In 1984, the Chicago Cubs were making their first playoff appearance in almost 30 years.
And in large part, it was due to a deal made with the Indians that summer.
The Indians had acquired pitcher Rick Sutcliffe after the 1981 season, giving up Jorge Orta, Larry White and Jack Fimple to acquire Sutcliffe and Jack Perconte. Sutcliffe was the first of four straight Rookies of the Year with the Dodgers, who had a glut of pitching, which made him expendable – as did his record of 5-11 in the two years since his Rookie of the Year campaign. When Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda left Sutcliffe off the postseason roster in 1981 (the Dodgers would go on to beat the Yankees in the World Series that year), he went into a rampage, breaking furniture in the clubhouse.
Sutcliffe was envisioned as a reliever and spot starter for the Indians, but he ended up starting the 1982 season on the disabled list with a thumb injury. In spite of that, he went 14-8 and led the league with a 2.96 ERA. The following year, he was the putative ace for a 70-win Indians team, going 17-11 and leading the team in wins, but going into 1984, the Indians appeared to be going nowhere fast.
The Cubs, on the other hand, were building. The Tribune Company bought the team from the Wrigley family, which had owned it for more than 60 years. They hired Dallas Green, who had just led the Phillies to their first World Series win, as vice president and general manager. Green started wheeling and dealing, bringing in Gary Matthews and another former Indians pitcher, Dennis Eckersley.
He set his sights on Sutcliffe, and the Indians were only too happy to let him go. Sutcliffe had stumbled out of the gate, going 4-5 for the Tribe but earning a $900,000 salary – then the highest paycheck ever received by an Indians player. On June 14 (then the trade deadline), Sutcliffe went to the North Side of Chicago as the Cubs were hanging on to a half-game lead in the division. “Sutcliffe is a big game pitcher,” Green said.
“The trade only makes sense from a financial standpoint,” Sutcliffe said at the time. “The Indians dumped about $2 million in salary and picked up $80-100,000.”
Sutcliffe was dealt, as were Ron Hassey and George Frazier. Sutcliffe quickly became the ace of the Cubs staff, going 16-1 down the stretch and leading them to a National League East title. “If Dallas Green doesn’t trade for Sutcliffe, we win the division,” Keith Hernandez said recently, referring to the Mets.
Sutcliffe got the start in the first game of the National League Championship Series, getting the win by pitching seven shutout innings against the Padres – and hitting a home run to aid his cause.
The Cubs won the first two games – both at Wrigley Field – in what was then a best-of-five series. The remaining three games (if necessary) would be at Jack Murphy Stadium. The Padres won Game 3, and Cubs manager Jim Frey opted to start Dave Sanderson in Game 4 instead of Sutcliffe, who hadn’t lost since June, on short rest.
The Padres won Game 4 on a two-run home run by Steve Garvey, setting up a winner-take-all Game 5. This time, Sutcliffe started. He pitched five shutout innings before giving up two runs in the sixth. He took the mound in the bottom of the seventh with a 3-2 lead – and then the wheels fell off. He gave up a leadoff walk to Carmelo Martinez, who was sacrificed to second, and then came around to score when Tim Flannery hit a roller to Leon Durham, and the ball went under his glove. After that, it was all over but the crying for the Cubs.
Sutcliffe won the National League Cy Young Award that year. He never won 20 games again, but after going 8-8 in 1985 and 5-14 in 1986, he led the league with 18 wins in 1987, and followed that up with 13- and 16-win seasons. He retired after the 1994 season with a career record of 171-139.
The deal worked out well for the Indians, too. Mel Hall was an everyday player for the Indians for the next four years, but the centerpiece turned out to be Joe Carter, who was a reliable slugger for the Indians until he was part of another blockbuster trade – the one that would set the Tribe up for their dynasty of the 1990s.