1989 Cubs: Dunston-to-Sandberg-to-Grace

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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  • Absolutely loved reading this Mike. I started watching the Cubs in 87/88, but 89 was the year that I fell in love. I remember that comeback from down 9-0 like yesterday. It's still the most exciting baseball game I've ever witnessed. Thanks for bringing all this back!

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    In reply to KSCubsFan:

    Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed reliving it as much as I did while writing it.

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    In reply to Mike Moody:

    If I remember correctly, didn't Dwight Smith have a clutch triple late in the game?

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    In reply to Mike Partipilo:

    The comeback game? I had to look it up, but he didn't have a triple. He did, however, go 2-for-2 with 3 RBIs and drove in both the tying run (though it didn't count as an RBI) and the game winning run.

  • I too remember that game well with the Astros, when they came back and won, I thought we were onto something special that year. Those were fun times being a Cub fan, hopefully the fun times will return soon as it has not been a lot of fun lately.

  • Excellent story Mike. 1989 was one of the few Cubs seasons I didn't pay at least some attention to though as I had just started grad school, was living in a dump with no cable and outside of the WGN broadcast zone, and was busy about 20 hours of the day either reading arcane science 'stuff', teaching, or taking classes. Didn't even realize that the Cubs had made the playoffs until I realized that they were playing the Giants in the Division playoffs,...

    So of course - I went to a local bar to watch some of the games (and sampled a bit too much Guiness and/or whatever they had on tap, depending on the day),... and only got to see the bad end to that otherwise good season.

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    In reply to drkazmd65:

    Thank you. It was a crazy season. Pity you missed it but I'm sure you don't regret a thing with your degree 25 years later.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    Ha! My brain hurt most of that year and into 1990 jamming all that occasionally useful information into it. The rest of grad school was a grind through 1994, but not nearly as taxing.

    Can't think of many/any regrets about getting that degree in the long-run though. Helped me get a permanent set of positions with security and that generally keeps me busy and out of trouble.

    Here's hoping the next time the Cubs find themselves in the playoffs the outcome is better, and I get to enjoy following it more closely.

  • Lets hope that 2 or 3 years from now we can our new players
    in the same, or better, league than the guys from old

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    I was 7 years old in 1989.
    This team was my all-time favorite Cubs team.
    Dascenzo in the outfield. Girardi/Wilkins behind the plate.

    That loss to the Giants still hurts.
    Enough for my dislike of the Giants to continue into my thirties.

  • In reply to Eric Foster:

    Damon Berryhill, Joe Girardi, and Rick Wrona were the catchers in 89-90. Wilkins didn't come up until 91.

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    In reply to mjvz:

    Wrona had a good glove and a strong arm. Hit like my grandmother though. I think he got some playing time with the Twins later on.

  • In reply to Eric Foster:

    Indeed. How many folks remmeber it was Dascenzo whose OF defense when Walton was on the DL early in the year first sparked the team?

  • 89 was my first season of vivid memories with the Cubs. I was 8. I had been a huge fan my whole life prior to that but that season coincided with my first year of being mature enough to appreciate a team beyond. So many great memories from the season. Mitch Williams falling off the mound and into the hearts of Cubs fans everywhere. The Houston comeback. Les Lancaster and Mike Bielecki coming out of nowhere to have huge seasons. Everyone I knew hating Calvin Shiraldi and Paul Kilgus. The weird and obscure stuff that still stays with me too like Steve Wilson getting called up and having a great fill in start, Lloyd McClendon hitting a big game winning HR and Luis Salazar pulling a Gary Gaetti to fill a gaping hole at 3B when we really needed it late in the season when no one expected it.

    That playoff series against the Giants, while heartbreaking, was amazing. Grace and Clark putting on one of the greatest hitting displays in the NLCS I have ever seen. Pitchers could not get either of those out. Bielecki coming up huge in game 2. F'ing Robbie Thompson and Matt Williams. To this day I still remember thinking in the midst of that comeback rally the Cubs were putting on in the final inning of the series: "If they can keep it going long enough to get Ryno to the plate, we are going to win this game." I cried when he grounded out.

    Thanks for the article Mike. In particular the reference to Dawson's batting stance. This brought a smile to my face. I did everything in my power to copy Dawson's stance as a little leaguer, but I could not hit like that no matter how hard I tried. I still crowded the plate, but I had to abandon to closed stance. At the advice of my older brother's coach I ended up switching to the polar opposite and started using an open stance not unlike Jerome Walton and went on to much greater success. Made me sad though becuase I loved Dawson and did not care for Walton. I became a huge Dwight Smith fan because everyone else liked Jerome Walton better.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    I was a Walton fan, but even more so a McClendon fan. He could mash righties. If our platoons could be like him and Smith I would love it.

  • In reply to Lee Smith HOF:

    Oops, lefties I mean.

  • I was not born until two years after this season, but besides Santo/Banks this team is THE CUBS team growing up. Dawson,Sandberg, Maddux, Grace. These are the guys I never got to see play but I idolized them because of their "Cubs Legend"

  • ot but since we are in Big Ten country sad news today long time football coach / DC at MSU and for over a decade at Iowa Norm Parker has passed away . Defensive coaching legend . Wonderful man and coach .

  • In reply to Bryan Craven:

    Sad day in Iowa.. Kirk Ferentz owes a lot of his success to that man. The 2009 Orange Bowl waswon because of Norm..RIP

  • Dave Smith. Danny Jackson. George Bell. What signings! What disaappointment followed.

  • In reply to IVYADDICT:

    Please allow me to add Candy Maldonado and Jose Guzman to the list of signings. Combine that with the flops of Walton, Gary Scott, Derrick May, Tuffy Rhodes, Rick Wilkins and the injuries to Mike Harkey, Lance Dickson and yes, the early 90's were so disappointing as a fan.

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    In reply to mjvz:

    Tuffy Rhodes. There's a name I want to forget. I was at a game at where he lost a fly ball in the sun and it landed right next to him. Unfair, but that's how I will always remember him.

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    In reply to Mike Moody:

    I think most of us remember him for his 3 HR day against Doc Gooden in 1994. At least the ball landed next to him and didn't hit him on the head, as I've seen happen to Ralph Garr and Jose Canseco

  • In reply to IVYADDICT:

    Well, we did get Sammy for Taco Bell.

  • I really liked that team as well. I think we all did. It kind of took us by surprise. I look at it as the second half of the Green/Goldsberry era. Even through Frey was the GM, it was the players developed by the previous regime that came up and turned the team around.

    Then you had Zimmer and all his odd strategy that for one whole season, everything seemed to work -- kind of like the opposite of last year.

    Only disappointment was that they could not build on it and that was in part due to Frey and his horrible trades. It didn't take him long to dismantle what seemed like a promising young team.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    John, you missed Les Lancasters contributions, his 30 inning shutout streak in the BP was crucial during the stretch run, even though Zimmer did overuse him at the end and burned him out by playoff time, then in 90 the Cubs made him a starter rather than initially trust a young Mike Harkey.,

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    Thanks MB. Mike wrote this piece but I remember Lancaster well. For one year, at least, he embodied the philosophy that the best pitch you can make is strike one.

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    I remember having such high hopes for Harkey and Dickson.
    In 1990 Harkey went 12-6 3.26 with a better WHIP than Maddux for the Cubs. And Dickson blew through the minors after getting picked in the draft that year while putting up an incredible stat line between A-AA of 7-3 with 0.94 ERA (76.1 IP 40H 8 ER 18 BB 111 K, a better than 6/1 K/BB ratio).

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Agreed I remember no one gave the Cubs a chance in 89. I spent my summer listening to Harry as I worked some State job water trees all work week. I was 17 that year but I still remember opening day at Wrigley. My parents took me to the game vs the Phillies where Mitch Williams came in for the save walking and hitting the bases loaded only to strike out the side including Mike Schmidt. Fun times..

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    John , The only thing worse than Freys deals were his drafts and FA signings,,, Harry used to always say it, if The Cubs kept Dallas Green they would have end ed The drought

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    The Box Score for the game referenced by Mr Moody was as follows:

    Walton 0-4, 3 R
    Sandberg 3-5
    McClendon 3-5, 3 RBI
    Grace 2-4
    Dawson 1-3
    Smith 2-2, 3 RBI
    Dunston 2-5
    Ramos 2-4
    Girardi 3-4
    Bilecki 0-1
    D. Wilkins 0-0
    Wilkerson 0-0
    Schiraldi 0-0
    Webster 0-1
    Sanderson 0-0
    Law 0-1
    Lancaster 0-0
    Dar Jackson 0-1
    Aasenmacher 0-0

    Bilecki 4 IP, 5ER
    D Wilkins 1 IP, 3 ER
    Schiraldi 1 IP, 0 R
    Sanderson 2 IP, 0 R
    Lancaster 1 IP, 0 R
    Aasenmacher 1 IP, 0 R, (W)

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    If you guys need someone to write up the 98 season I'm your man. That was the first playoff run I was really a part of watching. Everyone focuses on the homer chase but the playoff run was very exciting.

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    I suspect John will have something more on this shortly, but Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis just released the top 10 SS prospects for 2014. Here's the list:

    10. Chris Owings, ARI
    9. Luis Sardinas, TEX
    8. Alen Hanson, PIT
    7. Adalberto Mondesi, KC
    6. Corey Seager, LAD
    5. Addison Russell, OAK
    4. Francisco Lindor, CLE
    3. Carlos Correa, HOU
    2. Javier Baez, CHC
    1. Xander Bogaerts, BOS

    This is better than I ever would have dreamed for Javy.

  • In reply to Mike Moody:

    I think he earned it. Great post Mike, really tugs at the hearts of all Cubs' fans.

  • 1975 was my first year it started with Jose C.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Me too, though I vaguely remember that year. Jose Cardenal was a favorite and so was Madlock.

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    It's a great, thoughtful piece, but your reference to 1985 as "a year removed from the 1984 heartbreak" skips over the very real heartbreak of 1985. Up by something like seven games in mid-June, the Cubs lost five starters within a month and went down in flames. The1985 start, however unrealistic, had begun to heal some of the 1984 wound. The back-to-back disappointments lingered for a long time.

  • In reply to Larry Rogers:

    One of those replacement starters in 1985 was a young Jamie Moyer. Was Moyer ever really young.

    I recall the 89 team being a team of streaks. They were either winning 5 in a row or dropping 5. Zimmer loved managing on 'gut feeling.'

    The playoffs with Will Clark reading Maddox's lips and the hitting clinic by Clark and Grace was amazing. Watching that series a drinking game developed at my dorm whenever Matt Williams' Ping Pong paddle practice routine was mentioned.

    After the disappointment of 84 and comparing it with the lost opportunity of 03, the 89 team has faded to the background unfortunately. They should be higher on the list of could of, should of... I was 3 in 69.

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    Excellent write up!

    My Cub love started during the glorious 1984 season. I was 10 years old then. I was heartbroken when they blew it in the playoffs. The naive youngster that I was, I expected many more years of Cub excellence following 1984.

    I guess I can say the next few years of Cub baseball prepared me for the inevitable disappointments of life.

  • I became a true blue Cubs fan in 1987, a year that had some promise until Sandberg and Dunston were both injured at about the same time, and the team had to go with Paul Noce and, recently named assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley, up the middle. The '89 team was a lot of fun to watch, and was a good example of a team overachieving...possibly one of the reasons why Cubs fans tend to have some degree of unreasonable optimism every season. A lot of those guys that contributed to that team did little else in their careers. Dwight Smith made the bulk of his living as a part-time player elsewhere. Jerome Walton played his way out of Chicago pretty quickly. Bielecki never had the kind of success that he had in that 18-win season. It all just came together for that team, and made it a special season to watch. By the way, I taped the clinching game against Montreal, and wore that sucker out, particularly watching the brilliant video montage put together by Arne Harris.

    On another note, if you have not 'liked' the Shawon-O-Meter page on Facebook, you should all take a look. The guys responsible for the sign have put up a ton of videos from that season, mostly focusing on Dunston of course, but includes a lot of great memories from the season, including the Arne Harris montage. Worth an hour or two of your time, and guaranteed to bring chills, smiles, and maybe even some tears.

  • Great piece. 1989 was the first year I was old enough to at least kind of understand what was going on in games (I was 8) and the first season I remember. Many days I'd come home from school and watch the last few innings of games on WGN, and that's how Ryno became my idol. I loved Maddux and Dunston as well.

    It was also the year where I went to my first Cubs game. My dad (who worked downtown at the time) had a company outing to a game on August 11th, and he surprised me by coming home from work early that day and telling me we were going to the game. Of course, I started bouncing off the walls with excitement lol. We sat near the left field foul pole and watched as Ryno hit a homer and Maddux got the win, making it pretty much a perfect day for me. Dawson also hit a homer onto Waveland that the mailman caught!

    I don't remember a lot of games from that year, but I definitely remember the comeback from 9-0 down. My parents had decided to go somewhere that afternoon, and they practically had to drag me out of the house to do it. I wound up listening to the rest of the game on the radio in the car. I don't remember much about the division clincher, but I do remember watching some of the playoff games, especially Game 1. My heart broke when Ryno grounded out to end the series.

    After the season ended, I remember WGN aired a special called the 1989 Cubby (or Cubbie) Awards where they gave out awards for most dramatic comeback, etc. At the end they played a great montage of the season that I used to rewind and watch over and over again. Despite the heartbreaking ending, I have very fond memories of that year.

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    Great stuff, Mike! Though I was still pretty young (born in '83), this was the era I fell in love with the Cubs. I was born in the Chicago area but grew up in Florida, as a WGN Cubs' fan. I can't remember the particulars of those seasons, but the Sandburg-Grace-Dawson-era was pure after-school gold!

  • I love this series of posts. Great write up, Mike...thanks for bringing back the memories. Mike Bielecki kinda reminds me of Matt Clement of the 2003 Cubs...pretty consistent yet easy to overlook member of a strong starting rotation. Not sure we would've made the playoffs without those two...

  • Ah, the Astros comeback game! I was downtown on business that day and thought I'd catch the Cubs game that afternoon. So I bought a single seat ticket down the left field line, smack up against the brick wall just beyond the bullpen. I called into the office around the 5th inning to let them know where I was and what a lousy game it was, Cubs being down 9-0. But I stayed there anyway -- and was sooooooooo glad I did! I knew they were going to win the division after that. What a fun summer!

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    Mike M, you and I are the same age - I was 9 during this season, and it was the year I fell in love with the cubs. I watched the 9-0 comeback with my friend and we were jumping up and down (like crazed 9 year olds).. We probably thought our enthusiasm was influencing the comeback. That may have been the single most important day for me as a youthful baseball fan.

    After Andre Dawson, Doug Dascenzo was my favorite player that year. Does anyone remember that he was also a garbage-time pitcher for us? I don't know if it was 1989, but he pitched a few innings as a cub, which just added to my love for him.

  • As my name implies, since 1970.

    I have something that might be interesting. It's a record, "Jack Brickhouse presents: Great Moments in Cubs Baseball. It's Cubs radio highlights from the 30's to the 70's. My Dad paid $4.98 for it.

    (copywrite) 1971 A Custom Recording by Major Official Productions, Inc. 20 N Wacker Dr., Chic Ill 60606 (312) 372-9499

    I would mail it tomorrow to someone who could put it on the net.

  • In reply to since1970:

    I have the exact same one. I grew up listening to it. Loved it. My brothers and I can quote certain radio calls at a moment's notice. Great memories. Recently bought a replacement on eBay. Plan on digitizing it. Don't really know how to put it on the net, though. It's pretty long.

  • You can cut it up and use it do end Pod Casts.

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