Thursday, October 7, 2010

October 7, 1984: No, Bull!

SAN DIEGO - When a franchise is cursed, or thinks it's cursed, the little things turn into big things pretty quickly. An error here, a bloop hit there, a case of fan interference here, can turn catastrophic pretty quickly if a team lets it, if they believe in the curse.

The Chicago Cubs fall into the cursed category. The famous "Curse of the Billy Goat" has kept them out of the World Series since 1945. The thing is, in the first few decades following that appearance, there weren't very many opportunities for the curse to manifest itself. Sure, there was 1969, when the Cubs had a nine-game lead on August 16 before letting the Miracle Mets catch them. Other than that, though, the decades following 1945 were full of second-division finishes, bad teams rather than unlucky or cursed ones.

That's what made 1984 so novel. The Cubs hadn't finished higher than third since 1972, and had spent the previous five years struggling to stay out of the basement. Now, suddenly, they were winning the division by six games over the Mets of Dwight Gooden. The Cubs were back in the postseason, too, and were the favorites against the Padres in the NLCS. I mean really, a team with a history dating back 100 years against a team whose colors could be best described as mustard and poop? This had to be the year.

It looked like it for the first two games, too, with the Cubs winning twice in Wrigley. They just needed one win in San Diego to head to the World Series.

And now, with the Cubs one win away, The Curse woke from its long slumber, remembering its reason for being. The Padres won game 3 7-1. They won game 4 on a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth. Now it was down to one game, one chance for the Cubs to break the curse. And Sutcliffe, the Cy Young winner, the man who threw a shutout in game 1, was on the hill. Sutcliffe against the Curse.

Entering the bottom of the sixth, the Cubs were up 3-0, and Sutcliffe was throwing a two-hit shutout. The Padres loaded the bases and scored on two straight sacrifice flies, but that was all. It was 3-2 entering the seventh.

That was when The Curse stretched its arms, so to speak, and took over. A runner on second, one out. The Cubs weren't going to put the go-ahead run on first base with a walk - that would tempting fate way too much. So Sutcliffe pitches to Tim Flannery. A grounder to first, sharply hit, but right at Leon "Bull" Durham. Should be a routine play. Until it rolled under his glove and into right field. The runner on second scores. Tie game.

And the Cubs imploded. You can't beat a curse, after all. Three more hits scored two more runs before Sutcliffe was finally pulled. The next batter hit a grounder to first that Durham fielded cleanly for the out. Of course he did. A strike out ended it. But it was 6-3 San Diego now. You don't need to be a baseball historian to know how the game turned out. The Cubs still haven't been to the World Series since 1945.

And the Curse smiled and shook its goat horns. And then it went back to sleep, waiting for the next time it would be needed.

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