Cubs fans from Chicago who either flew in that day or drove to Pittsburgh after watching the Cubs cut their magic number to 1 with a doubleheader sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Sept. 23.

Before the game, there were nervous expectations in the Cubs' locker room and dugout. Closer Lee Smith and first baseman Leon Durham kept themselves occupied by making fun of rookie outfielder Billy Hatcher, a September call-up who went on to have a nice career in Houston.

Veteran shortstop Larry Bowa and future Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg did what they always did before a game, taking 75 ground balls from coach John Vukovich. It was a routine that Sandberg said helped solidify his work ethic, one that he teaches today as a minor league manager in the Cubs organization.

Outfielders Keith Moreland and Gary Woods, along with reliever Rich Bordi, talked about Moreland's passion for college football. Not just college football, but Texas Longhorns football.

Smith and I spent some time on the bench that day talking as he watched the Pirates take batting practice. The Cubs' closer was a student of hitters. He always watched to see who was hitting the ball well during batting practice.

The game itself had its ups and downs. Winning pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who threw a complete game, won his 16th game for the Cubs that night after coming over in a trade June 13 from Cleveland. Sutcliffe was the eventual Cy Young Award winner, winning 16 of 17 decisions for the Cubs. That memorable night, Sutcliffe struck out Joe Orsulak to end the game and the Cubs' string of 39 years without a postseason appearance.

[+] EnlargeRyne Sandberg
AP PhotoRyne Sandberg and the Cubs went back onto the field to celebrate with Cubs fans in Pittsburgh.

It was a madhouse in the Cubs' locker room after the game, as it was back in Chicago, where 5,000 fans filled up outside Wrigley Field to party.

The postgame craziness eventually spilled back onto the field at Three Rivers Stadium, where the players celebrated with the remaining Cubs fans. The most memorable part of the evening occurred when the electronic scoreboard operator was able to get a live feed from Wrigley Field on the scoreboard, as the Cubs' players and coaches with cigars, champagne and beer in hand watched the Cubs faithful go nuts in front of the historic ballpark at Clark and Addison.

That season I had spent a lot of time with Frey and third-base coach Don Zimmer before games. I learned an awful lot of the behind-the-scenes workings of the game from them.

The Cubs' manager was a key to Sandberg's MVP season. They had a conversation one day in spring training about how Sandberg could change his philosophy. Instead of hitting the ball to right field all the time, Frey suggested he pick out count situations where he could pull the baseball.

Sandberg took that advice and became a home run and RBI threat the rest of his career.

Frey had a great sense of humor. He wasn't a touchy-feely manager with the players. He usually let the players just play.

Bruce Levine covers baseball for ESPNChicago.com.

Bruce Levine | email

Chicago baseball beat reporter
Bruce Levine has covered sports in Chicago for over 28 years and hosts "Talkin' Baseball," heard Saturday mornings on ESPN 1000.

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