Sunday, October 27, 2019

Padres and Tigers and Cubs, Oh My!!!

IT WAS THE MEAL NO ONE ORDERED, a freakish mix up in fate's kitchen that swapped the expected meat and potatoes for a Big Mac and Domino's Pizza.

It was Major League Baseball's 1984 post-season, which appeared destined to feature two storied franchises, the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs, in a rematch of the immediately post-World War II 1945 World Series.

But destiny had other plans, turning a bull into a goat and momentarily making a guy best known for his bubble gum blowing prowess into a hero.

The Cubs had been absent from the Fall Classic for four decades, biding their time playing day games only at their antique ballpark at the corner of Clark and Addison. The boys from Michigan and Trumbull hadn't fared much better, appearing only in the 1968 series where they upset the favored St. Louis Cardinals and ace Bob Gibson.

Their aggregate 78 prior seasons had yielded a grand total of two first-place finishes, one pennant and one championship, all by the Tigers.

But this was 1984. War was peace, ignorance was strength, slavery was freedom and the Cubs were contenders. Actually that last part wasn't Orwellian doublespeak, but literal truth. They were, in fact, National League East champs.

Led by budding superstar second-baseman Ryne Sandberg and pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who reeled off a 16-1 record after being acquired in mid-June, the Cubs were for real, winning their division by 6.5 games over the second-place New York Mets.

Sandberg, 24, won the NL Most Valuable Player, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards. The Cubs won 96 games, their most since '45.

From Sport Magazine's April '81 baseball preview
Impressive as Chicago was, the Tigers were better. Detroit broke from the gate with a 35-5 record -- the best 40-game start in baseball history -- and led the American League East from wire to wire,  one of just five big league clubs to ever do such a thing. They finished 104-58.

Their top player was former Cubs reliever Willie Hernandez, who had compiled a 1-9 record and 4.42 ERA hurling for the northsiders in 1980. Sport Magazine's '81 baseball preview warned "it was time to get the married Cubs off the field" when he came on to pitch. The article threw Sutcliffe under the bus too.

Four seasons later, nobody was making fun of Rick or Willie anymore. Sutcliffe won the NL Cy Young award based on his virtually unbeatable two-thirds of a season. Hernandez, with nine wins and 32 saves -- more than in his previous seven seasons combined -- copped the AL's Cy Young and its MVP award too.

Detroit was also bolstered by local hero Kirk Gibson, who'd starred in football and baseball for Michigan State. Drafted in both sports, he chose the Tigers over football's St. Louis Cardinals.

But the Tigers/Cubs betrothal wasn't assured. There was the formality of league championship play, pitting Detroit against the Kansas City Royals and Chicago against the San Diego Padres making their first ever post-season appearance.

Willie Hernandez and Kirk Gibson
The Royals, who won just 84 games in '84, provided no obstacle. A mere speed bump on the Tigers' expressway, they were outscored by an aggregate 14-4, and swept 3 games to none.

The Padres proved to be more problematic.

After years of languishing as also-rans, they'd hired former A's skipper Dick Williams, acquired a handful of veterans cast off by winning teams -- ex-Yankees Graig Nettles and Goose Gossage, plus former Los Angeles Dodger Steve Garvey -- and developed a nucleus of young, talented pitchers plus one superlative hitter, '84 NL batting champ Tony Gwynn.

Chicago countered with Garvey's ex-Dodgers teammate Ron Cey, spark plug Bob Dernier and veteran Gary Matthews, whose acquisition near the end of spring training pushed left fielder Leon "Bull" Durham to first base and Bill Buckner out of town.

The Cubs won the first two games of the still best-of-five NL Championship series at Wrigley, sending the Padres back to San Diego on the brink of elimination.

There, Chicago took a 1-0 lead in game 3. After that it was all Padres. The friars scored seven unanswered runs for their first ever post-season victory, extending the series.

A back-and-forth affair, game 4 was knotted at 5 in the bottom of the 9th when Garvey stunned the visitors with a walk-off two-run homer off future Hall of Fame reliever Lee Smith, tying the series at two games a piece.

An answered prayer: playing for a pennant
Chicago's date with Detroit and destiny suddenly seemed less assured.

The next day in San Diego. Bull Durham and Cubs catcher Jody Davis homered early, staking Chicago and Sutcliffe to a 3-0 lead. The Padres tallied twice in the 6th to pull within a run, 3-2.

Then San Diego's Carmelo Martinez opened the bottom of the 7th with a walk. A sacrifice moved him to second, bring lefty-hitting Tim Flannery to the plate with one out.

Chicago was eight outs away from the World Series. What happened next is etched in Cubs lore between Leo Durocher's black cat of 1969 and the unlucky fan who reached for a foul ball at the 2003 NLCS and opened the gates of hell.

Flannery hammered a ground ball toward the Bull that shot under his glove, through his legs and into right field. Martinez scored, tying the game. Then second-baseman Alan Wiggins singled. Gwynn followed with a bad-hop hit past Sandburg scoring Flannery and Wiggins. A Garvey rap plated Gwynn.

When the dust settled San Diego held a 6-3 lead. Six Cubs outs later, the Padres were NL pennant winners headed for a showdown with Motown.

The visual contrast between the clubs couldn't have been greater. Detroit, with its olde English "D" logo, classic uniforms and pre-war rust-belt city ballpark vs. San Diego, with their contemporary brown and white uniforms trimmed with orange and yellow. Hailing from sunny southern California, they didn't even exist the last time the Tigers won a pennant.

The Padres and Tigers had two things in common. Each had a Hall-bound manager -- the Padres' Williams and the Tigers' Sparky Anderson -- and each had a tie to fast food. Detroit's owner was Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza. San Diego's owner for a decade was Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald's famous.

Kroc died in January of '84 and in tribute, the team added his initials RAK to the left sleeves of their jerseys.

The official program had a fold-out cover
evoking that other fall classic, Election Day.
In game 1, Tigers ace Jack Morris surrendered two runs in the bottom of the first inning, but muffled the Big Mac attack the rest of the way as Detroit clawed back a 3-2 victory.

Game 2, however, belonged to the Padres, who won 5-3, and one man in particular, utility player Kurt Bevacqua, who in 80 regular season at bats hit just .200 with one homer and nine RBIs.

Playing for six teams over 14 seasons, his greatest claim to fame had been winning the 1975 Topps/ Bazooka bubble gum blowing contest, his feat immortalized on cardboard.

Now, the journeyman turned superman, slamming a decisive three-run homer in the bottom of the 5th, one of two he'd hit while leading San Diego with a .412 average in the series. Tied at 1 game apiece, the series shifted to Detroit

It wouldn't return to San Diego for 14 years. The Tigers pounced on Padres starters in each of the three games at the ballpark formerly known as Navin Field and Briggs Stadium, never trailing in any one of them.

Gibson slugged a pair of homers in game 5, Detroit catcher Lance Parrish added one too. San Diego had briefly tied the game, 3-3, in the fourth But Detroit gradually pulled away for an 8-4 win, making official what had been apparent since April, they were the best team in baseball, at least in 1984.

The Tigers' future Hall of Fame shortstop, Alan Trammell, was the series MVP. He'd led all hitters with a .450 average, drilled two home runs and had six RBI.

But, for all their heroics, neither the Padres, Tigers or Cubs returned to the post-season in 1985. Kansas City's Royals did, advancing from an afterthought to World Champions, downing the cross-state St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, October 26, 2019

It Was a Styx Concert. You Got a Problem With That?

"DON'T LOOK NOW, but here come the '80's!"

Reaganomics, big hair, tight jeans and MTV. We'd been warned. By Styx. Driving home their point in a minute and a half, the arena rockers and power ballad pioneers committed a half-dozen rock and roll cliches on side 2, track 1 of their ninth studio album, Cornerstone.

Prog-rock synthesizer intro? Check! Portentous power chords? Check! Segue into Steve Miller-like rhythmic guitar beat?  Check! Check! Shouts of "Yeah! Yeah!"? Double check! And then... that notice of the imminent arrival of a new decade.

80s artifact -- Styx' Cornerstone
Songs that date-drop invariably don't age well. They can't. Think of the line "Now you find yourself in '82," from Asia's Heat of the Moment, or the atypically upbeat Joe Jackson telling us, "It's not so easy. It's '84 now" in Happy Ending.

Date-stamping a song is the ultimate guarantee that the song in years hence will sound... well, dated. And so it is that Styx' song Borrowed Time is rooted in 1979.

By the time Cornerstone was released 40 years ago this month, Chicago-based Styx had already embarked on a tour they'd dubbed The Grand Decathlon. On Oct. 25, the quintet of Dennis DeYoung, Tommy Shaw,  James Young and brothers John and Chuck Panozzo arrived at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island for a two-night stand.

They'd have an opening act called The Good Rats and in the audience on their second night me and my best bud. I was 14, about seven miles from home and seeing my first ever rock concert.

Rock concerts. The very idea seemed dangerous. Would there be sex? Drugs? Violence? Woodstock? Altamont? These reference points were still reasonably current, all within the past 10 years. Of course, this was a Styx concert and at least two sets of suburban parents saw it as safe enough to let their kids go alone.

Alas, they were right. These were Styx, not Stones, although I recall DeYoung wearing a Chicago Cubs jersey.

40 years ago this week, at the Nassau Coliseum
Cornerstone was still so new, so untested that it's possible none of its nine songs even made the set list if the previous night's version --which drew heavily from the band's past two albums -- is any indication. That one included Styx' first hit, Lady, but not their biggest one, Cornerstone's Babe.

Ah, Babe, the schmaltzy, syrupy granddaddy of power ballads, written by DeYoung for his wife Suzanne, recorded as a demo and -- according to legend -- included on the album at the insistence of his bandmates. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Dec. 8, 1979 and perched there for two of its 19 weeks on the charts.

And they didn't even play it.

They did work in other crowd pleasers, including Never Say Never, a pop song with a French chorus, ne dites jamais jamais, and the future Eric Cartman tour-de-force, Come Sail Away.

We rocked. We rolled. We waited for a ride home from our parents. Cornerstone soared to number 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 album chart, charted two more singles -- Borrowed Time and  Why Me? -- and ultimately went triple platinum. It even got nominated for a Grammy!

But about Babe...

Babe would almost come to define the band, and not for the better, even as it was typical radio fodder in an era that saw Air Supply score five top five singles in the next year and a half and spawn imitators like SneakerBabe wasn't even the only power ballad on Cornerstone.

Five out of Chicago, but bound for where?
But, Styx's prior album, Pieces of Eight, featured a pair of genuine arena rockers, Blue Collar Man and Renegade. Styx wasn't likely to inspire anyone to don a leather jacket, grow their hair long and jump on a Harley, but they were approaching respectability. Borrowed Time was made in that vein.

Babe, the band's only chart-topper ever, overwhelmed all of that, blowing whatever hard rock cred they had and becoming a point of introduction to a different kind of band, one that became increasingly, fatally, theatrical and thematic.

To be sure, Cornerstone's intricate packaging indicated the band harbored deeper, as yet unrealized ambitions, The album cover, suggesting the discovery of a buried artifact, wrapped around another album cover appearing to be that same artifact. Oh so meta.

It was silvery. It was spacey. It showed five beings emanating from North America and headed for the sky. Where were they going? In subsequent albums we'd find out for better and then worse: back to Chicago, for Paradise Theatre and then to the future!

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Shoot the Moon -- The 1969 National League Playoffs

EVERYONE WAS SHOOTING FOR THE MOON in 1969, the Americans, the Russians and even the Atlanta Braves, at least metaphorically.

 The team from The Launching Pad
Fifty years ago this weekend, Major League Baseball's first franchise based in the American southeast fought for the National League pennant. They did it while claiming the entire region as their own, just four seasons after moving from Milwaukee.

It wasn't the first time relocation had rejuvenated the peripatetic Braves, one of the N.L.'s founding franchises.

Sixteen years earlier, as attendance tanked in Boston, the moribund 64-win team relocated to the good land, won 28 more games in their 1953 debut and then, four years later, a championship.

The 1969 edition won 93 games, finishing first in the newly-created NL Western Division. Their roster was studded with stars: future home run king Hank Aaron, his fellow future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda plus slugger Rico Carty and former New York Yankees' mainstay Clete Boyer. Leading their pitching staff was a 23-game winner, knuckleballer Phil Niekro.

Stoked to plant their pennant, they produced a gorgeous 80-page playoff program -- full of articles, photos, rosters and stats -- wrapped by a moon landing-themed cover that declared, "One step for the Braves. One giant leap for the Southeast."

The first ever NL West champions (from the Braves' 1969 NLCS program).

But to reach their figurative moon, they needed to step past the New York Mets.

After languishing in last or next-to-last place for the first seven years of their existence and merely a .500 ball club as late as June 2, New York's NL franchise caught fire in the summer, overtaking the first place Chicago Cubs on Sept. 10 and then winning the Eastern Division by eight games. They finished at 100-62.

Leading their charge was brash power pitcher Tom Seaver, a 25-game winner who would have been Braves property had they not violated the rules for signing college players in 1966.

Three years after his Braves contract was voided, Seaver was not merely the best pitcher in baseball, but leading a staff that included 17-game-winner Jerry Koosman, rookie Gary Gentry and down the depth chart, a young fireballer named Nolan Ryan.

The Mets' NLCS program, an adaptive reuse of their
regular season scorecard with minimal new content,
offered for just a single home game for 25 cents.
Their lineup was a mashup of platoon players expertly deployed by Manager Gil Hodges, but led by left-fielder Cleon Jones, who'd hit .340, sterling center-fielder Tommie Agee and hard-hitting first-baseman Donn Clendenon.

"Good pitching will always stop good hitting, and vice versa," baseball sage Casey Stengel reportedly once said. The best-of-five Mets/Braves NLCS was a vice versa kind of series, where good pitching largely took a back seat to good hitting and somehow, the Mets had more of that too.

On Oct. 4, the series opened in Atlanta, in a bullring of a ballpark that came to be known as The Launching Pad. Seaver vs. Niekro. They traded punches until the eight inning when, with the Braves nursing a 5-4 lead, the Mets' erupted for five runs, helped by a pair of Atlanta errors. Game 1 to the New Yorkers, 9-5.

Game 2 the next day saw the Mets jump out to a 8-0 lead en route to an 11-6 romp. The Braves headed to New York, their moon landing in jeopardy.

Foreshadowing from the Braves program
There, Atlanta rapped out five hits and a walk in the first three innings off New York's starter, Gentry, one of them a two run homer by Aaron, his third blast of the series.

With two on and no outs in third, Hodges pulled Gentry in favor of Ryan, who sandwiched an intentional walk around two strikeouts and ended the inning on Braves catcher Bob Didier's fly out.

Atlanta would never seriously threaten again, while the Mets got homers from Agee and infielders Ken Boswell and Wayne Garrett.

Ryan pitched seven innings, striking out seven while allowing two runs to earn the win, one of just two post-season victories in his 27 year Hall of Fame career. Aaron wouldn't appear in the playoffs again. He retired as a Milwaukee Brewer after the 1976 season with the most homers in major league history: 755.

On Oct. 6, 1969, the Mets captured the NL pennant before a raucous crowd at Shea Stadium in Queens. Ten days later, they'd stun the Baltimore Orioles and the world by taking the World Series 4 games to 1. The moon belonged to them.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive