Cubs 101 - Pt 30 - The Boys of Zimmer
I became a Cubs fan around 1987, when Andre Dawson came to town. But while I would follow the team occasionally as a kid, probably the first year where my interest became intense was 1989. That was the year everything just clicked for the Cubs, where a number of average players had career years, where every role-player actually did his job, where I became flat-out obsessed with the team.
Blame Jim Frey for giving away the kingdom for a bauble, but it was one hell of a bauble at that. The team was young -- six offensive regulars were under the age of 30, as were three starters (with Mike Harkey waiting in the wings), and no regular in the bullpen was over the age of 28, and Don Zimmer was the gruff old skipper who'd make it all happen on the field.
Born in 1931, Zimmer was 57 years old when he took over the managerial reigns in 1988. He brought with him a lifetime of baseball acumen, including more than a thousand games as a player and by then better than 1,200 games as a skipper. By today's standards we'd probably hate him -- he was a guy who went with his gut, trusting instinct over stat, and while his coaching style would be outdated now he's probably somebody who'll work in baseball until the day he drops. And in '89 everything worked in his favor. He should probably thank Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith for a lot of it.
In 1988, the Cubs had traded for Mitch Webster, one of many former Expos who would have some play-time on the Cubs. Webster was unimpressive, a career .263 hitter who'd do a servicable job as the 4th (or 5th) outfielder. Still, he was almost certainly the projected starting center fielder in 1989 until Jerome Walton came along.
Walton was a 23-year-old second round selection in 1989. In Spring Training - in which the Cubs bombed, by the way - Zimmer had asked Walton if he thought he could hit .250 in the majors. Walton responded by saying "I could bunt .250." He'd wind up doing better than that - in 475 at bats Walton hit .293, smacking 23 doubles, 3 triples, 5 homers, and stealing 24 bases from the leadoff spot. By today's standards his .335 OBP is mediocre at best, but his scrapiness, talent, and consistency (including a 30-game hitting streak) won out and he'd finish the season with the Rookie of the Year trophy in his possession.
His partner in crime was another rookie outfielder Dwight Smith. Smith joined the Cubs on May 1st of the '89 season and, as Andre Dawson battled knee problems, would go on to play in 109 games. Smith would bat .324 with 19 doubles, 6 triples, 9 homers, and 9 steals for the Cubs, giving the Cubs another reliable hitter and the second-most vote-getter behind Walton for the Rookie of the Year award.
On paper, the '89 Cubs starting offense doesn't really look very special. Nobody drove in more than 79 runs that year and Ryne Sandberg was the only player to hit more than 20 homers, but for the most part the hitters were reliable and consistent and the team saw some outstanding play come from their bench, too. From Lloyd McClendon, who'd bat .286 with 12 homers while playing four positions - including catcher! - to late-trade Luis Salazar, who'd step in and bat .325 as the team's new third baseman, the Cubs didn't have many easy outs.
On top of that, their true strength was their pitching. Rick Sutcliffe had spent previous seasons as the team's ace, but even with 16 wins and a 3.66 ERA he was no more than the third best pitcher on the team behind 18-game-winner Mike Bielecki and 23-year-old Ace in Training Greg Maddux, who won 19 games and posted his first sub-3.00 ERA. I was obviously a pretty stupid kid because Maddux wasn't even my second favorite pitcher on that team.
Then again, I was also pretty enamored by the team's 24-year-old fireball closer Mitch Williams, who made his Cubs debut by throwing 1.2 innings against the Phillies, where he gave up 3 hits, 2 walks, and struck out 3 in 52 -- 52!!! -- pitches to get the save. Most fans misremember Williams as having walked the bases loaded that game before striking out the side to get the one-run save, but in fact he'd issued his 2 walks in the 8th before surrendering 3 hits in the 9th. Still, the rest is true - he struck out Mike Schmidt, Chris James, and Mark Ryal to end the game.
Although Ryne Sandberg would later describe that team as being incredibly streaky, they would take first place on August 5th and never look back. By the time mid September rolled around they'd pretty much put it out of reach and it surprised no-one when they reached the NLCS against the Giants.
At which point Zimmer's legendary gut -- and his over-worked bullpen -- failed him and the Cubs got snuffed out in 5 games. Aside from the Game 1 route, it was actually a pretty close series -- closer than I remember it being, at least. The Cubs lost Games 3, 4, and 5 by 2 runs or less.
It would be the only Cubs playoff team of my childhood. I was too young for 1984 and I'd be a high school graduate in 1998. By 1991 Zimmer would be gone, as would many of the components that won it for the Cubs that year. If I wanted to be overly-dramatic I would say that I could tell I was growing up based on how many pieces of the '89 team fell away, but that would be over-selling it a bit. Instead I'll just say this: for a long time the summer of 1989 was one of my most favored memories. Part of it was because of my age, part of it was because it was my final summer with my friends before moving away from home, and part of it was because of the Cubs. The early '90's would be a huge disappointment because of the promise this team carried -- a promise the Cubs have yet to fulfill.
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