1989: Boys of Zimmer Clinch

By Chris Rewers on Friday, October 8, 2010

The 2007 Cubs Convention at the Hilton Chicago featured a panel discussion of the 1989 NL East champion Cubs. The panel consisted of seven members of that team: Mike Bielecki, Doug Dascenzo, Mark Grace, Les Lancaster, Ryne Sandberg, Dwight Smith, and Jerome Walton. The quote that sticks with me from that discussion came from Grace.

"1989 was my favorite year in a Cubs uniform," said Grace, who that year as a 25-year-old led the team in RBI, played first base superbly, and went an incredible 11-for-17 with five extra-base hits in the North Siders' disappointing loss to the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series.

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Zim makes it a Bud Light after the Cubs clinched the NL East on Sept. 26, 1989.

The 1989 Cubs, "The Boys of Zimmer," is my all-time favorite team. It was so much fun to watch that young team of overachievers, under the brilliant direction of manager Don Zimmer, earn just the Cubs' second postseason berth since 1945.

It could be argued that other recent editions of the North Siders - in 1969, 1984, 2003, and 2008 - were better, but I've never witnessed a Cubs team that played closer to its potential than the 1989 bunch. Zimmer, seemingly pressed all the right buttons while squeezing every ounce of talent out of his team. Zimmer was often times unconventional and unpredictable. He played hunches, kept his players on their toes, and constantly kept opponents guessing.

A book was written about Billy Beane's "Moneyball," a philosophy based on statistics - especially on-base percentage - probability, and logic. Moneyball attempts to maximize outs and baserunners. Stolen bases, sacrifice hits, and hit-and-run plays are discouraged. It promotes a boring, station-to-station style of play.

There was often times nothing logical about Zimmerball - double steals, triple steals, two-out suicide squeezes, and intentional walks with first base occupied - but it was exciting and at least in 1989, it was successful a majority of the time.

The Cubs had captured the NL East in 1984, but by '89 only three players from that team still called Wrigley Field home: Sandberg, Scott Sanderson, and Rick Sutcliffe.

On paper, the Cubs were inferior to division rivals Montreal, New York, and St. Louis. Yet they compiled a 93-69 record and won the NL East by six games over the second-place Cardinals. And they did so with just two players who hit more than 20 homers (Sandberg, 30 and Andre Dawson, 21), none that drove in at least 80 runs (Grace led the team with 79 RBI), and just two .300 hitters (Smith, .324 and Grace, .314).

The Cubs did not have a 20-game winner and only had four pitchers with 10 or more victories.

And as with most championship teams benefitted from career years from Rookie of the Year Walton, ROY runner-up Smith, Bielecki, and closer Mitch Williams.

I was a sophomore at St. Ambrose University on Sept. 26, 1989 and as I settled down on our couch with my friends in my dorm room to watch the Cubs try for a division-clinching win over the Montreal Expos, a season full of memorable moments washed over me:

* Williams, protecting a one-run lead in the ninth against the Philadelphia Phillies on Opening Day, walking the bases loaded and then striking out Mike Schmidt, Chris James, and Mark Ryal to earn the save.

* Lloyd McClendon hitting a three-run homer in his first at-bat as a Cub on May 15, leading the Cubs to a 4-0 victory over Atlanta to snap a five-game losing streak.

* Rick Wrona's bases-loaded bunt single in the bottom of the 10th completing a 5-4 win over the Mets on June 8.

* Pitcher Lancaster (while TV cameras captured Zimmer chirping at critics near the dugout), batting for himself with two outs in the 11th, doubling down the left-field line to knock in Curtis Wilkerson from first with the winning run in a 4-3 triumph over San Francisco on July 20.

* Shortstop Shawon Dunston's over-the-shoulder catch in shallow left field and one-hop throw to Grace at first to double off Juan Samuel, ending the Cubs' 6-5 victory over New York on July 26.

* Grace's two-out 10th inning home run off Randy Myers on July 30 that gave the Cubs a 6-4 victory over the Mets. WGN's dugout closeup of Mets manager Dave Johnson, catcher Gary Carter, and Myers sniping at each other was priceless.

* Walton completing a modern (since 1900) club record on Aug. 20 by hitting in 30 consecutive games.

* A 10-9 victory over the Houston Astros on Aug. 29 after trailing by nine runs.

* A dramatic 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 9 in which Dawson scored from first with the winning run in the 10th inning on a Luis Salazar double.

On that Tuesday night in September, the magic number was at two as young 23-year-old ace Greg Maddux, aiming for his career-high 19th win, opposed Montreal veteran Dennis Martinez.

The drama did not capture the imagination of Canadian baseball fans. The game was played in front of a usual small crowd of just 11,615 at Montreal's indoor Olympic Stadium. Perhaps the chily conditions had something to do with the poor turnout.

"You'd think for what it cost to build this ballpark - what was it $1 1/2 billion?," Steve Stone said. "That maybe they would install a heating system. A heat pump would be nice."

Maddux was his usual outstanding self through five shutout innings, allowing just three hits. The Cubs took a 1-0 lead in the second on rookie catcher Wrona's RBI triple.

"What a great problem the Cubs have when it comes to their catchers," Harry Caray said. "We have two terrific rookies - Wrona and Joe Girardi - and then there's the guy who's on the disabled list - Damon Berryhill..."

The Cubs added another run against Martinez in the sixth when Sandberg doubled off the left-field fence (his 25th of the season) and scored on a Smith bloop single to left.

"Everybody in April is hopeful and they have all fallen by the wayside except for the Cardinals - and they're almost dead," Caray said after informing viewers that second-place St. Louis was trailing Pittsburgh 2-1 in the fifth inning.

"Go Buccos!" Stone exclaimed.

Marquis Grissom, Andres Gallaraga, and Hubie Brooks opened the bottom of the sixth with back-to-back-to-back singles off Maddux with Gallaraga scoring from third on a sacrifice fly by Nelson Santovenia.

Word came of the Cardinals' 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh during the sixth inning of action in Montreal. The magic number was reduced to one and champagne was on tap if the Cubs could finish off a win in Montreal.

"A victory can end it all," Caray said. "The Cubs are guaranteed no worse than a tie. A win tonight and we'll clinch it. Otherwise we'll have to wait 'til tomorrow."

The wait, at least in regards to a 1989 divisional title, would soon be over.

In the eighth, Martinez was still on the mound.

"He's showing no signs of tiring," Caray remarked after the veteran Nicaraguan right-hander struck out Marvell Wynne for the second out.

Sandberg reached with a two-out single. He scored the go-ahead run from first when Smith singled and Montreal right fielder Brooks failed to field it cleanly.

"Safe! Safe!" Caray said. "The Cubs have taken the lead. What a great year for Ryno!"

After setting down the Expos in order in the eighth, Maddux who was working on a six-hitter, came back out in the bottom of the ninth with the Cubs three outs away from a postseason berth.

Cubs killer Tom Foley (a .228 hitter but 11-for-29 against the Cubs in '89) singled and pinch runner Otis Nixon, representing the tying run, advanced to second on a Santovenia sacrifice bunt. Zimmer called upon Williams and the closer nailed down the championship by retiring Wallace Johnson on a popout to Sandberg and striking out Mike Fitzgerald.

"Cubs win the division! Cubs win the division!" Caray exclaimed. "You talk about a mass of happy humanity!"

Williams pumped his fist as home plate umpire Dutch Rennert punched out Fitzgerald and catcher Girardi leaped in the air.

"There are so many heroes on this team," Caray said. "This is a team victory. And you have to hand it to Don Zimmer for instilling the charisma. He taught this young team that this is a 'we' game and not a 'me' game. These guys bought into it."

"I've had a lot of things happen to me in baseball," Zimmer said in the victorious, champagne-soaked Cubs clubhouse. "Some's been good and some's been bad. I've hit grand slams in the major leagues. I've been on world championship teams, and I can honestly say, in all of the years I've been in professional baseball, this is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me."

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