Cubs of the 1980s: Gary Matthews

For a GenXer like me, nostalgia and the 1980s go hand-in-hand. I was a sixth grader when the 80s began, and a college senior when they came to an end. I passed through adolescence and the teenage years with the help of video games, MTV, John Hughes movies, and a certain product that Harry Caray hawked on TV. The 80s are forever going to be the one decade that holds a special place in my heart.

The Cubs franchise went through transitions in the 1980s, as well. The Wrigley family ended decades of control over the team by selling out to the Tribune Corporation in 1981. The team replaced Jack Brickhouse with Harry Caray in the announcer’s booth, and added lights for the first time in 1988. And on the field, the Cubs moved into the winner’s circle for the first time in most fans’ memory–certainly in my own memory–when they won the National League’s Eastern division title in 1984, and then again in 1989.

The NL East is a relic in its own right, at least for a Cubs fan. The team was in that division from the time it was created in 1969, until they moved to the Central division after the 1993 season. You have to be in your mid-to-late 20s, at least, to remember the Cubs in the NL East, but I assure you that they were.

Choosing one player from that decade is tough, but I had to pass over Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Rick Sutcliffe, Lee Smith, Jody Davis, Ron Cey, Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, Shawon Dunston, Joe Girardi, Jerome Walton, Dwight Smith, and many others–who would all make for some interesting stories–in favor of Gary Matthews.

“The Sarge” was given his nickname by Pete Rose in Philadelphia, and in 1983 he led the Phillies into the World Series by hitting .429 in the NLCS and being named the MVP of the series. Matthews was an established player by that time, with twelve big-league seasons under his belt, including stints in San Francisco, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. By anyone’s definition, he was a veteran, impact player.

When Matthews was traded to the Cubs–along with Bob Dernier and a pitcher nobody remembers during Spring Training in 1984–two of the critical pieces for the team’s success that year were acquired. Dernier led off, played center field, and was part of the “daily double” at the top of the lineup. But Matthews was the third hitter in the lineup, responsible for building on what Dernier and fellow Phillies alum Ryne Sandberg accomplished. And the Sarge did not disappoint, either.

Matthews drew 103 walks in 1984, the most that he ever did in his career, and had an on base percentage of .410 that season. These numbers both led the National League, and provided fuel for hitters further down the lineup like Leon Durham, Ron Cey, Jody Davis, and Keith Moreland. The Cubs’ lineup was stacked that year, but Matthews was the glue that held everything together. To borrow a term from Reggie Jackson, he was “the straw that stirred the drink.”

In 1984, Gary Matthews also led the league in that very 80s statistic of Game Winning RBI. MLB tracked the stat beginning in 1980, and ending in 1988. It was an exclusively 80s thing, in the way that MTV sadly never was. In 1984, the Sarge had 19 such GWRBIs, and he could very well be the only Cubs player to ever lead the league in this now-forgotten stat.

When the playoffs began in 1984, the Sarge hit two homers in the game one rout at Wrigley Field. It looked like he could be the NLCS MVP for a second straight year, if the series had ended there. But as we all know, it didn’t. Sarge had the chance to be the hero twice in San Diego, but he was intentionally walked with the pennant-winning run on second base in game four (the Steve Garvey game), and he struck out to end the eighth inning and the Cubs’ last, best hope to tie the game up after falling behind in the seventh inning (the Leon Durham game).

Matthews finished fourth in the NL MVP voting for 1984, which marked the closest he ever came to capturing the award. In 1985, he had surgery on his left knee and was limited to just 97 games. The downward arc of his career had begun, and by 1987, he was limited to late-inning defensive replacement duty. When he entered the game on April 9, 1987–the first time I ever attended a game at Wrigley Field–I was surprised to learn that he was still with the team. And it turned out that he would not be for very much longer.

Gary Matthews was traded to Seattle in July, and ended his career at the end of that season. He singled in his final plate appearance off of future Cub Mitch Williams, and was picked off first base to end the game and, ultimately, his career. Like the Game-Winning RBI stat, Matthews didn’t make it out of the 80s as a player.

But the Sarge and the Cubs were not finished yet. He served as a minor league hitting instructor in the mid 1990s, and returned to the Cubs coaching staff as recently as 2006. And his son, Gary Matthews Jr, played for the Cubs in 2000 and 2001. The Sarge will always be a part of the Cubs family, and he reminds us all that veteran players can have a sizable impact on a team’s success. Matthews turned 34 in that magical summer of 1984, so let’s keep that in mind going forward with this current youth movement. Age and experience have their place, too.

R. Lincoln Harris is a guest contributor for Wrigleyville Nation. He also writes for BlueBattingHelmet.Wordpress.com, ChicagoSideSports.com, ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com, and FiveWideSports.com. Thanks R. Lincoln for the contribution!