Last Saturday was a Bears kind of day in Chicago. At Wrigley Field the wind beat in across the leftfield bleachers and a chilling light rain coated the crowd. But Cub manager Don Zimmer refused to leave his post at the exposed front rail of the dugout as he watched his team battle the St. Louis Cardinals in the late innings of a one-run game. "I was drenched, I was freezing, but I wasn't about to sit for this," Zimmer said. "I know what the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was like in '76, '77 and '78, but this is the best. The Cubs and the Cardinals in first and second place, September, playing for the pennant. It doesn't get any better than this."
From the sixth inning on, the fans packed into rainy Wrigley had exchanged antiphonal chants: "Go, Cubs!" would thunder forth, only to be met by "Go, Cards!" rising from the myriad ponds of Cardinals red shirts. Last weekend's three-game series, and the final Cubs-Cards showdown of the year, beginning Sept. 29 in St. Louis, have been de facto sellouts since the beginning of the season, though back then nobody thought that either team would be playing for the National League Eastern Division crown. Whenever these two rivals tangle, club officials estimate that a third of the crowd in Wrigley will be made up of Cards fans, and vice versa in St. Louis's Busch Stadium. Every play brings some sort of cheer. In the ninth inning of Saturday's game, with the score tied at 2-2, Chicago's Dwight Smith launched a fly to deep leftfield and a roar erupted from the blue majority. When leftfielder Vince Coleman caught the ball, an altogether different cheer exploded from the red minority.
The cheering isn't confined to the stadiums. Last Friday morning St. Louis outfielder Tom Brunansky made a visit to the floor of the Chicago Board Options Exchange. When he entered, heads turned. "All of a sudden all these people in suits were chanting 'Go, Cubs! Go, Cubs! Go, Cubs!' " said Brunansky. "Fortunately, the few brave Cardinals fans in the Exchange—the ones with the red pins and red ties with their suits—started yelling 'Go, Cards!' "
It's a five-hour drive from Chicago to East St. Louis, the Illinois town across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. "It doesn't matter how bad either team is," says Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog. "They pack the joints. This September, though, it is a little different."
A little different? Only once since World War II have St. Louis and Chicago been in a pennant race together. That was 1973, a strange year in which the 82-79 New York Mets were the only team to finish over .500 in the National League East. "The last time the Cubs and Cards were one-two in September was 1945," says Herzog. "I remember. I saw every Cub game in St. Louis."
Herzog, then an eighth-grader in New Athens, Ill., 30 miles from St. Louis, would skip school to watch the games in Sportsman's Park. "The principal knew where I was going," says Herzog. "He knew I wasn't going to be any scholar. I'd hitch a ride on a coal truck to Belleville [Ill.], then take the bus and the streetcar to the park, sneak up into the upper deck, get about 10 foul balls and sell them to soldiers in the stands for a buck apiece to finance my trip. I'd usually save a ball or two, because the one thing the principal would say to me was, 'Get me a ball.' "
Back then the Cubs and the Cardinals had names like Lennie Merullo and Claude Passeau and Blix Donnelly. "People look back and say, 'It was only wartime baseball,' " Herzog says. "But it was great baseball and a great race. It was first-place Chicago playing second-place St. Louis. It was baseball, and no one analyzed whether or not those teams should be fighting for the pennant. They just enjoyed it."
Forty-four years later, as the first-place Cubs hosted the second-place Cardinals, there were a lot of people who wondered how these two teams could be fighting for the pennant. "Right from jump street, people have said Chicago doesn't belong in the race," rookie centerfielder Jerome Walton said last Saturday. "But we haven't gone away." And St. Louis? Wednesday afternoon in New York, as Herzog made out his lineup for the opener of a two-game series with the Mets, he announced the names of his starting pitchers for the series—Ricky Horton and Ted Power. Said Herzog, "The Mets are starting two guys making $4.6 million [Ron Darling and Frank Viola], and we're starting two guys who were released during this season. What the hell. The Mets and Expos are the two teams capable of running off nine out of 10 and winning this thing, because they have the pitching, but they haven't done it yet."
Nevertheless, back in early August the Cardinals brass virtually conceded the race, figuring that in fourth place and six games out, the team was too far back to recover. So they made a waiver deal to send potential free-agent Tony Pena, the Cards starting catcher, to the then contending Boston Red Sox for reserve outfielder Kevin Romine and minor league third baseman Scott Cooper. The Expos blocked the deal. "The dumb——s should never have done that," said a Mets executive the next day. "Don't let the Cardinals get close."
His fears were well-founded. "Pena is a key for us, the best defensive catcher there is," says St. Louis reliever Dan Quisenberry. The Cards got back in the race with a starting rotation that includes Horton and Power, who were released by the Dodgers and the Tigers, respectively. "The unsung hero around here is [pitching coach] Mike Roarke," said Quisenberry last weekend. "He's a biomechanical genius. I'd always tried to bend more to make my ball sink; he showed me that because I'm older and my back's less flexible, I need to stand straight up, just the opposite of conventional wisdom."
Zimmer, meanwhile, has made do for the past month with a four-man rotation of Greg Maddux, Mike Bielecki, Rick Sutcliffe and whoever happened to be available. "Everyone talks about the problems we have, but there's still magic here," says Chicago reliever Mitch Williams. Indeed. After losing a game in Philadelphia on Sept. 6, Zimmer benched Walton and rightfielder Andre Dawson and inserted Doug Dascenzo and Marvell Wynne for the next day's game. Each homered—Dascenzo's round-tripper was the first of his career—and the Cubs won 6-2.
This past weekend in Chicago, to all those visitors dressed in red and all those locals in their BOYS OF ZIMMER T-shirts, it mattered not how their Cards and Cubs had reached the top of the division. In their first September showdown in decades, the teams played games their fans will be talking about in the year 2033, when the next Cubs-Cards race is due to occur. "If I were a fan, I'd say, 'This is what baseball is all about,' " said St. Louis third baseman Terry Pendleton after Saturday's game ended well into the dinner hour. "But I'm between the lines, and I'm an exhausted wreck."
Friday afternoon Chicago roared out to a 7-1 lead against 18-game-winner Joe Magrane. Ryne Sandberg, whom Herzog calls Baby Ruth, belted his 28th and 29th homers, knocked in three runs and scored three—all by the fourth inning. "Go, Cubs!" got no red response. But when Pedro Guerrero singled in two runs in a four-run seventh, it was Cubs 7, Cards 6, and "Go, Cubs!" was now answered by "Go, Cards!"
After a 44-minute rain delay St. Louis got a hit and a walk with one out in the eighth, prompting the arrival of Williams from the bullpen to face Guerrero. The Cardinals players believe Guerrero is the league's most valuable player. "There's no one like Pete when it comes to a pennant race and clutch situations," says Pena. "He's put this team on his back and carried it all year." Guerrero admits, "I like the game better when there's something on the line." This season Guerrero has batted .414 with runners in scoring position—as opposed to .279 in all other situations—and, incredibly, he has knocked in more than half the runners who have been on base when he has come to the plate, despite hitting only 14 home runs.
Williams swung into his windup and delivered. The whaaack told him not to bother to look at the flight of the ball. Right centerfield bleachers. Cards 9, Cubs 8. "That was awe-inspiring," said Magrane. After Williams walked Brunansky, Pendleton smoked another shot into the same bleachers.
With the score 11-8 in St. Louis's favor, Herzog again called on Quisenberry, who, under his uniform, was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with I'M NOT OVER THE HILL, I HAVEN'T EVEN FOUND THE HILL YET. The Quiz breezed through the eighth and then gave up a walk and a single in the ninth. Roarke came to the mound and told him, "Stand up straighter."
"You're the only man in the world who'd have said that," replied Quisenberry, who got out of the jam to earn his sixth save. "Cards win! Cards win!" the people in red chanted, at least until Harry Caray, the Chicago announcer who broadcast St. Louis games from 1945 to '69, had left the booth.
"Tomorrow you'll see what we're made of," said Zimmer in the Cubs' clubhouse. "Momentum? Earl Weaver was right: Momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher. We need Sutcliffe to come up big. Tough loss? Hey, a couple of weeks ago we were down 9-0 and beat Houston, and everyone said we were going to take off. We got beat the next night because Mike Scott was pitching."
The wind that had blown out to the bleacher bums on Friday blew in on Saturday. In the bottom of the first, Walton slapped a leadoff single into left off starter Jose DeLeon and stole second. Sandberg, the human baseball clinic, poked a ground ball to the right side to move Walton to third, and Dwight Smith dragged a safety squeeze bunt toward the second baseman. Cubs 1, Cards 0.
Sutcliffe battled gamely, but in the sixth, Brunansky dumped a single into right to tie the score at 1-1. Then Brunansky stole second and scored when Jose Oquendo pulled a grounder through the right side. It was still 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth with darkness descending and the rain blowing in.
Walton had had a magnificent day, with two singles, two stolen bases and a dazzling catch in centerfield. But now it was his rookie compadre, Smith, who moved into the spotlight in the eighth, pulling a single into right off DeLeon. As Brunansky raced in and toward the line to retrieve the ball in the high, wet grass, Smith took a wide turn around first. "We had a play on," said Brunansky, "in which Tony [Pena] was coming in behind Smith, so I held the ball and was going to pick him off."
But Smith deked Brunansky, to the surprise of Herzog, who says Brunansky is the smartest player on his team. Smith stopped, leaned back toward first, and then took off for second. "I figured he'd have to get hold of the wet ball and make a perfect throw," Smith said later. The throw was high. Smith was safe. "I figure we're the underdog kids with nothing to lose," said Smith. "Why not do something?" His bold effort brought the inning down to this: two outs and Quisenberry against Luis Salazar, whom Chicago G.M. Jim Frey had acquired with Wynne from San Diego on Aug. 31 "because we needed some veterans for late innings of tight games."
This game was late and tight enough for Salazar. Zimmer considered a lefthanded hitter, but Salazar, who was a Detroit Tiger before he was a Padre, told him, "I hit him real good in the American League." Said Zimmer afterward, "I didn't know if he'd even faced him. But what the heck?" Salazar hopped on a Quiz slider, drilled it into left, and the game was tied at 2-2.
With St. Louis stopper Todd Worrell out with an elbow injury, Herzog went to hard-throwing lefty Ken Dayley. But with one out in the 10th, Dayley walked Dawson, and the vagabond Salazar—thrice-released himself—was once again the hero. He reached out over the plate and drove a fastball to the rightfield corner, and Dawson—gimpy knees and all—charged across the plate and into the waiting arms of teammate Shawon Dunston. Cubs 3, Cards 2.
Zimmer arrived at his office at 7:30 Sunday morning and began to consider his pitching for Chicago's next series, against Montreal. "It hit me," he said. "I'd rather use a lefty against the Cardinals and righties against the Expos. I wanted to give Maddux and Bielecki the extra day, so I said to myself, 'Why not pitch Wilson today?' " When Steve Wilson, a rookie lefthander stolen from Texas in the Williams deal, walked into the clubhouse 2½ hours later, he was told the news. "I was prepared to pitch long relief, so what's the difference?" said Wilson, a native of Vancouver who is called Slapper, short for Slapshot, because of his love for hockey and his hometown Canucks. Slapper was pitching on 20 hours rest, having worked the previous afternoon. Risky? "I do what I want," said Zimmer.
So did Wilson, who struck out 10 in five innings. Cardinals starter Ken Hill had a no-hitter going with two outs in the fifth, but Smith lashed a two-run homer in the sixth, and Walton and Dunston later had RBI singles. All afternoon Zimmer pulled the right strings as his bullpen parade mowed down St. Louis. After Wilson came Scott Sanderson, then Paul Assenmacher and, finally, with two on and one out in the ninth, Williams.
"I'd looked at tapes and found what I was doing wrong in my delivery," said Williams afterward. "God, did I want to pitch today." He got the last two outs for his 32nd save, and when he whiffed Milt Thompson to end the game, the Cubs' pitchers had a total of 18 strikeouts. "Hard to believe," said catcher Joe Girardi. "But then a lot of this is hard to believe." Cubs 4, Cardinals 1.
For only the second time since 1945 (1984 was the other year), the Cubs were in first place on Sept. 11. Since the Mets and the Expos both lost on Sunday, the Cardinals were still Chicago's closest pursuers, 2½ games back. The red-shirted roadies knew as they headed south that the race between the Cards and the Cubbies was still very much on.
In the Chicago clubhouse Wilson was savoring his big day at Wrigley. "A little more than a year ago I was in Tulsa, wondering what this sort of thing would be like," said Slapper. "Well, it wasn't scary or nerve-racking or anything like that. With the fans, the excitement, the noise, it was what I'd always hoped it would be. The time of my life."
On Sunday, Oquendo (above) had one of the 18 Cards whiffs, while Smith (right) hit a heroic homer.
While Oquendo bobbled, Walton gobbled up one of his three stolen bases for the series.
Sandberg has been pivotal at second base—and at the plate with his 29 home runs.
In a show of youth, Girardi, who just missed this tag on Ozzie Smith on Sunday, was one of three Cub rookies to play all three games.
[See caption above.]
Whenever the Cardinals play in Chicago, Wrigley Field is awash with rabid fans in red.
Herzog, who used to sneak into Cubs-Cards games as a kid, has larger concerns now.