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.

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