I was 9 when I first discovered the Cubs. This was in 1985, a year removed from the 1984 heartbreak. I was still young and didn’t understand what I was in for. That year wasn’t great, though Harry and Steve did sing the praises of their cannon-armed new shortstop, Shawon Dunston. Two years later, Andre Dawson came to town and put on a show that hadn’t been seen before or since. Then in ’88 “Amazing” Grace joined the team. But it was 1989 that I first truly fell in love with a Cubs team.
Don Zimmer was in his second year managing the team. Coming after the utterly forgettable Gene Michael, Zimmer’s enthusiasm, loquaciousness, and even the quirky way he waddled out to the mound brought a breath of life into the team. At some point in the summer, the team came to be referred to as The Boys of Zimmer and that remains how I think of them. For good and for bad, this was Don Zimmer’s team.
The Cubs left camp that year with another rookie: center fielder Jerome Walton. These were different times and we didn’t understand that .335 was a miserable OBP for a leadoff guy. All we looked at was the .293 BA and 24 steals, as well as the remarkable ability to get on base with bunt hits, and we were convinced we had our leadoff guy for a decade. He would be joined by yet another rookie in May, left fielder Dwight Smith. I couldn’t wait to see what the two of them would do day-in, day-out as they raced to 1 and 2 in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting.
Ryne Sandberg, my idol at the time, was beginning the offensive surge that marked his last years. He put up 30 home runs from the #2 hole, taking full advantage of Jerome Walton’s bunt singles. Andre Dawson hat a bit of a down year (21 HR, .783 OPS) but was still very much feared in the middle of the lineup.
And then pitching. Man did we have that. The top 3 were an aging Rick Sutcliffe, who had, arguably, his last great season, a very young Greg Maddux, and Mike Bielecki. Bielecki is a name that has been lost in time but he was great that season. He easily kept pace with Sutcliffe and Maddux to give the Cubs one of the best pitching trios in the game. Once you knocked them out, the back end of the bullpen was manned by Mitch Williams. It was impossible not to love this guy — coming out of the bullpen with a devil may care attitude and a crazy windup, where he turned his back on the hitter, before exploding out and falling off the third base side of the mound. The 80s were the “Top Gun” decade, and like Tom Cruise’s character in the movie, Williams pitched every game like he wanted to fly Mach-2 with his hair on fire.
I could have watched that team forever. Jerome Walton starting things off with a bunt and flying down the line. Sandberg doing his play where he fell away into left field while throwing out the runner. Dawson crouching over the plate, daring the pitcher to come inside. (It’s easy to forget just how fast Andre’s bat was — very few major league players could get away with that stance.) Greg Maddux with the slow, perfectly balanced windup. Dunston firing rockets that made a different sound as they cracked into Mark Grace’s mitt.
There came a day I thought the season was over early. Zimmer was never known for his strategic brilliance. On this night, a game against Houston, Zimmer brought in Williams with one out in the 8th and a 3 run lead. A force out and a double later, Williams was lifted for Calvin Schiraldi, his setup man. Predictably, the Astros lit up Schiraldi like a Christmas tree and the Cubs lost 6-5. This started a six game losing streak and brought an aura of inevitable failure over the team and its broadcasters. The game that turned things around came two weeks later.
On August 29th, the Cubs were facing the Houston Astros and looking pretty punchless, down 9-0 in the sixth inning.. At this point, I turned off the game and went to watch “The Abyss” with my brothers. When I returned 3 hours later, I found I’d missed one of the most ferocious comebacks in Cubs history as they pushed across 9 runs in 3 innings, before winning it in the 10th.
On the home finale, September 24th, with the division still not clinched, Mark Grace lead the team out of the locker room to celebrate the season with the fans. The clinch would come 2 days later, in Montreal. Appropriately, Maddux started that game and went 8 1/3 innings, giving way to Mitch Williams. Williams induced a popup and then, in typical Mitch Williams fashion, blew the last hitter away for a strikeout and the clincher.
This carried them into the playoffs, where they took on the Giants. Having had no experience with the Cubs, I couldn’t imagine them losing. Well, they did. Particularly heartbreaking was Will Clark’s tie-breaking two-run single off of Williams in the deciding Game 5. The last out was Sandberg grounding out to Robby Thompson.
But I choose to remember Game 2. After a rough start by new Hall of Famer Greg Maddux in Game 1, the Cubs turned to Mike Bielecki to get even in Game 2. He didn’t have much work to do. The Cubs exploded for six runs in the first inning, including a triple by Sandberg and a double by Grace. Rick Reuschel didn’t make it out of the frame and could only watch as even Mike Bielecki picked up an RBI in the frame.
That game turned out to be the high water mark of the season. A year later, the Cubs would sign Dave Smith (pointless trivia: Smith was the last Cub player to wear #42 as his regular number), infuriating Williams, who asked for and received a trade to the Phillies. Two years after that both Andre Dawson and Greg Maddux left for greener pastures on the same day. That hurts to this day. But, for all the agony of the breakup, thinking about that one special summer can dull the pain.
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