By Randy Richardson
The magic number was one.
Rick Sutcliffe, the lanky pitcher nicknamed “The Red Baron” for his red hair and beard, had been near perfect the night of September 24, 1984, in Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium. He’d surrendered a mere two hits and walked none.
Both hits had come off the bat of the Pirates’ pesky leadoff hitter, Joe Orsulak. In the bottom of the fourth, the Pirates’ centerfielder tripled to right field and later scored the Bucs’ lone run on Johnny Ray’s groundout to second. Orsulak singled in the bottom of the sixth only to have The Baron pick him off first for the third out of the inning.
That’s how dominant Sutcliffe had been that night. He was aiming for his 20th win of the season and his 14th in a row. Since the Cubs had acquired him in a midseason trade from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Mel Hall and Joe Carter, Sutcliffe had been close to invincible.
And yet when Orsulak stepped to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the Cubs leading 4-1, I’m betting that every die-hard Cub fan was on edge. It is a nagging reflex. You can’t help but think the worst. It comes from having seen it so many times before: the smooth sailing ship that suddenly capsizes – without forewarning or explanation.
When Sutcliffe’s 1-2 pitch against Orsulak nipped the corner of the plate and umpire Lee Weyer called strike three, Cubdom let loose a collective sigh of relief.
And then when Cubs catcher Jody Davis rose from his crouch and punched his fist in the air, the celebration began.
“The Cubs are the champions! The Cubs are the champions!” Cubs legendary broadcaster Harry Caray cried in jubilation as Davis embraced Sutcliffe. Soon, the two were surrounded by all their teammates and coaches and trainers. “Look at that mob scene!” barked Caray.
The magic number was zero. The Cubs had clinched the National League East title. For the first time in 39 years, they were celebrating a championship – a remarkable turnaround for a team that had finished the previous season 5th in the N.L. East.
A sparse crowd of 5,472 fans were on hand that night to see it. Most of them seemed to be Cubs fans.
“It was a madhouse in the Cubs’ locker room after the game, as it was back in Chicago, where 5,000 fans filled up outside Wrigley Field to party,” longtime baseball analyst Bruce Levine wrote in 2009. “The postgame craziness eventually spilled back onto the field at Three Rivers Stadium, where the players celebrated with the remaining Cubs fans. The most memorable part of the evening occurred when the electronic scoreboard operator was able to get a live feed from Wrigley Field on the scoreboard, as the Cubs’ players and coaches with cigars, champagne and beer in hand watched the Cubs faithful go nuts in front of the historic ballpark at Clark and Addison.”
Finally, there was joy in Wrigleyville.
“I`m going to savor the hell out of this moment,” Cubs outfielder – and future Cubs radio broadcaster – Keith Moreland said at the time. “We`ve tried to show the fans in Chicago that we love them. Those 40,000 fans at Wrigley are our 10th man. I feel like we can`t lose at Wrigley Field with them behind us. I`m looking straight at this thing. I`m looking at us winning the World Series.”
Even then, retired Cubs broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, who had witnessed the Cubs collapse in 1969, tempered the celebration. “There`s this nagging thing in the back of my head that tells me it`s okay to celebrate, but let`s stop short of hysteria,” Brickhouse began. “Until we beat San Diego, until we`ve won the league championship, we haven`t won anything.”
Brickhouse must have been looking into a crystal ball. The Cubs of course went on to lose in painful fashion to the Padres in the National League Championship Series, winning the first two games and then losing the next three in the last of best-of-five NLCS.
Thirty years later, Cubs fans continue to wait for next year to arrive.
Relive the moment:
Video clip of Rick Sutcliffe throwing the last pitch and the on-field celebration that followed:
Video clip featuring interview with Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers outside Wrigley Field during the post-game victory celebration:
Audio clip featuring Milo Hamilton and Lou Boudreau calling the last out of the clinching game in Pittsburgh on September 24, 1984.
Video segments from Eyewitness News on WLS Channel 7 featuring Mike Adamle, Tim Weigel, Jim Frey, Dallas Green, Joel Daly at Murphy’s Bleachers bar, Cubs fans Dick O’Connor and Larry Wilson, Jay Levine, and Jerry Pritikin, the “Voodoo Man” (courtesy of The Museum of Classic Chicago TV)