I was told that each season is meant to be like this; a slow march towards the inevitable acceptance of futility. I was told that each season has a moment where you can tell when this march begins.
I think it was around Rick Sutcliffe’s fourth walk of the inning when my father’s face slumped into indiscernible goo. His right hand pressed up against his right cheekbone; his eyes fully glazed, looking through the images on the television and into the abyss that would be the 1987 Cubs season.
It was only opening day.
The Cubs were our team. This year, 1987, was my first year playing organized baseball. This goofy year, that featured a home run surge, would be a grand initiation into the 162 game epic.
The Cubs would flirt with first place, endure a slow death, fire a manager, and peter out into last place of the National League’s Eastern Division.
If a year could summarize the previous 43 years of Cubs baseball since their last World Series appearance, 1987 would do a fine job. The Cubs held on to aging players too long, weighed the potential of particular starting pitchers too high, and shuffled a bullpen of prospects that resulted in a daily form of Russian roulette.
Yes, these would be my Cubs. And on Opening Day, they were seen in all their glory.
These Cubs of mine were the antithesis of the division’s crème de la crème, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals had won the World Series in 1982, won the National League pennant in 1985, and would be well on their way to another division title in 1987. No other team in the NL East would win more division titles in the 80’s than the Cardinals and there was damn good reason.
The Cardinals were built on speed and pitching. In a season that boasted bulging power numbers, the Cardinals stuck to ‘Whitey Ball’ by beating out high choppers, stealing second, moving runners to third, and later scoring on a sacrifice fly. They would hit only 94 home runs in 1987, but still manage 248 stolen bases. They would average nearly five runs per game with this pesky offense.
It was death by a thousand paper cuts. If you hated the Cardinals, it was particularly gut-wrenching.
The Cubs of 1987 were built completely opposite. This was a team made on veteran power; holdovers of Dallas Green’s push to win the division title in 1984. Keith Moreland would be placed at third to box ground balls, Bob Dernier would try to stay healthy, Leon Durham would try to stay clean, and Jody Davis would try to look like he hadn’t aged 20 years since ‘84. All would struggle in these areas.
The pre-requisite of being a Cubs fan from 1946-2014 involved believing in a core group of prospects that you saw very little of, but blindly believed in.
These prospects had visible talent: Shawon Dunston being able to grab a sharp grounder in the hole, Brian Dayett hitting towering home runs in key situations, Dave Martinez effortlessly gliding across center field, or Greg Maddux finally getting a cut fastball to not reach too much of the plate. These visible talents drugged many Cubs fans into thinking these players were on the threshold of stardom in 1987. The truth was, some were still a year away, and others were never going to come close.
The Cubs were built on hope that the veteran power remnants of the ’84 squad would gel with newly acquired Andre Dawson; a free agent from Montreal, who begged publicly for general manager Dallas Green to sign him weeks prior to the season.
To survive the 1987 season, the Cubs would have to slug their way out of it. Competing against the defending champion monster that was the New York Mets, the speedy Cardinals, and an implosion of talented youth in Montreal would make it a tough proposition.
For the fans, 1987 was also going to be the final season of an old system. Whispers were getting louder that this would be the last season without lights at Wrigley Field. While that was the biggest change, fans probably didn’t have a clue just how much change was around the corner.
It would be one year before night baseball (1988), three years before the Cubs would play their first game on cable (1990-ESPN), seven years before the Cubs would have limited games moved to cable (1995-CLTV), and 12 years before a major portion of the schedule would move to cable (1999-Fox Sports Chicago).
But in 1987? Each home game was at 1:20 PM; unless it was a 3:05 Friday afternoon special or a national game on a Saturday. And every game not nationally televised (of which, there were only about 4-6) was brought to you on WGN.
My first year watching the Cubs would be the final year of a generational experience. Since the 1940’s, WGN and the Cubs had been mainly a daytime experience linking family members across the area. When the station was distributed as a superstation in the 80’s during the early days of cable, it became a national sensation.
With the depression of the home opener behind us, the Cubs stumbled into a 4-7 start. Then, came the inevitable early Cubbie run. A 26-14 stretch where the Cubs convinced their fans that 1987 just might be that ‘year’ we’d been praying for.
Well, maybe that was just me. You see, I had not yet been sold on how these things worked. This type of run was expected from the older Cubs fans because they had seen it so many times prior.
If you were a Cubs fan between 1973-1988, you saw the Cubs start quick, only to dissipate during the annual ‘June Swoon’ on numerous occasions. As a kid, I thought it was some sort of joke handed down from generation to generation, but upon further research it holds water.
The following seasons show the Cubs start, followed by their perilous finish:
At 30-21, they were 1.5 games behind the Cardinals entering a major four game set in June. The fun game to play each summer was to ask ‘When would the Cubs collapse?’
We were still reeling in the joy of Andre Dawson’s torrid first couple months. When Dawson arrived, many people followed Whitey Herzog’s cue: “If he hits 20 homers, I think it will be a very good signing.” Dawson was never a massive power hitter in Montreal, but he was a true five-tool player. The Olympic Stadium turf had weathered his knees, though, and his speed from the late 70’s and early 80’s was mainly gone.
What Dawson lacked in speed, he made up for with his cannon-arm, and laser-quick bat. Everybody on the team was hitting everything in sight. Dawson started slow in April, but then took off shortly after a game-changing home run in St. Louis. Down 3-1 in the 7th on April 22nd, Dawson took a Todd Worrell fastball deep into the Busch Stadium left field bleachers to give the Cubs a 5-3 lead. Prior to the game, Dawson was 8-for-48 with one home run and six runs batted in. The grand slam started a stretch where Dawson completely overtook the National League. Dawson would hit 17 HR, drive in 48 runs, and go 54-for-156 over a 40 game span. Dawson hit .346/.381/.744 over that stretch, good for an OPS of 1.125. On April 29th, he threw out San Francisco Giants pitcher Mike Mason on a single from right field just for good measure.
He was single handedly beating teams. And he was doing it dramatically. For good measure, another list:
Dawson tied the Padres with a home run in the 8th on May 1st.
Dawson singled home the winner against the Dodgers in the 9th on May 4th.
Dawson tied the Braves in the 9th with a home run on May 23rd.
Dawson beat the Braves in the 12th with a single on May 24th.
Dawson tied the Reds in the 9th with a single on May 26th.
Dawson tied the Astros in the 8th with a grand slam on June 1st.
Other oddities were taking place, as well. Bobby Dernier was hitting, Jerry Mumphrey was among the league leaders in hitting, and it seemed that Moreland and Durham had found some pop. The success of the bats coupled with a healthy Rick Sutcliffe put the Cubs in a good spot.
The best microcosm of what the 1987 Cubs could be came in a series against the Astros where they outscored Houston 35-9 over two games. Dawson ripped the Astros for 5 home runs and 13 RBI’s in the series.
But that bullpen. Oh God, the bullpen.
If the 1987 Cubs were to win, they would have to find a way to score 10 runs by the sixth inning and pray that the bullpen wouldn’t blow it. While Lee Smith was certainly a more than serviceable closer, the middle relief was a ‘who’s who’ of baseball failure.
Ed Lynch, Drew Hall, Ron Davis, Mike Mason, and Jay Baller made up a pen that had to exist outside of the semi-decent world of Frank DiPino and Lee Smith. The previous fivesome gave up 37 home runs and 158 earned runs in 242 innings. That group was good for a 5.88 ERA. They sucked. And they didn’t just suck quietly. They were brutal with control. The group walked 117 batters and gave up 294 hits. It was a WHIP of 1.70…which…is bad.
Jay Baller, my favorite Cubs pitcher of all-time balked twice in the same game against the Padres. In the same inning. With the bases loaded.
So, even though the Cubs had built up a 30-21 buffer, it was looking certain that the middle relief would be the potential issue that crashed their season. Everybody knew it.
Hell, at seven years old, even I knew it.
The Cubs would enter June with a big stretch against the Mets and Cardinals for 10 games. They would go 3-7, and struggle til mid-July. While the Cardinals tore through June and July, the Cubs crawled to a 49-41 record. It was still better than most team’s predicted, but I could tell from the reactions on my dad’s and uncle’s faces that the team just didn’t have the guns to catch the Cards. The Cubs were right there with Montreal and New York, though, so why couldn’t they catch fire?
My first lesson in Cubs futility came to me hard. The Cubs would get throttled in the summer heat. The Mets and Expos would get hot, the Cubs would not. The Cardinals would eventually prevail while the relationship between Cubs GM Dallas Green and manager Gene Michael had soured. After falling to 68-68, Michael was fired. Frank Lucchesi took over and the Cubs spiraled to a 76-85 finish.
Just three months previous they were threatening first place. And yet, when the sun set on the ’87 campaign our beloved Cubs sat in dead last.
I wanted to believe that Dawson could carry the team. We all did. But the arms just weren’t there.
By the end of 1987, I had been schooled on the most basic of Cubs seasons: 1) start hot, 2) fade fast, 3) identify a hero that you can hang your hat on so the season doesn’t become miserable.
Check, check, and check.
Andre Dawson would win the National League MVP award finishing with 49 home runs, 137 RBI’s and a .287 batting average. Those numbers, like many from my childhood, are stuck in my brain. They read off the back of baseball cards and stick for a lifetime. I couldn’t tell you my first grade teacher’s name, but I can rattle off 287-49-137.
In the offseason, the Cubs would finally dump Moreland. Most of the ’84 remnants would be dumped for the ’88 season. The only surviving members at season’s start would be Durham, Davis, Sandberg, Sutcliffe, and Sanderson. Durham and Davis wouldn’t even get to see the end of the ’88 season.
The new players, the new young talent would provide hope for 1988.
I believed that all they needed was for Sutcliffe to stay healthy, Maddux and Moyer to reach their new level of development, and make sure that Dave Martinez turned into an everyday centerfielder.
I had hope going into 1988.
I was taught well.