Rick Sutcliffe, who won a Cy Young Award with the Chicago Cubs in 1984, went through a season of sighs in 1985.
He tore a hamstring. He strained a groin muscle. He developed soreness in his right shoulder, forcing him onto the disabled list for a third time.
Then he went home, reflected, and found that the physical pain he had just gone through last season paled in comparison to the mental anguish that followed an otherwise glorious 1984 season.
“I’ll live with that the rest of my life,” Sutcliffe said the other day.
The reference was to Oct. 7 of ’84, when he and the Cubs were within 12 outs of a 3-0 victory over the San Diego Padres in the fifth game of the National League playoff. The Cubs suffered a 6-3 loss in that decisive game, missing the World Series and plunging the team and the city of Chicago into deep depression.
“I didn’t spend as much time last winter thinking about last season as I did the winter before thinking about the way that ’84 season had ended,” Sutcliffe said.
“There was nothing I could really do about last season. There was nothing I could physically do about it.”
There was nothing the Cubs could physically do about it, either.
For most of a long summer they resembled the Des Moines Cubs, their triple-A farm club. It was a summer in which they may have established an American Medical Assn. record for injuries.
The result? Having ended a 38-year title drought by winning the National League East in ’84, the Cubs finished fourth in ’85, their 77-84 record leaving them 23 1/2 games behind the division-winning St. Louis Cardinals.
The hurt still gnaws at Manager Jim Frey.
“It was a shame, having to sit there and watch us getting our butt kicked when I knew we had the better team,” he said.
“We’ve all been with teams that have had to struggle, that have lost a player or two, but losing your entire rotation is about as critical as you can get.”
But, of course, it got worse.
“Then we lost our center fielder, left fielder and catcher,” he said.
“What team anywhere lost eight regulars? It was horrible.”
--At one point in midseason, all five men in the Chicago rotation--Sutcliffe, Dennis Eckersley, Steve Trout, Scott Sanderson and Dick Ruthven--were on the disabled list. The five missed a total of 60 starts last year, forcing the Cubs to employ 20 pitchers, six of whom registered their first major league wins.
--The position players missed a combined total of 242 games. Every regular except third baseman Ron Cey and the shortstop combination of Larry Bowa and Chris Speier missed at least one.
The siege was at its most severe in midseason, complicating the injuries to the rotation. Left fielder Gary Matthews, recovering from knee surgery in late May, was joined on the sideline by center fielder Bob Dernier, who had foot surgery in June, and catcher Jody Davis, who was weakened by an intestinal virus that resisted treatment.
--The loss of an entire rotation compounded by the absence of catalytic leadoff hitter Dernier; team leader Matthews, who had 82 RBIs and was second in the league in on-base percentage in 1984, and clutch hitter Davis, who had driven in 187 runs in the two previous years, failed to prevent the inevitable finger pointing.
Club President Dallas Green, seemingly ignoring the disruption of lineup continuity and the pressure that fell on the healthy players, cited reduced production and said that Cey, Davis and first baseman Bull Durham were failing to earn their money.
Green wondered publicly if Cey, in particular, was at the beginning of the end. The 38-year-old former Dodger hit 22 homers but had a career-low batting average of .232, drove in 63 runs--34 fewer than in 1984--struck out 106 times and made 21 errors.
Cey was dropped to seventh in the batting order at one point and later benched for a week while Frey tried right fielder Keith Moreland at third.
Now, in the eternal glow of a new spring, with their health restored, the Cubs’ optimism has been restored.
Part of it stems from:
--Improved depth provided by the winter acquisition of outfielder Jerry Mumphrey and infielder Manny Trillo. Green said in announcing that he had traded utility infielder Dave Owen to the San Francisco Giants, that Trillo may provide Cey with “a competitive challenge that veterans sometimes need.”
--The conviction that touted shortstop Shawon Dunston, who returned to the minors last April after making a tense debut amid the pressure of Bowa’s lingering presence, is now a relaxed and different player.
Dunston, with the job his, hit .320 in 40 games after his August recall, eliminating one concern. Others now center on a middle-relief corps that ultimately collapsed amid the increased workload of last year and the ability of Cey and Matthews, 35, to rebound.
Is there a timetable as to possible changes? Frey has said no, that veterans Cey and Matthews deserve the benefit of the doubt. Lately, however, his own doubts may be growing. Matthews was hitless in his last 21 at-bats going into Tuesday’s game. Cey was hitting .194 amid rumors of an imminent change.
Frey, however, seems to believe that his team will regain its 1984 form no matter what. The Cubs were 34-19 with a 3 1/2-game division lead last June 11, when the injuries finally began taking a toll. They lost 13 straight games, 10 to the Cardinals and Mets.
“Given health, we can play with anyone,” Frey said.
“I think everyone will agree that we were the best team in the National League in ’84, then we started ’85 and were the best team again through a third of the season.
“At one point we were one win away from having the best record in baseball, and no one was writing that it was a surprise. It wasn’t until August and September that people started to say we wouldn’t have won anyway.
“How do they know? I think we would have.”
Perhaps there were lessons learned.
Sutcliffe, for instance, said that he and many of the other injured Cubs were forced to examine their conditioning programs and have since intensified them.
He also described the season as a frustration and embarrassment and said that the Cubs have returned with a better attitude.
“I haven’t seen many people here with smiling faces,” he said. “Not that they’re looking for a fight, it’s just that they’re serious about what they have to do.
“Last spring it seemed like we were posing for pictures and signing autographs from the time the sun came up until it went down. I mean, I was as guilty as anyone. This year I don’t see many of us on covers.
“The guys are mad and that’s good.
“It’s a better team when it’s mad. I hope it stays that way.”
Only time--and the trainer’s access to tape--will tell. The first test will be given next Tuesday when Sutcliffe, who was 8-8 in ’85 after going 16-1 with the Cubs in ’84, starts the season opener. He measured it against the date of his first injury last year and said, “It’s all I’ve had to look forward to since May 19.”