The Cubs' season was at a crossroads when the St. Louis Cardinals visited Wrigley Field for a three-game series, June 22-24, 1984.
A star is born. Ryne Sandberg connects for his second game-tying homer in as many innings off St. Louis closer Bruce Sutter at Wrigley Field on June 23, 1984.
The North Siders were in third place in the National League East, 2.5 games behind the first-place New York Mets. They had lost 10 of their previous 15 games. The most disheartening portion of that stretch came when they were swept at home in a four-game series at home against the Philadelphia Phillies, June 14-17, while getting outscored 33-13. Their 5-2 loss in the second game of that series knocked them out of first place for the first time in the month of June and ended a stretch in which they held the top spot after 29 of the previous 31 days.
General manager Dallas Green had already made a move to upgrade the Cubs' starting pitching in late May when he acquired Dennis Eckersley from the Boston Red Sox, but it was apparent that more reinforcements were needed. A starting rotation that featured Steve Trout, an injury-prone Scott Sanderson, Dick Ruthven, Chuck Rainey, and a thought-to-be washed up Rick Reuschel just wasn't cutting it.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, but Green had proven earlier in the year that he wasn't reluctant at making a bold move. With Opening Day fast approaching and the Cubs struggling through their spring training slate, Green remade his lineup on March 26 when he acquired outfielders Gary Matthews and Bob Dernier from the Phillies.
On June 13, Green had another surprise up his sleeve. He completed a seven-player trade with the Cleveland Indians that netted him the established starting pitcher he desired - Rick Sutcliffe. But it was a costly deal.
Among the four players Green sent to Cleveland were promising young outfielders Mel Hall and Joe Carter. Hall, at the time, was among my favorite Cubs and had been the left-handed portion of a right-field platoon with Keith Moreland.
The track record of Sutcliffe, who arrived to the Cubs along with reliever George Frazier and left-handed hitting backup catcher Ron Hassey, wasn't that impressive. He had won 18 games for the Indians in 1983, but was just 4-5 with a 5.15 ERA in '84, at the time of the trade.
Sutcliffe later blamed his poor early-season performance on the after effects of a root canal.
Plus, Sutcliffe was eligible to elect free agency following the season.
Because of a procedural snafu - Green had initially failed to put Hall, Carter, and pitcher Don Schulze through waivers - Sutcliffe did not make his debut until June 19 at Pittsburgh. He pitched eight strong innings as the Cubs snapped a four-game losing streak with a 4-3 victory. But the Cubs dropped their next two in Pittsburgh.
The turnaround game came when they returned home on June 22 and trounced the Cardinals 9-3. Moreland hit a three-run homer, Jody Davis and Ron Cey added two-run shots, and Ryne Sandberg smashed a pair of doubles to lead the Cubs' 13-hit attack.
The next day, the Cubs and Cardinals were featured on the NBC "Game of the Week." It turned out to be one of the greatest games in major league history.
Trout was not sharp and the Cardinals scored six times in the second inning to race out to a 7-1 advantage. Dernier hit a two-run-double and Sandberg knocked in a pair with a single during a five-run Cubs sixth, but the Cubs entered the bottom of the ninth trailing 9-8 and the daunting task of rallying against St. Louis closer Bruce Sutter.
The former Cub and future Hall of Famer entered the game in the seventh. He had allowed just six earned runs and 40 hits (3 home runs) in 45 1/3 innings (1.19 ERA).
Sandberg led off the bottom of the ninth and launched a Sutter fastball into the left-field bleachers, sending Wrigley Field into a frenzy.
But the Cardinals regained the lead in the 10th when Willie McGee (4-for-6, 6 RBI) completed the cycle with an RBI double off Cubs closer Lee Smith. McGee scored an insurance run after advancing a base on groundouts by George Hendrick and Steve Braun.
Sutter retired the first two hitters in the bottom of the 10th and had Dernier down in the count 0-and-2. Dernier fouled off several pitches and battled back to draw a walk. Up stepped Sandberg. He couldn't do it again, could he?
Sutter hung a 1-and-1 split-fingered fastball and Sandberg was ready.
"Look out!" Bob Costas exclaimed on the NBC broadcast. "Do you believe it?"
"There's a drive, way back, it might be out of here, it is!" Harry Caray exclaimed on the WGN Radio broadcast. "He did it again! He did it again! Oh, the game is tied! Unbelievable! How about that! Listen to this crowd! Everybody has gone bananas! Holy cow! What would the odds be if I told you that twice Sandberg would hit home runs off Bruce Sutter? Come on, you guys! He can't do it all himself!"
It was only the second time Sutter had given up two home runs in a game in his nine major league seasons. He surrendered a pair of long balls, to Atlanta's Dale Murphy and Claudell Washington, on May 13, 1982.
Sandberg, who finished the day with five hits and seven RBI on a national stage, had shot to stardom. He went on to win the 1984 NL MVP Award and was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame after an outstanding 15-year Cubs career.
"It was nothing to (Sutter's) career," Sandberg said years later. "It was everything to mine."
Smith pitched around a walk to Andy Van Slyke to set St. Louis down in the top of the 11th and the Cubs won it in the bottom half. Leadoff hitter Leon Durham was walked by Dave Rucker. Durham stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter. Jeff Lahti relieved Rucker and intentionally walked Moreland and Davis.
Up stepped rookie Dave Owen, the last available player on the Cubs bench, pinch hitting for Smith.
"The pitch to Dave Owen," Caray said. "Base hit! The Cubs win! The Cubs win! Holy Cow! The Cubs win! Listen to the crowd! I never saw a game like this in my life, and I've been around a long time! Holy cow! Down 7-1! How 'bout the kid, hit a line drive like a bullet!
"Everybody up, high-fiving each other! Whoa, what a victory! What a victory! Listen to that crowd!"
St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog, following the game, was among the first to jump on the Sandberg bandwagon.
"Ryne Sandberg is the best baseball player I've ever seen," Herzog said.
Sandberg, always a man of few words, said, "This day here has me in shock."
"It was my wife's first game at Wrigley Field, as a member of the Cubs, and after the game she looked at me and said, 'Are all the games like this?' " Sutcliffe told Peter Golenbock in Wrigleyville (St.Martin's Press, 1996). "We had come from Cleveland with 800 people in the stands. This was incredible, and my thought was, I got to pitch the next day. Gee, how do I follow this act?"
Sutcliffe, making his first Wrigley Field start, pitched a complete-game five-hit shutout while striking out 14 as the Cubs completed a three-game sweep of the Cards with a 5-0 triumph.
"I don't know who was responsible for making the trade for the Cubs," Sutcliffe said after the game. "Whoever was watching me must have seen something no else did."
The '84 Cubs were on their way.